‘Ellarum vaanga, always welcomes you!’ Fans of Village Cooking Channel (VCC), the Tamil YouTube channel that has more than 3 million subscribers, know that these words, yelled out enthusiastically by its team of five chefs and cameraman, are the start to something worth feasting on, if not physically, at least with one’s eyes.
These paddy farmers and cooks have managed to endear their village, Chinna Veeramangalam in Pudukkottai district, to an international audience. Cousins V Subramanian, V Murugesan, V Ayyanar, G Tamilselvan and T Muthumanickam are led by their grandfather and former caterer M Periyathambi, and are currently observing social distancing rules by going off air.
“But to keep our fans happy, we have posted a new video that we took before the lockdown, on vathal kuzhambu (a tamarind-based gravy with rehydrated dried vegetables). It has clocked 1,405,637 views,” says Subramanian, VCC’s techie and cameraman.
Before the lockdown, VCC used to post three to four videos per week, of mostly non-vegetarian dishes. The team earns ₹7 lakh per month from the advertising revenue generated by YouTube viewings. “Of this, we spend ₹2-3 lakh on the show. The rest is shared between the members,” says Subramanian. “Since we also earn from our fields, we don’t solicit sponsorships or donations. We also decline off-camera cooking assignments.”
Passion for cooking
Food plays a big role in village life, and men take over kitchen duties when the womenfolk are out in the fields, says Subramanian. “After television, cooking was the biggest form of entertainment for us when growing up. In Chinna Veeramangalam, I would say every man has learned as many recipes from his mother as any woman, from an early age.”
This came in handy in 2018, when Subramanian, who has an M Phil in Commerce and previous web design experience, decided to produce online cookery videos. “My cousins were between jobs, and hoping to go abroad. That is when I decided to showcase the food we eat, cooked in our unique style, with thatha (grandfather) leading us. VCC’s viewership started growing when we stopped imitating other programmes,” he says.
Its near-theatrical production style has won it many accolades, the most recent being the Black Sheep Award for Best Food Programme in February.
Subramanian’s three cameras focus not just on the cooking, but also the verdant surroundings where firewood stoves are set up from scratch. The team usually shoots in the open, near the fields in 10 neighbouring villages, transporting its equipment (including traditional stone grinders) in a van. Since Periyathambi is not used to cooking for less than 100 people, the team arranges free banquets for charity homes to share the food they prepare.
“We started with recipes that are common in our village, such as winged termites fried with puffed rice, and crabs, snails and fish caught in field bunds,” says Subramanian. “These dishes have a nostalgic value for our Tamil viewers, especially for those who have migrated from villages to urban areas.”
But it’s not all rustic cuisine; Muthumanickam has studied catering in college, and is the brains behind some of the more exotic dishes like Arabian mutton biryani cooked with two full goats, which garnered over 21 million views after it was uploaded last March.
There are some surreal scenes too, such as a giant cloth ball of chenna (cheese curds made by splitting milk with lemon juice) hanging out to drain like an outlandish fruit on a tree while the team gets ready to make rosogollas in the fields.
Audience feedback plays a huge role in their work, says Subramanian. “Everything from sound quality to the kind of rice (Basmati) that we use for biryani, has been the result of our viewers’ comments,” he says. After taking three days to research and shoot, Subramanian and the team edit the next day. “Uploading a 10-minute clip can take between two hours and half a day, depending on Internet connection.”
Some of the chefs have their own fan following — Ayyanar’s skill with the stone grinder (ammi) gets many comments, while Muthumanickam’s expert onion chopping is also popular. The team avoids using modern conveniences like pressure cookers and electric mixers.
What’s on the cards once the lockdown is lifted? “Muthumanickam’s wedding, which got delayed,” says Subramanian. “Thatha and all of us will be cooking his wedding feast.”
Watch Village Cooking Channel’s latest recipe on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tpr1yfRw-gg&t=18s
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