We go behind the scenes with the famous Tamil Nadu sherbet named after a family deity which means ‘lone tiger’
After almost a year, K Ondipulia Pillai’s family is smiling again. With the onset of summer, after the lull of the pandemic, business is resuming for Ondippili syrup, the multi-coloured sweet concentrate that the Pillai’s make with nannari root extract.
Not that the tiny shop on the busy Amman Sannathi, close to Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple, is buzzing with people or activity yet. But N Guha Ganapathy, the fourth generation sherbet maker is optimistic. He says, the company is named after their family deity Ondippili which means ‘the lone tiger’. In the last 11 and-a-half decades, the sherbet has survived competitors, dip in sales and bounced back much like the fighter animal.
On a good business day, he fills up close to 2,500 bottles with the sweetened concentrate. “There are days when the sales drop to 250 bottles,” says Ganapathy. Given the medicinal properties of nannari, the drink is considered an effective heat buster in the arid climate of Madurai. Even if individual customers don’t pick up the bottle to quench their thirst, the permanent customers are the innumerable sugarcane and other fruit juice sellers, in and around the city, who add the Ondippili syrup to enhance the taste of the different fruit juices they sell to their customers.
Ondippili sherbet contains sugar, water, citric acid and nannari root extract. “Pure nannari supplies are procured from Palakkad in Kerala. The roots are soaked in fresh water for 12 hours, boiled for 15 minutes before the extract is collected, cooled and mixed with sugar syrup and citric acid,” says Ganapathy, not willing to reveal the proportions.
How it started
Back in 1906, K Ondipulia Pillai began experimenting with concoctions of the root extract. After several rounds of trials and errors, when he arrived at what seemed the perfect combination to him, he began selling the syrup door-to-door, explaining to his buyers to mix two spoons of the decoction in a glass of water with a dash of lime juice,” says KOS Nagarajan, the grandson of Ondipulia.
As people appreciated the sherbet, the demand increased especially during summers. During the peak months from February to July, and festivals such as Deepavali and Pongal, daily wagers are employed to continuously stir the concoction prepared in big vessels. “Otherwise, as the mantle of the business passes from one generation to the next, we ourselves do all the work with four permanent employees to help us in the process,” says Nagarajan.
The family takes pride in its small scale business, selling 500 millilitre bottles of the sweet syrup at ₹99 each.
When Nagarajan’s father took over the business, he added three essences to get the flavours of grape, rose milk and ice-cream. “Till date, we are continuing with the same three with the plain nannari extract and none of our customers is complaining,” says Nagarajan, who was compelled to oversee the business as a high school student when his father KO Subramania Pillai, died unexpectedly at the age of 35.
N Meenakshi (70), a Maduraite who lives in Chennai now, is a regular customer whenever she visits the city. “I always return with two bottles that last me a few months,” she says and adds, to have Ondippili sherbet is like rewinding her childhood.
The family also exports to Singapore, Malaysia, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Domestically, the syrup is mostly sold through its agents. In its 115th year now, the sweet story of nannari or the Indian sarsaparilla continues to run smooth.