Jariya Azeez and a team of youngsters are documenting families making traditional flavoured jaggery in Kayalpattinam in Thoothukudi district
When the dust of the day settles and people wait out the afternoon sun indoors, the ‘puttu kaara paati’ arrives. She walks from one street to another in the seaside village of Kayalpattinam in Thoothukudi, a basket balanced on her head, singing-announcing fresh puttu. The old woman — her name is Samudrakani — was a fixture in Jariya Azeez’s childhood. “She’s unable to walk long distances now, so doesn’t sell puttu any more,” says Jariya over phone.
Twenty-eight-year-old Jariya, who was raised in Chennai, is from Kayalpattinam. She runs Abati, a store that focusses on sustainable and handmade products, from her ancestral home in the town. During the course of curating products for her venture, she came across palm-based edibles such as puttu, paavu, and pudisakkaram.
“These are locally produced and are popular in a few other villages around Kayalpattinam as well,” she explains. Made by families who have been in the business for generations, they are sold in small quantities in the villages during summer. “But these delicacies have been confined to our region; not many people outside are aware of them,” points out Jariya.
Which is why during lockdown, she decided to document the making of these desserts. She met and interviewed families involved. “Puttu,” explains Jariya, “Is available for six months a year. In Kayalpattinam, there are a handful of families making it. The men head out early in the day to climb palm trees and bring down padhaneer (palm sap).”
The preparation is mostly done by the women in the family. They empty fermented palm sap into huge cauldrons and stir them over a wood-fired stove until it takes on a golden colour.
“Then the flavouring is added: this can be mango, dry ginger, moong dal, sesame seeds, coconut, or cashews,” says Jariya. This concoction is then poured into moulds and let to harden. So puttu, in essence, is flavoured palm jaggery.
“To make paavu, the women continue to stir the same mixture until it takes on a thick, fudge-like consistency,” she adds. “Rice flour is added to this mixture to make pidisakkaram that derives its name from ‘pidi’, meaning, to shape by hand.” Jariya laughs as she recalls how her great grandmother stored the jaggery in earthen pots, hung high up from the ceiling, out of reach of children.
Today, if you visit Kayalpattinam or its neighbouring villages in the summer months, you can buy flavoured jaggery by the kilo. “But these days, though, the women make them only in small batches as per demand.” Jariya, with help from Mohideen MSL and Mubarak VMH, both college students from the town, and Ahamed Mujahidha, a local, is making a documentary film on the process. “I remember how in the past, women from our village would walk to nearby Poonthottam, where paavu was made every summer. They carried coconut, fruits, and vegetables of their choice and handed them over to the paavu makers, waited until it was done and brought the dish back home,” she recalls.
These days, though, this practice has become a thing of the past. “These are signs that this craft is dying, and we wanted to document it to showcase this to our future generations and the outside world,” explains Jariya.
This summer, Jariya even sold the desserts on her Instagram page. In a hand-woven palm box, she packaged 50 grams each of five different flavours of the jaggery in small, colourful palm leaf pouches; a box of paavu; a multi-millet mix; and a sweet seeni maavu made of rice flour and coconut milk.
“I wanted to share what Kayalpattinam had to offer with everyone else; we take pride in what we make and designed this assortment as an alternative to a box of chocolates,” she adds. The jaggery and the seeni maavu can be incorporated into breakfast. “They can be added as topping to a lot of dishes, had with tea…paavu can be used like jam.”
‘Puttu paati’ Samudrakani, meanwhile, despite not stepping out for work, is hale and healthy. Jariya and team met her recently for their documentary. She even posed for a photo with them, sporting dark glasses.
For details, visit https://www.instagram.com/46thaikastreet/.