All it took Ramachandra Iyer to land the coveted job of the Indian president's chef was a glass of his special navarasa payasam. It was the year 2007 and former President Prathiba Patil was attending a party at the Mascot Hotel in Thiruvananthapuram.
"There was tight security everywhere. Even the workers were allowed inside only after strict security checks. I reported for duty as usual. There were instructions that we should be ready to prepare any dish that the president orders. All the chefs, including me, waited for the orders with a tensed mind. Around 6 pm, the governor called and said that the president wished to have some payasam, that too without any sugar. I was stunned. I had no other choice but to agree," recalls Iyer.
Iyer called up a friend in Haripad and asked him whether he could arrange some raw paddy blades. Another friend helped him find the milk of a cow that had given birth just the previous day. The experienced chef in Iyer knew that raw paddy and the fresh milk of the cow that had just given birth were naturally sweet. Usually, the food prepared for the president would be tested by doctors to ensure its safety before serving it to her. As soon as they tasted the payasam, the team of doctors suspected whether any chemicals were added in the payasam.
After Iyer had explained the ingredients to them, his payasam was served to the Indian president. President Pratibha Patil who enjoyed the special payasam didn't think twice before inviting Iyer to Delhi to be her chef at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan. Overwhelmed and excited, Iyer thanked Lord Ananthapadmanabhan in his mind and said 'yes.'
Before his stint in the Rashtrapathi Bhavan's kitchen, Ramachandra Iyer was the chief cook at the KTDC hotel. His signature navarasa payasam made by mixing 9 different types of payasam had earned him a special reputation among chefs. After retiring, Iyer opened the famous 'Sree Mookambika Navarasam payasam kada,' a kiosk which exclusively sells his special preparation, at the southern side of the Padmanabaswamy temple. It became the only place in Thiruvnanthapuram where homemade payasam is available throughout the year.
One would be surprised to know that it was legendary actor Jagathy Sreekumar and his lessons in navarasa (9 facial expressions) that inspired Ramachandra Iyer to cook his iconic navarasa payasam. When he saw the actor perform the expressions, all Iyer could think was the changing facial expressions of people while eating a hearty and filling sadya (feast).
"Pineapple is a bit sour; so is raw plantain. However, mango is very sweet and jack fruit is lightly sweet. You could make banana prathaman, jackfruit prathaman, mango prathaman and pineapple prathaman by adding jaggery in these. Payasams are prepared separately using rice, brown gram peas, yellow moong dal, and wheat as well. A mixed fruit payasam in which dates and a variety of other fruits are added is delicious as well. I experimented by mixing all these nine types of payasam. I thickened it up by adding fresh honey and sugarcane juice. Those who tasted this payasam appreciated me for its unique flavour and fragrance. Some enquired about the ingredients and I told them it was the navarasa payasam," Iyer explains.
Ananthapuri paal payasam
Iyer proudly exhibits the certificate of appreciation presented to him by Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the ruler of the erstwhile Travancore royalty, in front of his house. The royal had honoured Iyer calling him a 'paachaka kulapathy' or a legend in cooking. Iyer was just a 7 year old boy when he reached Thiruvananthapuram to help his uncle who was a cook at the famous Padmanabaswamy temple. He got appointed as a cook with the KTDC in 1971. And finally, in 2008, Iyer became the chef of former president Pratibha Patil.
The flair for great and innovative cooking runs in the family of Ramachandra Iyer as Haripad Venkadachalam, who was a cook at the Padmanabaswamy temple during the reign of Chithira Thirunnal is his uncle. Iyer proudly says that his uncle had won his majesty's 'pattu and veerashrinkala,' an honorary award, for making delicious parippu pradaman for the Murajapam ceremony. His elder brother Seetharaman was also a cook at the Padmanabhaswamy temple, took Iyer under his wings and taught him the basics of cooking. "Thiruvananthapuram was then a land of the aristocrats. The weddings at their homes were nothing short of a grand festival. Ten to 15 varieties of payasam would be prepared for such occasions. I learned cooking and all about the ingredients while assisting for these feasts. In 1971, I got appointed as an assistant cook in KTDC," recalls Ramachandra Iyer.
Iyer says it was the KTDC hotel which popularized the concept of the evening meal which was soon taken up by other hotels as well. He has prepared tasty dishes for lots of silver screen icons like MGR, Jayalalitha, Sreevidya, Soman and Madhu. Most of them would call Iyer whenever they are in Thiruvananthapuram to order his special payasam.
He was transferred to Thrissur when the KTDC opened its Mangalya hotel there. Iyer says there are significant differences in the ingredients in the northern districts of the state. Boli is a special item served at the end of a mega sadya in Thiruvananthapuram. It is prepared by mixing saffron in gram flour and all-purpose flour. For the people in Thiruvnanthapuram, a delicious sadya gets complete only when the boli is served along with a ladle full of payasam on it. However, boli is not served for sadya in the Malabar areas.
Iyer returned to Thiruvananthapuram when the KTDC opened its Chaithram hotel. That year, a southern festival (dakshinotsavam) was held at the Kanakakunnu palace. Iyer's bitter gourd payasama and gooseberry payasam which could be enjoyed by the diabetic patients as well became superhits. The KTDC conducted payasam festivals, every year, until their most trusted payasam expert Ramachandra Iyer retired.
At the Rashtrapathi Bhavan
Once there was a popular demand for a special payasam which reflects the unique culture and vividness of Thiruvananhapuram, just like the Ambalappuzha paal payasam. It was Iyer who made a delicious payasam using rice made from the punja paddy, sugar, and milk. It became famous as the Ananthapuri paal payasam which earned its maker great accolades. Iyer considers becoming the chef for the president of India as the greatest achievement in his life. He says Prathibha Patil was fond of Kerala dishes like idly, dosa, avial and thoran. The president who loved Iyer's special preparations was always eager to shower praises as well.
He was part of the team of chefs who prepared special dishes for the American president Barack Obama, when the latter had visited president Patil at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan. Chefs from various countries had been invited to prepare the special menu for Obama. It was Pratibha Patil who finalized the menu of the main course. She said that the dessert menu could be prepared later. Hearing this, the chefs began worrying about running short of time to prepare a smashing dessert. While all the chefs were waiting impatiently for the menu, president Patil called Iyer and asked him to make the humble pineapple halwa.
The Indian president had decided to serve her favourite sweet dish to the visiting American president. "I later saw on TV that the American president had really enjoyed the halwa prepared by me. I consider it an incredibly proud moment in my life," says Ramachandra Iyer with a smile.