Thampy - The Miller
The story of a passionate miller who runs a 67-year-old mill in the Gujarati quarter of Mattancherry and continues to follow the old ways of the food trade he learned from his father.
Text: Ananya Rajoo
Photographs: Ananya Rajoo, Aravind Jose & Sudhith Xavier
Cover Photo: Ananya Rajoo
The powdery white interiors of Thampy’s Flour Mill evokes culinary nostalgia of yesteryears. The quivery hum that fills the space transports us to a time when food production in our homes was more intimate and detailed. Before flour and spices in colourful packets became a staple of Keralite kitchens, the miller was an indispensable culinary craftsman in every neighbourhood. The increased popularity of packaged flour and spices paved the way for the closure of many small-scale mills across Kerala. Thampy is among the few remaining millers in Mattancherry, the centre of spice trade in Kochi and a sprawling old market which is slowly transitioning into a quaint town dotted with art galleries and boutique hotels.
As you enter Pandithan Temple Road, the smell of freshly ground grains exudes from a building with faded cyan walls and a board reading Thampy’s Flour Mill. Around 7:30 every morning, the old mill is shaken awake for a day’s work. Thampy and his son Ullas do a round of cleaning before they begin milling the grains. The mill was started in 1950 by Thampy’s father. From a young age, Thampy had been assisting his father in the mill. It has been thirty-five years since he completely took over the operations of the mill. Three machines (proud inheritances from his father), a chair and beautiful burlap bags occupy the main hall of the mill. The wall opposite the entrance has a framed photograph of his father, along with small idols of Hindu gods. In the morning hours, the hum of the grinding machine fills this room. Post-noon, the dust clouds settle and sales begin in full-swing. The industrial noise gives way to chit-chat in varying rhythms. One can hear Malayalam, Hindi, Gujarati and a few other languages being spoken; a reminder that you are in the heartland of cosmopolitanism in Kochi. Thampy and Ullas take orders for the many varieties of freshly ground flours, weigh and pack them as per the orders. “We sell around 200 kilos of wheat flour, 100 kilos of rice flour and 5-8 kilos of other kinds of flours each day,” says Thampi.
“The flour produced each day gets completely sold on the same day. A new batch is ground every morning. There is nothing like freshly milled flour,” he adds. There are many varieties of flours produced in the mill - wheat flour, rice flour, gram flour (besan), corn flour, pearl millet (bajra) flour and finger millet (ragi) flour. Wheat flour is used primarily for making chapati, rice flour is ideal for making puttu, appam and other Kerala breakfasts and the remaining varieties are used in preparing Gujarati dishes.
The mill is located in the Gujarati quarter of Mattancherry. Like many businesses in this part of Kochi, the day to day affairs at Thampy’s Flour Mill are closely interlinked with the Gujarati community. The grains are sourced mainly from Gujarat, through traders from the community operating out of the nearby bazar. Sourcing is done on a weekly basis. Thampy mentions that a good relationship with the merchants, held dear for many generations, has helped him keep the business afloat during tough times. People belonging to the Gujarati community form a good part of his clientele.
He has regular customers from many places in and around Kochi. “Freshness,” he repeats, “is the key element that makes people take the extra effort to come here and buy our flour.” In the past, Thampy had a door-to-door delivery service wherein he cycled to his customers’ houses and collected the grains, did the milling and delivered the flour back to the respective houses. In addition to the milling charges, two rupees was billed as the delivery charge.
When his father started the business, traditional stone hand mills called ‘chakki' or ‘thirukallu’ were used for grinding. Chakki is a set of two millstones, one placed on top of the other. The grain is fed into this quern through a hole in the upper stone. The upper stone has a handle and by rotating this handle, grain is milled into flour. Back then, black gram flour was the main item produced by them. Spices were also powdered at the mill. Women from Vypin (neighbouring islands) were employed to operate the hand mills. Waterways were used to supply the flour to places like Thodupuzha, Alapuzha and Kottayam. Thampy mentions that the business thrived during the 50s and the 60s.
Though ‘chakki’ is no longer used, the milling continues on electric machines from his father’s time. He loves his machines and prefers the texture and consistency of wheat flour made in his old-school machines over the flour from the advanced machines presently used in the industry. Though it is quite expensive and painstaking to maintain the kind of millers which are not widely used , he is willing to go the extra mile for the flour. He is a proud miller who considers his trade as a craft which demands experience and expertise. When asked about being fortunate to have an heir to continue his trade, which is so precious in an aged market town like Mattancherry where most of the businesses are currently run by the last generation of traders, he lovingly chides the younger generation for their hurriedness. He belongs to a generation that invests time and effort in making food at home and prefers to do it the detailed way.