In London, Meeting the Brand Ambassador of Kerala Cuisine

Last-Word

A giant basket-full of Uzhunnu Vada, a.k.a. Medu Vada a.k.a. Urud Dal Fritters, accompanied by a large bowl of Thenga Chammanthi (coconut chutney) entered the Kerala Stall in the India Pavilion at the World Travel Market (WTM 1998) on that Saturday afternoon, even as we all began packing up for the day so as to beat the approaching darkness of the early winter sunset and the chilly wind that would accompany it. My place of stay was far out in Croydon, arranged courtesy Kallambalam Ansari, a fellow-writer in Malayalam, at that time an official at the High Commission of India in the UK.

“If Uzhunnu Vada has made its appearance, then Hari must not be far behind,” someone familiar with the WTM rituals commented. This being my very first WTM, I was puzzled as to what he meant, and waited eagerly to find out.

Enter Thekkummury Haridas, all smiles and hand-waving, greeting the Malayalees present by their first names, except, of course, yours faithfully, the novice at the global event, in fact, the first of my twenty or so similar expos around the world in the ensuing 18 years. “I have heard about you, read your Malayalam writings, welcome to London, I am at your service,” Hari said generously, and led me to the mountain of ‘uzhunnu vadas,’ serving me a couple, with a large helping of ‘thenga chammanthi’. It was symbolic of his solidarity with the Kerala campaign; this vada plus ‘chammanthi’ treat for all on the penultimate day of the event every year.

Haridas had solemn right to be there and play host, having been the cultural ambassador of Kerala especially Kerala cuisine in the UK for over a decade, with the establishment of the very first Kerala restaurant in the capital of the sun-never-sets empire of a bygone era.

Thus began my friendship with one of the most enterprising Keralites I have ever come across. Hari, who came to London in his early 20s to practice chartered accountancy, instead landed up in the Indian High Commission as an accounts official, worked part time in a hotel chain, and then proceeded to create a chain of Kerala eateries, beginning with Raagam, acquired from a Sri Lankan. Among his over a dozen outlets, all serving Kerala food, Malabar Junction stands out as the last word in home-bred hospitality.

Today, Thekkummury Haridas is the undisputed market leader in his chosen field, and is also seriously involved in various cultural, social and religious organisations with an Indian flavour. Brand ambassador par excellence overseas of God`s Own Country’s culinary extravaganza, Hari has been honoured with a host of awards by various food-related juries in London.

However, his only award from an India-based enterprise till then, sought him out in 2000 when Destination Kerala declared him our Tourism-Man-of- the-Year 1999. Hearing the good news over phone from Thiruvananthapuram, he was thrilled at the opportunity to disprove the biblical saying that ‘No prophet is accepted in his own hometown’! London media celebrated Hari’s Man-of the-Year achievement with special features, and he flew down to Thiruvananthapuram in August 2000 to accept the award from the then Chief Minister of Kerala, E K Nayanar, who was himself once the honoured guest of the restaurateur at Malabar Junction.

T Haridas, who also dabbled in the entertainment industry with the production of a couple of Malayalam films, continues to be a friend and well wisher of Destination Kerala, and all that we stand and strive for, as another WTM unfolds in London this month. Team Destination Kerala once again gets to meet Thekkummury Haridas, the pioneering spirit whose guiding principles have always been, ‘never say no to a novel idea’ and, ‘success comes before work only in the dictionary.’