Usha Rayalu, who co-founded The Manduva Project with Neha Alluri, says the central courtyard for which the brand is named was where women in their family could be themselves.
It’s nearing the end of our call with The Manduva Project co-founders, Usha Rayalu and her niece Neha Alluri, when I ask my question rather hesitantly: ‘Would you be willing to share recipes from your childhood?’ The brand, registered under Hyderabad-based Unigourmet Pvt Ltd, sells traditionally processed and mostly small batch Andhra pickles, podis, and crisps from villages in the state. I don’t want to snatch any trade secrets.
Usha has just talked about a favourite she still craves when I ask her this—a podi made with sesame cakes after oil has been extracted from the seed, seasoned with garlic and other spices. This isn’t on their list of products at the moment, but what if they want to introduce it at a later date?
Usha’s response is both surprising and welcomingly endearing. “What’s to hide, Chetana, it’s a recipe. If someone can use the recipe and make it, I’d love that. Fair warning, though, this one’s a bit of an acquired taste; Neha and her cousins don’t crave it the way I do.”
Her response ties in with how she experienced food, during summers spent with her cousins at her grandparents’ house—in the Andhra village Annadevarapeta, in the state’s West Godavari district—and the thought driving The Manduva Project.
“In my grandparents’ home, making pickles, podis, and crisps was a collective activity in the manduva, the courtyard of the house. This was a safe space for women to open their hearts up to one another. It’s where they were unabashedly curious about what went on in each others’ houses: how much milk does your cow give, did your family like what you cooked today,” Usha reminisces. “I’d wonder how they could even imagine asking such intrusive questions.”
In Annadevarapeta, pounding and pickling was a community activity. Sometimes people would bring their own mangoes, pickle them at the manduva with their neighbours and relatives, and take a share back home. “In the month of May, they made enough mango pickle to fill four-foot jars, and my grandfather would gift a bottle or two to so many people,” Usha says, recalling a time in the 1960s. “So having ‘manduva’ in the name of the brand seemed like an obvious choice,” Neha chimes in.
Even now, the sweet avakaya (mango) pickle is a bestseller with The Manduva Project. The recipe comes from Annadevarapeta, where this product is made.
As crisps need to be dried in intense sunlight, making them, like pickling mangoes, is a summer activity. Making crisps, mango pickle and so many other sides they associate with the ‘village’ just can’t happen in cities, where so many of us live now, aunt and niece tell us. “There’s a certain pace to village life that makes this possible,” says Neha, while Usha jokes, “In the city, when the sun is out, we are busy; when we are free, the sun is busy, so how would we make crisps here.”
(I’d like to let you in on a little secret—the tomato variety is a favourite with us at The Locavore.)
And as so many of the foods that evoke nostalgia for the co-founders come from the village, Usha says she started The Manduva Project for ‘selfish reasons’. “I can cook, but not as well as my grandmother and aunts. I loved the rasam they made with fermented rice-soaked water, and nookala annam—a payasam-like dish made with bits of rice from the mill. But we don’t make these anymore. So after us, who will cook these things, who will eat them?”
Although there was variety in the fare, Usha and her cousins Shivaram, Srinivas, and Prakash couldn’t be picky about food. “We had to eat whatever was made,” she chuckles, warmth infusing her voice.
Rice fermented with curd overnight was the first thing they were given every morning, ‘just before we went to the field on the bullock cart with my grandfather’. This wasn’t a favourite with the kids. “I wondered why they couldn’t just give us milk instead,” she says. “Now I know the importance of probiotics.”
Cherished or not, she and Neha want to ensure not everything that came to them from their grandparents’ kitchens and courtyards fades away; they want to rebuild the manduva at their ancestral home, which was razed a few years ago, and the safe space for women that it once cocooned.
To read more about The Manduva Project and their practices and efforts, check out our producer page here. This is a paid partnership with The Manduva Project. We strive to keep the practices of a producer transparent and honest across all forms of partnerships.