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Rediff.com  » Getahead » Whoa! This 75-yr-old mami has a cooking app to her name

Whoa! This 75-yr-old mami has a cooking app to her name

Last updated on: July 28, 2014 17:31 IST

Whoa! This 75-yr-old mami has a cooking app to her name

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Shobha Warrier

"I want to preserve all the traditional recipes as people are more interested in Italian and Mexican cuisine these days. I do not want the next generation to forget great dishes that are part of our traditional cuisine."

"People think Chitvish (short for Chitra Vishwanathan) is a flashy, smart lady, but no, there is nothing extraordinary about what I do. I am a housewife like any other; I just happen to be interested in technology."

"My entry into the world of the Internet began when I told a lady from Nigeria how to make veppila katti (a spicy chutney powder)."

Meet Chitra Vishwanathan, 75, who talks about her inspiring, self-motivated journey from a home-maker to a culinary expert.

You don't expect a 75-year-old mami (auntie) to be so tech savvy as to use her iPad to make her points, shoot pictures on her mobile phone when she goes for a walk on the beach, or talk about storing her stuff on the cloud as her hard disk kept failing.

But Chitra Viswanathan is not any 75-year-old mami.

She's Chitvish, columnist and head of the cookery section of a website, and a well-known food blogger who shares her recipes and culinary expertise on the Internet.

She vehemently denies she is different. "I am just a matronly, grey-haired Mylapore mami who is passionate about cooking.

"People think Chitvish is a flashy, smart lady, but no, there is nothing extraordinary about what I do. I am a housewife like any other, I just happen to be interested in technology. Yeah, I guess my hobby is different."

She may be modest about it, but there aren't many mamis who are active on Facebook, who upload pictures of their cooking experiments on the Internet, and have mobile apps named after them.

She welcomed our photographer and I to her home with a baked dish and a sweet drink, saying, "I have made these two for you. Let me know how they taste. Only if you like them will I upload them on my Facebook page. I always try new recipes on guests."

Needless to say, they were both yummy.

ALSO READ: Puliyodarai, Caramel Payasam and more recipes

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Image: Chitra Viswanathan's cooking app 'Chitvish' is available for both iPad and Android users.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

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'The cooking gas and pressure cooker made cooking easier'

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Viswanathan's love of cooking started when she was a child. Whenever her mother's side of the family got together in Trivandrum, the ladies did all the cooking.

"Even though I was but a chit of a girl, I used to wait for the stove to be lit so as to join in the fun.

"We only cooked traditional South Indian food at home, and never really partook of any North Indian food. That is why, to this day, I retain a fascination for traditionally cooked South Indian food."

She moved to Chennai after she got married, in 1960.

"In 1964, cooking gas and the pressure cooker made their way into our lives. I can't tell you how much easier those innovations made cooking," she recalls.

When she read an advertisement in the newspapers for a training course in juice and jam making offered by the Government Catering Institute, she decided to join.

"Back then -- this is 1964 we're talking about -- going to classes to learn cooking was a new concept. But I've always loved to do different things."

She started making juices, ketchup and jams at home. And whenever she heard of a cookery class, she joined up.

But what opened her horizons was a course in baking.

"Baking was totally alien, not just to me, but to most women in Chennai who were otherwise passionate about cooking.

"We learnt to bake bread, pastries and so many other things in a short span of three months. After that, I was ready to bake anything."

Each day, after sending the children off to school, she used to rush to the British Council library to pore over recipes for baked dishes from magazines.

Soon after, she got a tin oven from Mumbai and started baking a variety of things for her children.

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Image: Chitra Viswanathan says learning baking opened up new horizons for her.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj/Rediff.com

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'I do not want the next generation to forget our traditional dishes'

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When I first made all those dishes, I thought I was the most creative person on earth! I still remember this one time I was baking a dish when a cousin walked in and asked, 'Chitra Akka, what are you making? It smells like a bakery in here.'

"When people say that, I feel so thrilled."

"I want to preserve all the traditional recipes as people are more interested in Italian and Mexican cuisine these days. I do not want the next generation to forget great dishes that are part of our traditional cuisine -- athirasam (a fried donut), kai murukku (a salty snack), the list goes on..." she says.

In 2004, her daughter gifted her a computer and an Internet connection.

"I asked my daughter, am I not a bit too old to learn new things at 65? What if I am not able to learn? She told me that I would be able to, dumped a lot of computing books on me, and headed back home.

"She felt it would help me to explore a new world of baking and cooking. As I generally feel depressed if I fail to learn something, I tried hard to learn to use the computer.”

The broadband connection opened a whole new world, mainly culinary.

"When I searched for traditional recipes of various kuzhambus and koottus, I found that the recipes were all wrong. Every recipe had onion and garlic whereas the traditional ones have neither.

"When I went to Indiatastes.com, a recipe discussion forum, I found that no one had answered a query on how to make poosanika koottu. I answered the query and gave her the proper recipe.

"From the moment I posted it, people started bombarding me with more queries. They understood that somebody who actually knew how to cook had answered.

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Image: Chitra Viswanathan is tech-savvy; she uploads her recipes on her iPad
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj/Rediff.com

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'Google was my teacher, helping me to do these things'

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I still think my entry into the world of the Internet began when I told a lady from Nigeria how to make veppila katti (a spicy chutney powder)."

She came across Indusladies.com, a website started by a woman named Malathi, in the US in 2005. Malathi sent her an e-mail asking her to head the Indusladies cookery section.

Though she was initially hesitant, wondering how she would answer questions on recipes unknown to her, she took up the offer.

Malathi named the column 'Ask Chitvish', and thus did Chitra Viswanathan become Chitvish.

"It was a new identity and a new beginning for me. She gave me full freedom to run the column the way I wanted. I covered almost everything that young women wanted to know, from making a meal in a jiffy to elaborate dishes."

When a Kashmiri woman asked her what kozhukattai (a traditional rice dumpling) looked like, Chitra realised that pictures were an essential part of a recipe column. She bought a camera and started posting pictures of all of the dishes she cooked.

"It was a big challenge for me to upload the pictures from the camera. But in no time, I mastered the art. Google was my teacher, helping me to do these things."

From posting pictures of recipes, she moved on to 'step by step' recipe pictures for newbies!

From cooking, she moved to spirituality.

As she was a senior citizen, many young women started asking her questions of a religious and spiritual nature. That led to another column on many aspects of Indian culture.

Then came the mobile app Ask Chitvish.

Priced at $4 for Android users and $5 for iOS users, the app was a gift from her daughter to her three years ago.

She has uploaded more than 2,300 recipes, with many more to be tested and posted.

She has stored all her recipes in the cloud after she had the unfortunate experience of her hard disk crashing.

She also has a very active Facebook page.

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Image: Chitra Vishwanathan used to answer reader queries for a food blog.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj/Rediff.com

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'I run between the kitchen and my computer'

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Vishwanathan's days are jam packed. She spends almost seven to eight hours in front of the computer.

A typical day begins at 6 am and a walk to the kitchen with her iPad and camera.

"I run between the kitchen and my computer, as that's when people in the USA ask me questions on my Facebook page. If I cook something interesting for my breakfast, I immediately put it up on my page."

In the evenings she walks down Marina beach. Using her camera phone, she takes candid pictures and puts them up on her Facebook page.

"I even got an award once, from a radio station, for a candid photo I took."

She connects with readers on Facebook, sharing new recipes and answering their queries.

"Whatever I try, I post on Facebook. After my husband's death recently, I wanted to make sure I didn't wallow in loneliness. I have so many 'cyber-friends' who consider me a part of their family. I also blog a lot on many aspects of life that take my fancy." 

Her ambition is to now document all the recipes she knows.

"There are hundreds of versions of each recipe. I want to note down for posterity the versions I learnt from my grandmother."

Now, do you still agree with her when she says she is just a matronly, grey haired 'Mylapore mami' who is passionate about cooking?

As we were about to leave, she asked, "Can you think of a better word than 'passionate' to express my love for cooking?"


Image: An experimental baked dish and a sweet drink prepared by Chitra Vishwanathan
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj/Rediff.com

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