When life lands people in a bit of a pickle, one could sell them pickles. At least that is what Neha Alluri, a Hyderabad native, thought could be done, and did – and did successfully.
Inspiring her was the craving for home-cooked meals she witnessed among people separated from their families because of the lockdowns during the second wave of the pandemic in India from March 2021.
Though partial, scattered and less severe than that in the previous year, these renewed lockdowns nevertheless separated family members. Homesickness crept in for those who were forced to stay away from home, and with it, came a yearning for traditional foods.
Alluri, 28, saw it all, and realised a niche market had just opened up.
A business is born
“There were people who wanted these traditional food products,” she told South First. “We already work with farmers as part of our family business. So, we thought why not source ingredients from them and sell homemade food items?”
The “we” Alluri talks of is a reference to her “business partners” – her aunt Usha Sarvarayalu, 69, and Uma Alluri, another aunt.
From their brainstorming was born The Manduva Project, a business venture that markets traditional pickles and snacks unique to Andhra Pradesh, such as podi, ground spices used as marinade in meat or fish dishes. This apart, the company also sells spices and condiments used in Andhra cuisine.
Manduva? What’s that?
The venture draws its name from Manduva Logili – the local name for the traditional courtyard houses predominately found in the districts of East and West Godavari, Guntur, Nellore, Vizianagaram and Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh.
The foodstuffs that the company markets are made from traditional recipes perfected in the family Manduva Logili of Usha Sarvarayalu’s childhood, or in the villages of West Godavari.
“I studied in boarding schools in the Nilgiris till the age of 15,” says Sarvarayalu. “Memories of coming home for holidays are filled with fun times with cousins. We were fortunate to have grandparents with homes in our native village and I think that is where the story began,” she told South First.
The centre courtyard held the pulse of the family, a place where she says “everyone got together at some point during the day depending on the chores needing to be done”.
“It is here that the exchange of recipes, little secret twists happened to make some of the meals our family trademark.”
Back to the village
It is this link to the native village is what The Manduva Project is trying to resurrect, and it is the family culinary secrets that are going into what is marketed.
“So many of us in urban areas have lost the link to our villages,” rues Sarvarayalu. “What better way to re-connect than with mouth-watering pickles and podis?”
This is exactly what The Manduva Project did – go to the countryside and rope in village women to get new recipes for them created. Sensing a chance to earn an independent livelihood, the women too had no hesitation in joining them.
Today, The Manduva Project ensures a livelihood for 25 rural women engaged in procuring, making, packaging and dispatching orders. Sometimes, they are given the recipes, at other times they are encouraged to come up with their own ideas.
The products that Alluri’s company markets are made out of two villages in West Godavari district; while Sarvarayalu and her niece handle the business from Uppalametta in Jangareddygudem, Uma Alluri runs it from Annadeverapeta.
“In the Godavari region, each family was known for their speciality. In Annadeverapeta, it was the bellam avakaya (mango-jaggery pickle),” says Sarvarayalu.
And in Uppalametta, crisps or vadiyalu are a speciality. These are handmade and dried in the sun for days, a tedious and long-winded process because of which people have stopped making them at home.
Experimenting with tradition
At The Manduva Project, Alluri oversees the packaging, campaigns, social media, pop-up shows, advertising and so on.
What helps is the connect she feels with the culinary culture of Andhra villages, despite being born and raised in Hyderabad. “Food is an integral part of our family,” she explains. “We had a knack for experimenting.”
For instance, she says, her aunt Usha and her paternal grandmother “experimented a lot”, and once came up with variations to a dish from Kerala called the “idiyappam”, to suit the Telugu taste. “It has remained a staple in our family,” Alluri says.
Even Uma Alluri, who married into the family, learnt from the elders but added her own signature style; today, she is credited with being the brain behind giving her personal touch to the traditional “avakaya” pickle using only the first harvest of mangoes.
The village women engaged in the business also come up with their own adaptations, for example, making sprinkles with different variations such as coconut chilli, nalla karam, gongura and mint chilli.
When she herself moved to the US in 2011 to study Economics and International Relations, Alluri put up with the campus fare for a year before calling it quits. “I started making Telugu food as I couldn’t bear the dormitory food,” she laughs.
While the vision is to keep alive traditional recipes, there is also a concerted effort to add a modern twist to the products to make them more appealing to today’s customers.
A modern twist
“She (Alluri) has brought in a new angle of using pickles and podis in various ways which the next generation relates to,” Sarvarayalu says.
The team markets easy-to-use curry leaf-moringa mix, or the mint-chilli mix, as garnish and sprinkles, says Alluri.
“These are all roasted and so can be consumed raw without cooking. This also enables easy or fast cooking for the fast-paced modern generation,” Alluri adds.
Some of the project’s best-selling products are the ginger pickle, tomato pickle, beetroot and spinach crisps, and curry leaf and moringa sprinkle.
Today, The Manduva Project has successfully built a customer base in Coimbatore, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, while demand is slowly picking up in Chennai and the northern states.
“There are people who still make podis at home today, but it is not hand-pounded as it is n the villages,” Alluri tells us.
“The response, therefore, has been humbling. Our customers really cherish the fact that they have access to these artisanal products because of our venture. We are glad we can offer them that happiness.”