While new shops sit pretty, the charm comes from older establishments that have been supplying dry fruits to Coimbatoreans for many years.
Bullock carts loaded with cashew would travel all the way from Kollam to Coimbatore, where they would make a beeline to Raja Street and Thomas Street. Wholesale vendors of dry fruits would inspect the merchandise, take them to the godowns and sort them before selling them. Cashews would be sold whole, halved or quartered. Based on demand, workers would break them down further into eights, granules or powder.
Nearly a century later, the bullock carts have given way to trains, lorries and hand-pulled carts. Cashews, which now come from Panruti, find company in California almonds, walnuts, pistachios, raisins, Tunisian whole dates and figs. And Rangai Gounder Street and Thomas Street, which used to teem with merchants, now play host to just a handful. Still, there’s an old-world charm about the area that is difficult to shake off, as one dodges the hand-pulled carts, steps over jute sacks and hears the cacophony of the market.
Mani Traders on Rangai Gounder Street is one of the few that have taken on a modern avatar, selling provisions along with dry fruits. Its owner, K.L. Mani, hails from a family that sold native medicine. “Some 15 years ago, we shifted to the dry fruits business because there was great demand,” he says. Mani recalls packing dry fruits in brown paper potlams and tying them with thread. Today, about 70 varieties of cashew, from Rs. 60 to Rs. 620 a kg, and 15 varieties of badam find themselves inside gleaming plastic covers in his store.
Turning to brands
On Thomas Street (Subbiah Mudaliar Street) is Sri Ganabathi Traders, which has been selling dry fruits since the 1980s. An easy-to-miss doorway leads into an old-world store stacked till the ceiling with dry fruits. Roasted badam, Mambra badam (sourced from Iran and Iraq and costing upwards of Rs. 1,500 a kg), salted pista, branched dates from Tunisia, apricots… the list is endless. A worker sits there and breaks khajur (dry dates) into small pieces. These will go to one of the local bakeries. Says E.P. Sivakumar, who runs the store: “Earlier, we got local produce. Now, with people demanding branded stuff, we source some of the better brands, especially for dates, badam and walnuts. But, we still sell at competitive prices.” That explains the never-ending line of customers who ask for anything between 50 grams of cashew to a whopping five kg.
Kota Dhuruva Kumar, 75, whose family was involved in the dry fruits business for generations, recalls how in the early days, dry fruits would be placed in air-tight jars near the entrance of the shop, where the owner could see them. Portions would be measured out on demand and folded in a potlam. “The cashew used to come by train. And, the dates would come from ship from Arab countries. People would go to Cochin or Pondicherry to pick up supplies.”
Opposite Sri Ganabathi Traders is T.R. Venkatachalam Chetty Traders, which has been in business for nearly four decades now. P. Moganraja, proprietor, 33, recalls the elders at home speaking about how dry fruits would come packed in 10-kg tins from places as far away as Bombay and Delhi, and brought to the shop in hand-pulled carts. His shop sees a steady stream of customers, brought here, he says, “because of price and quality”. A kg of 180-count cashew retails for just about Rs. 700.
These shops still do business the old way. A smiling staffer explains to an old lady why one variety of cashew is more expensive than the other. “We even tell people how they should choose dry fruits (they should be dry) and how to store them (in air-tight dabbas to prevent moisture from seeping in).
Amid all this is the air-conditioned Nutsbay near Thermutti, started by a fifth generation member of a family that has dealt with dry fruits. Here, dry fruits share space with fruit-laden chocolates. “Connoisseurs look for perfect-looking dry fruits and we offer them that choice,” says C.B. Shivvakumar, CEO. Among their specialties is Nutri Punch (Rs. 15) that has a smattering of dry fruits, including figs and almonds, a great snack idea for school kids.