In 1936, after a successful stint as a cook in Burma (now Myanmar), Manickam returned to his hometown Madurai in the then Madras Presidency. His wife, known to everyone as Amma Thai, was also a stellar cook, and together, they formed a formidable team of street-chefs. With their skills and a small budget, Manickam and Amma Thai started a nameless, menu-less food stall in Thallakulam, Madurai, cooking for around 50 regular customers a day. It is that small street-side stall which paved the way for what has today become every tourists' must-visit in Madurai.
Home to the bone-marrow omelette, the Mudhal Mariyaadai meen kuzhambu (fish curry), the Pallipalayam kozhi (chicken curry), and countless other delights, the eatery has carved out a place for itself in the hearts of two generations of meat lovers. Watch a special video below:
The original stall was not called Amma Mess. For a long time, Manickam and Amma Thai’s three sons helped run the family business. But in 1992, Senthilvel and his wife Sumathi separated from the family business to start their own outlet, and that’s the official beginning of Amma Mess. Just four months ago, the business grew to start a second, expansive kitchen near that Mattuthavani bus stand in Madurai.
The dishes in Amma Mess are the stuff of legendary kitchens. If Michelin-star chefs travel the world to discover new dishes, then the owners of Amma Mess go deeper into their own territory for inspiration, and create their own recipes. “I don’t go to anyone for ideas. I do my own research and the ideas come to me,” laughs Senthilvel, promising there is no other place in the world where some of his dishes are served.
Senthilvel and Sumathi, the couple which runs Amma Mess
Take the bone-marrow omelette for instance. A trademark dish of the restaurant and something that every customer swears-by, the omelette is made by adding eggs, onions, green chillies, the gravy from a seafood curry and the star ingredient – mutton bone marrow. Every morning, the dark brown-grey marrow of mutton bones is taken out and kept aside. It is added to the mix before the omelette is made.
It isn’t just the bone-marrow omelette, there is a whole range of omelettes with crab, prawns and fish, and also chicken and mutton omelettes served at Amma Mess. Dosas are made with the same variations too – prawn, crab, chicken, mutton, you ask for it, it’s there.
Another crowd favourite is the Ayira meen kuzhambu, a type of fish curry, and the Pallipalayam Kozhi, a chicken curry for lovers of hot and spicy food.
The most interesting dishes however are the ones with their own personal histories. For instance, the ‘Mudhal Mariyadai Meen Kulambu’, a type of fish curry inspired by the 1985 Tamil film ‘Mudhal Mariyadai’. “The character played by actor Sivaji gives out the special recipe of meen kuzhambu in the movie, and we have recreated that,” says Sentilvel.
In his award-winning book ‘Kalli Kattu Itihasam’, one of the poems written by Tamil poet and lyricist Vairamuthu was about a type of chicken rasam. “In our families, we have always given chicken rasam to new mothers to improve their health and immunity. When we read about this rasam in his book, we approached him to know more about it, altered the recipe to make it better, and that’s how we have the ‘Kalli Kattu Koli Charu’, a type of chicken rasam,” says Sumathi, as she adds a handful of masala into the rasam, which was introduced about 5 years ago.
The family has a special relationship with Vairamuthu. “He first came here in 1996, and since then, every time he comes to Madurai he eats here. He is a close friend of ours now,” says Senthilvel, adding that it was the lyricist who opened his new outlet. In 1999, when their first outlet was converted to an air-conditioned restaurant, it was Vairamuthu who inaugurated it.
Then there are the other favourites like ‘Burma Meen Kuzhambu’, a pomfret fish curry made from a special recipe Manickam brought back from Burma, and the ‘Idicha Naatu Kozhi Roast’, an ingenious chicken dish which is made by crushing cooked chicken hard enough to make it easy to chew, and then roasted in oil with masalas. The rabbit roast and prawn roast are also popular with the customers. The biriyani menu has not just the usual suspects like chicken, mutton and sea food, but also pigeon-meat and rabbit-meat.
In the 2015 Hollywood movie ‘Burnt’, Bradley Cooper plays a star chef with one important mantra - “Consistency is death.” This is a concept Senthilvel has understood only too well. He has a golden rule – every year, he introduces a new dish with a special variation. Last year it was the Honey Chicken, something entirely new to the south Indian taste buds.
“For 2016, we are thinking ‘Kundur Chicken’,” he says. “There is a type of mulaga vathal (dried chilly) in Kundur village in Thanjavur. We’ll cook the chicken using that,” he explains.
If variety and taste is top priority, then so is one other aspect – the food should feel home-cooked. “That’s why people come here often. We don’t add any chemical, colour or ajinomoto; you can have it every day and not fall sick,” says Senthilvel.
Senthilvel is the ultimate boss, the ‘owner’, but it is his wife who is the backbone of their entire operation. She is the quintessential Indian business-wife. A short and authoritative figure, she is the commander-in-chief of the kitchen.
Sumathi cooks the important dishes herself, and oversees the preparation of everything else. Nothing leaves the kitchen without her approval. She is the beloved ‘akka’ in the kitchen and although she is the owner’s wife, she is there at 10am sharp every morning, frying the meat, making the curries and tasting every dish.
It was Amma Thai, her mother-in-law who taught Sumathi the art of cooking. “We have a neat division of labour,” says Senthilvel. “I make the purchases directly. I go personally to buy meat and I don’t allow anyone else to do so. And I take care of the service too, welcoming guests and making them feel comfortable,” he adds. His wife meanwhile is the meat-magician. Every morning she has to make at least 6 mutton items, 6 chicken items and 4 types of kuzhambus, apart from the special orders which come in.
How does she do it, cook for 300-500 people, every day? “I do pranayama in the morning,” she says, with a smile of conviction. “But what else is there to do? I have cooked all my life, and however high or low the business goes, I will continue cooking,” she says. She starts every morning with home-cooked breakfast of raagi and vegetables. “I don’t eat too much meat. I have been in the kitchen cooking meat for so many years now, I cannot handle too much of it,” she says.
The couple aspires to open shops in Chennai and Bengaluru as well. “There is a lot of demand, but let’s see, we will plan,” says Senthilvel, with the restrained ambition that characterizes south Indian businessmen.
Senthilvel and Sumathi have one son, a 29-year-old who is now in-charge of the older outlet, "He will take the legacy forward.”