Madurai’s jigarthanda: A confluence of taste and cultures in a glass tumbler

Jigarthanda is synonymous to Madurai despite the fact that it may not have been born here.
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Shopping in Madurai’s Vilakuthoon area is incomplete without a swig of this drink. After spending hours jostling for some time and space in one of Madurai’s many textile and readymade shops on a dry, scorching day in the middle of July, your mouth and eyes would naturally seek out the ‘Famous’ jigarthanda shop nearby. A spoonful of this drink with the chewy jelly-like ingredient often marked the completion of the ‘Aadi’ discount sale shopping ritual for many who grew up in and around the temple city. 

Jigarthanda is a cold drink made of milk, almond pisin (gum derived from the bark of sweet almond tree), khoya, sarsaparilla root syrup (nannari sarbat syrup) with alternatives of basundi and milk ice cream as toppings. A drink that was seemingly born in the kadai veedhis of Madurai is now accepted as the city’s own drink far and wide, with many restaurants and bakeries now selling ‘Madurai’s’ jigarthanda at their counters. However, anybody who is familiar with Tamil can spot that the name ‘jigarthanda’ is not Tamil enough to be born in Madurai. So, where did jigarthanda come from? 

“The influence for this dish comes from the north,” says Sheik Mohideen, Brand Chef, Savya Rasa. “The concept for jigarthanda and falooda are essentially the same. Just that in falooda they use rooh afza, semiya, sabja seeds and almond pisin, while for jigarthanda, they use milk, milk ice cream, basundi, nannari sharbat and almond pisin,” he adds. 

This is, of course, just one of the many theories tracing the drink’s origin. Madurai’s ‘Famous’ jigarthanda had humble beginnings in the 1970s, when Sheikh Abdul Kadhar, its founder, joined his family business which was run from a pushcart in Madurai. This became a small shop near Vilakkuthoon in Madurai city in 1977, which like its location, stands the test of time. The shop enjoys the loyal patronage of thousands of customers and sells at least a thousand glasses of the rich, creamy, refreshing drink every day. 

There are several theories about its origin and ingredients, including a possible mention in the Ain-i-Akbari, but scholars have refuted this. 

Salma Yusuf Husain, a Persian scholar and the author of the book The Mughal Feast categorically denies the possibility of a drink similar to falooda or jigarthanda being mentioned in the Ain-i-Akbari. “The prominent languages during that period (Akbar’s period) were Persian and Turkish,” she explains, pointing out that jigarthanda is an Urdu name. “There is no chance this drink would have come from that period.” She adds however that sherbet as a concept originated in the time of Akbar’s son Jahangir, whose mother is said to have concocted the earliest versions of the beverages we call sherbet today. “The concept of falooda also came around that time. There is no mention of sherbet or falooda in Ain-i-Akbari, so it is safe to presume that this might not have existed before Jahangir’s time,” she explains. 

The drink that ‘Famous’ Jigarthanda serves to its customers has condensed and chilled cow’s milk, fresh milk, cream, almond pisin, sugar syrup, nannari sherbet syrup, basundi and milk ice cream, depending on the version demanded by the customers (ordinary jigarthanda, special jigarthanda or jigarthanda ice cream). It is usually served in glass tumblers and is known to be a body coolant, true to its name. It is perhaps this cooling nature of the drink that made Madurai embrace it as its own. A mention-worthy aside to this story is also that jigarthanda is said to be an aphrodisiac and hence is served to newly-weds in some Muslim families in the region. 

Vani C Chenguttuwan, a historian and the co-convener of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage’s (INTACH) Madurai chapter, says that the influence for jigarthanda could have come from the coastal region between Pudukkottai and Ramanathapuram. 

“As far as Tamil Nadu is considered, more so in Madurai, the cultural impact in food is majorly from southeast Asia. We are most coast-bound – the coast stretches between Pudukkottai and Ramanathapuram. Our main navigation channels and points have been the Vaigai river, Kayalpattinam (Thoothukudi district), and Azhagankulam (Ramanathapuram district). As far as Madurai is considered, sea route connection is more important. So, I don't think the influence for jigarthanda would have come from say Lucknow or Hyderabad,” she says. She also points out that the almond pisin that is currently an important ingredient in jigarthanda could have been seaweed or agar-agar in early times, which points to an obvious sea connection. 

Tamil Muslims’ sea connection dates back to as early as the 13th century when trade links were thriving between the kingdoms of Tamil Nadu and southeast Asia. One of the theories for the origin of jigarthanda is that it was the seafarers who conceptualised the earlier versions of the drink because they needed protein in their food and seaweed was an easy source.  

Chef Sheik Mohideen affirms this. “The makers of jigarthanda in Madurai still call it ‘kadarpasi’ (seaweed in Tamil), but it is in fact almond pisin these days,” he says. It is understood that the substitution came into picture mostly as a taste enhancer, he adds.

Vani also counters the claim that the influence for jigarthanda might have come in from the Muslim communities and royal courts of Lucknow or Hyderabad. “The influence of Hyderabadi cuisine is little to non-existent in the southern parts of Tamil Nadu. The Hyderabadi Nizam's influence ended with the areas ruled by the nawabs in Arcot. It is not possible that it would have extended to places as far as Madurai or Ramanathapuram.” She points out that agar-agar is an important and inevitable ingredient in a Tamil Muslim kitchen similar to how non-Muslims have cashews or raisins to put in their sweet dishes. “Their food is not complete without agar-agar,” she reiterates to prove her point.  

Much like its cultural influence, jigarthanda is now on its way to cater to the taste buds of those abroad – a batch was even flown to Singapore for the first time right before the COVID-19 pandemic. While its origin can be debated, the drink has a loyal fan base that is up and growing.

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