I finally made it to Iruttu Kadai to sample one of Tamil Nadu's most iconic foods. Established in 1900, locals agree that this shop is the originator of the Tirunelveli alva. Iruttu Kadai is so popular that they remain open for a mere three hours each day from 5 pm to 8 pm, during which they sell out the day’s supply.
The Iruttu Kadai as it nears 8pm and the day’s supply is nearing its end.
We made a quick stop there on the way to the railway station to catch a train back after a quick sojourn in southern Tamil Nadu after a wedding shoot at Tiruchendur. There was a frenetic energy inside the small shop, as the assistants made 500-gram packets of the delicacy. Two cashier-salesmen collected money and dispensed the single product to a steady stream of people who all seemed to know the process. You step up, announce the quantity you want in a clear voice, hand over the exact change, collect your parcel and leave quickly. The quantity was important because it was available in only two pre-packaged variants - the 500-gram takeaway cellophane pack, and the 100-gram slurp-immediately banana leaf pack.
There is a great disturbance in the force if you do things like ask for 250 grams, don't give exact change, take photos or do anything that is not in the above-mentioned process. This disturbance manifests as minor grimaces from your fellow patrons, who will then proceed to flow around you and continue following the process. These patrons were all locals - other less savvy visitors than me had already fallen by the wayside, lured by the literally hundreds of other shops selling ‘authentic,’ ‘real’ and ‘original’ Tirunelveli alva. The locals, however, converged unerringly on the original shop, which in all its boardless glory was easily discernible if you followed common sense: It was the darkest of the sweet shops. After all the Iruttu Kadai, or Dark Shop.
I must say a few words about the surroundings of this little legendary shop. The gopuram of the centuries-old Nellaiappar temple dominates the street, and immediately in its vicinity, you see hundreds of shops selling Tirunelveli alva. Now, a friendly Tirunelveli local who you meet in any other part of the world might give you some sort of advice like, “As you exit the temple, turn left and it’s the seventh shop on your left.” This is absolutely useless information, as it’s virtually impossible to tell which is the seventh and which the seventeenth. I was absolutely amazed by the sheer number of shops that are peddling this delicacy, and even more amazed to see how many people were going to shops other than Iruttu Kadai. But, following my father’s advice to always be charitable in ascribing motives, I can only conclude that most of these people had tastes that differed from mine and my fellow-patrons of the real Iruttu Kadai.
Portraits of the founders adorn the Iruttu Kadai
As I approached the Iruttu Kadai, I was torn between the desire to eat some alva right then and to shoot some pictures and take in the general atmosphere. The all-important task of acquiring the alva had already been self-allocated to my partner, who diligently followed the set process without creating any waves. In an act of great self-sacrifice, I delayed my alva-eating to get a few pictures of the shop, and sticking my head into the interior to witness the logistics of the packing and stacking.
Following the strict code of conduct while acquiring alva
In the dim recesses of the shop stood a team of assistants, four or five of them, in banians and lungies, busily packing fresh alva into 500-gram packets. These they then stacked within arm’s reach of the two public facing officials who did the all-important task of exchanging these for the money of the patrons. Given the steady stream of customers, this whole process was performed with the precision and solemnity of a German-made prasad-distributing machine in a major temple. All this I accomplished in the space of about sixty seconds - even my persistent determination could not take more than this much pressure to make way for the stream of devotees.
I turned around just in time for my partner to hand me a portion of slurpable alva on a piece of banana leaf. This 100-gram piece was pure heaven, and perfectly portioned. The smell of ghee wafted gently to my nose, sending already-stimulated salivary glands to battle stations. This all-hands-on-deck situation made sure that the moment the alva landed in my mouth, it was ready for transport to the throat without any contact with the teeth. Which was just as well - it is definitely a bit sticky, and you don’t want to waste even a tiny bit of it stuck between your teeth! As I polished off the little bit, I wanted to get more. Unfortunately, the crowd had grown, and my train would not wait for me. I had to clutch my precious 500-gram cargo of takeaway alva and only dream about it till I got back home.