From jigarthanda to a variety of parottas, Madurai food never disappoints
Tamil Nadu’s Madurai boasts of a diverse and delectable range of dishes that rival some of the best cuisines in the rest of the state. Madurai owes its stature as the culinary capital of Tamil Nadu to the reign of the Pandya kings that spanned roughly from third century BC to 13-14th century AD. One of the most prominent dynasties that ruled parts of south India, the Pandya dynasty was known for their rich cultural heritage and tradition. The traditional food culture in the Pandyan region, which is primarily Madurai, is also hence called Pandya Nadu cuisine.
The genesis of Madurai’s culinary heritage can be traced back to the influences drawn from its yesteryear trade partners like Rome, Saurashtra, and Sri Lanka. The Saurashtrians who migrated from Gujarat made a major impact on the food scene in the region. Some of their prominent dishes are sooji appams, kalkandu sadam, and roti halwa. Mullumurungai vadai, served with roasted gram dal powder, tops the list.
“Madurai cuisine is renowned for its bold flavours and unique spice blends, which are a result of the region’s culinary heritage. The use of freshly ground spices, diverse array of ingredients, and elaborate preparation techniques gives the cuisine its distinctive taste,” says Siddharth Ranganathan, the co-founder of the Bengaluru restaurant Suvaii.
The range of places to eat in Madurai is gratifyingly wide. You can savour the food in the numerous ‘meals’ places around the temple, or in upscale hotels. The first thing that comes to one’s mind at the mention of Madurai are the ubiquitous Murugan Idli and other eateries selling soft, mallipoo (jasmine) idlis and the outlets selling the irresistible drink jigarthanda, which has its origins here.
No trip to this bustling city is complete without downing a glass of jigarthanda. Made with china grass, jelly, sarsaparilla syrup, chilled milk, and sugar, topped with a scoop of ice cream, the drink gives the perfect respite from the sweltering heat of Madurai.
The sweet and salted paniyarams (deep fried rice batter seasoned with curry leaves, chillies, and ginger, or with jaggery and cardamom) are treats not to be missed. Equally tasty are the melt-in-the-mouth idiyappam (soft strings of steamed rice flour) served with coconut milk and sambar, or kurma (meat or vegetables in coconut gravy).
The street food scene in Madurai has some unique dishes that are uncommon in other parts of Tamil Nadu. One such dish is the paruthi paal (cotton-seed milk), a nutrient-rich drink. If you stroll down the streets you are bound to notice cycle carts mounted with a brass pot containing hot paruthi paal. Made from cotton seeds, this drink is available in push carts in every street early in the morning or late night. This steamy drink is made from cotton seeds, which are soaked overnight and ground to extract milk, and cooked along with palm jaggery, then flavoured with a hint of dry ginger, grated coconut, and cardamom. It is packed with many health benefits that include antioxidant properties. It is locally believed to improve digestion and blood circulation, clear coughs and colds, cure stomach ulcers, and ensure good functioning of the nervous system.
“There are other lip-smacking dishes that are authentic to Madurai. Among the repertoire of non-vegetarian dishes is the succulent kola urundai (mutton kheema balls), kari dosa, and Ayirai meen curry. The elumbu roast, a rich flavourful dish where the bones of the mutton are simmered in a spicy gravy and served with piping hot rice or dosa is another non-vegetarian delight. Made of tender goat, the mutton chukka is a big hit,” says Siddharth.
The soft, fluffy kari dosa with succulent pieces of chukka is another dish that is unique to Madurai. Three tempting layers make up the kari dosa. At the bottom is a plain dosa made from standard batter, the middle layer a pepper-crusted omelette, and the final layer on top a spicy kheema. Even though the kari dosa is available in pretty much every outlet in Madurai, you must head to the iconic Konar Mess.
Ayira meen kozhambu is another delicacy not to be missed. “Whenever I visit Madurai, I make it a point to gorge on this city’s specialty. It is a fish curry made with the tiny spiny loach that is indigenous to this region and found in the marshy beds of its dams, lakes, and rivers. It is said that the taste of the curry depends on the cleaning process, which is elaborate. The fish is cleaned in milk in an earthen pot so that they spit out all the waste. It is again cleaned with water and cooked in a spicy curry made with special hand-ground masala and chilli powder,” explains Savita, a Bengaluru resident who is a fan of Madurai cuisine.
With a wide range of parottas like bun parotta, poricha parotta, chicken chilli parotta, and much more, Madurai is said to be the parotta capital. But the region’s signature parotta is kothu parotta, which means chopped roti in Tamil. Recalling her student days in Madurai, Dr Meena Menon of Bengaluru’s Sankara Eye Hospital says, “We used to stroll down the food streets to have kothu parotta to satiate our hunger pangs at midnight. The pancake is fried with meat and vegetables on a large hot plate while simultaneously being chopped up with a cleaver at the open-air kitchen. It is a treat watching it being made because of the clanking of metal. Another iconic dish we used to have is the special mutton biryani, which is ladled out by the platefuls for the locals and tourists alike.”
In this thoonga nagaram (the city that never sleeps), food is available at any time and the list of eateries and dishes is endless.
All pics by Susheela Nair.
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer and photographer contributing articles, content and images to several national publications besides organising seminars and photo exhibitions. Her writings span a wide spectrum which also includes travel portals and guide books, brochures and coffee table books.