With her obvious love of food, Marie McEvoy lets her appetite lead her on a culinary journey of Madurai. From traditional fare to Western influences, from high-end restaurants to street side stalls, from healthy choices to indulgent snacks, she embraces a city of discerning tastes that thrives with delicious offerings around the clock
Madurai is not just a famous temple city; it’s a foodie’s fantasy. Roads buzz with a strip of fluorescent-lit shops and stalls providing tasty night-time sustenance for rickshaw drivers, cab drivers, and anyone else who happens to be up at odd hours with an empty stomach. Oil sizzles in large pans from morning until dusk and late into the night. Piping hot tawas play host to giant crispy dosas and buttery parothas. It is the city that never sleeps, but always eats.
Spicy yet aromatic, South Indian cooking is said to be spicier than in the North, and is mainly vegetarian, with heavy use of flavours such as coconut and cardamom. Indian breads mostly have their roots in the North – naan, chapati, kulcha and roti all originate from states a little further up the country – but puri and parotta are Southern creations. Breads are a large part of Indian culinary life—chefs K.Suresh, 24, A,Silambarasan, 22, and M.Shankar, 26, have been making their favourite, parotta, for nearly six years after learning at a catering college, and eating it since childhood. “I would only eat packaged bread if I was sick and couldn’t cook,” Shankar said. Parotta is mainly eaten as part of dinner; heavier rice dishes are saved for lunch, to balance out a lighter breakfast and evening meal.
"The recipes are 1000-2000 years old. So successful is the scheme that it serves between 100 and 300 people most nights, and up to 400 on Sundays"
The cuisine available in Madurai is vast, ranging from high end, where more Western dishes feature, to the standard snack fare at every roadside stall and bus station.
Rice, lentils and vegetables are the common staples in Tamil Nadu – but there were other grains and pulses before these.
At Uzhavan Unavagam (Farmers Eatery), opened in September 2011, there has been a push towards the revival of traditional food and culture.
This restoration of Tamil Nadu food comes courtesy of former Madurai Collector U. Sagayam, IAS. Open between the hours of 4.00pm and 9.00pm daily, it holds ten stalls, allotted to farmers who cook traditional recipes. Without a trace of irony, they want to bring this healthier lifestyle to the rich and middle class city dwellers.
Everyday staples like dosas and chapatis are made with multigrain rice flour, pearl millet, soya and ragi. Importantly, they don’t use maida. “There are more calories in maida,” One of the stall operators, Rajesh, explained. “Maida doesn’t give strength.” Refined flours such as maida are high in carbohydrates, which leads to higher sugar levels in the body. Jaggery is also used as a healthier alternative to sugar.
The recipes are 1000-2000 years old. So successful is the scheme that it serves between 100 and 300 people most nights, and up to 400 on Sundays. It’s a popular place for families to come together and eat. Not only does this centre provide health benefits, but an income to farmers and those living on the poverty line.
V.C. Dhanalakshmi, 57, is a cook at the Eatery from the village of Aruppukottai, who was very poor before she approached the Collector for help. She makes pongal, ragi porridge and dosas, using herbs and leaves (modakathan), and strongly believes in the benefits of the traditional grains and cooking process. Recently she had a bad fall, and although she was treated at a government hospital with allopathic remedies, she felt that eating the dosas with medicinal ingredients helped her to heal. Her back felt better, and she no longer has to walk with a stick.
She makes around 30 – 40 dosas per day fresh on her small burners, as well as Hibiscus soup and thulasi Kashayam, which are thought to be good for coughs and colds. She still eats certain recipes – porridge, dosa, chutneys – from childhood, but others are those she has learnt from her training at a farmer’s college which was organised for her by the Collector. Her lunch recipes still include the staple rice, but smaller grains are used, which have been proven over time to also help control blood sugar.
The methods of growing the crops, and in particular honey production, used by the farmers, have been around, she said, “since people started hunting.”
Josephine, 39, is a honey producer and gooseberry farmer, selling seasonal jamun flower, hill, and multi flower honeys. Honey with gooseberries is not only a natural sweet, but also good for the “normal delivery of babies,” and “to give good milk to the baby for two years.”
Another traditional belief was to give honey to newborns for the first time to improve their life span; something she is trying to spread awareness of again. “We should improve our immune system”, she explained. “This generation’s life span is smaller.”
Uzhavan Unavagam Manager K. Arumugam, 53, volunteers his time at the eatery after his day job as an Agricultural Officer. Every evening at 10.00pm, he reports to the Collector on the success of the evening.
The current set up is in a large hall. Building is already underway to create a more permanent structure for the eatery. K. Arumugam insisted that it is a profitable business, especially for the 10 families and farmers growing the grains in nearby villages. They hope that the concept will continue to grow so that they can expand the business and continue to support the revival of traditional food.
Home and away
This interest in nutritious, home cooked food with additional health benefits has reached even higher end eateries. S. Ashok Kumar, 42, head chef at The Taj Restaurant at the Gateway Hotel in Pasumalai, explained their new regional homestyle menu, which includes urulai roast, the popular vendakkai mandi, and thalis made by their newest member of staff, M. Chamundeshwari Amma, 50. “Madurai is a place where people like local food,” Ashok said. “People feel they want the Madurai flavour.”
Sri Lankan by birth, Amma started cooking fish curry when she was just 10 years old, and has lived in Madurai for 25 years. Until seven months ago, she was a homemaker. She has 40 years of cooking experience, including four years working at home stays in Kuwait, and of course, cooking for her family of four. News of the new chef spread mainly through word of mouth, recommendations, and the new additions to the menu. Orders for thalis can reach up to 20 per afternoon. She works from 11.00am – 4.00pm, preparing the meals completely on her own. Although she keeps the authenticity of her dishes, she adjusts them at the hotel so that they are, “a bit less spicy, with less oil.” But she doesn’t change the ingredients to keep the same taste.
For the last six years they have been running a ‘Chef’s Hat’ section in their dining hall, where customers can create their own dishes, which are then included with their family name in the daily lunchtime buffet. They have started to use only refined, dewaxed oil, such as sunflower oil, and provide a multitude of health conscious breads including roti, multigrain dosas and idli.
Sales Manager Sumant Khanna, 40, said, “It is important for the hotel to support the local population and the local cuisine, as people are more open in their requests for traditional food and healthy food. Awareness is increasing. Everyone wants to be fit and fine.” He believes that people who have been away from home for a long time need ‘simple’ food that they are used to. However, this is not to say that there has been a sudden leap towards traditional food. “Western and continental food is still in demand, as it has less fat and spice, with Chinese a close second.” There is also a surge towards experimentation with Burmese and Thai food now too, and the hotel serves both local and foreign customers.
“There will always be an undying love for the oilier, cheaper street food that they have feasted on for years – vada, dal vada, samosas, bajjis, are all deep fried and affordable”
Head Chef at the Sunshine Hotel, Balakrishnan, 34, has also noticed a pattern in what his customers order, and their motivation behind it. He also believes that you cannot alter the way a traditional dish is cooked if you want to keep it the way it has always been. A lot of people do have non-vegetarian, but on days when they are going to the temple, they order vegetarian dishes.
“A lot of people eat vegetarian food for health and to be fit. It’s also why they eat continental food, because there is less fat. This is the main reason for the popularity of continental food - because Chinese and Indian can’t be prepared without oil. Grilled chicken and grilled fish are the most popular continental dishes served here. People are always too health conscious. Almost 80 percent of people are aware now.” He reports that diners also request to speak to the chef about the food.
But the food served at hotels is notably more expensive than the meals available from locally run street carts, which means that healthier options are not necessarily accessible on a wide scale to Maduraiites. Although, whilst a consciousness of health and counting calories seems to be emerging amongst the public, there will always be an undying love for the oilier, cheaper street food that they have feasted on for years – vada, dal vada, samosas, bajjis, are all deep fried and affordable.
At the front of the Vasantham Hotel and Restaurant in Arapalayam, vada is the most popular snack throughout the day. Between 10.00am and 1.00pm, they are served soaked in sambar, and between 12.00pm and 3.00pm, they are saturated in curd. Patrons eat vada standing up from paper plates with a cup of tea or coffee and some idle chitchat. The busiest time, according to vendor and coffee master Surulinathan, 45, is between 5.00pm and 7.00pm After 4.00pm, fattier, heavier snacks such as banana and deep fried chili bajjis glisten on grease-soaked newspaper, providing a stopgap between finishing work and having a late dinner at home. These are the sorts of comforting, familiar foods that people recognise, and ones they will automatically make a beeline for.
Lifestyle and time constraints can also play a large part in meal choices. At Moolakarai bus stop, a father and his two sons, M. Kamarutheen, 72, K. Ibrahimsha, 40, and K. Sulthan, 35, have fed hungry passengers and construction workers from 7.00am in the morning until 3.00pm in the afternoon for 15 years. The menu is also simple, yet wildly successful.
As well as the usual breakfast items (without chutneys as they would spoil in the climate), they shallow fry their biggest seller in the afternoon - fresh potato and vegetable samosas. The oil heats to around 100 degrees in 5 minutes, and the small maida pastry parcels conveniently only take all of 2 minutes to cook.
Their turnover is Rs. 3,000 a day, and there have never been any requests for healthier items from customers. Nor have they ever seen the appeal of more continental items like cereal or toast for breakfast themselves. Vadas are M. Kamarutheen’s favourite, and for most other customers, too. Economically, they explained, they are a cheaper, more filling breakfast, wrapped in paper or plastic bags for ease of transportation as patrons hurry to their next destination.
There is, however, street food to satisfy more health-conscious tastes. Carts selling solely sweet corn are popping up all over Madurai in the early evening as an alternative to the neighbouring chaat shops and bonda carts. There are seven ‘Corn Corner’ stations in the city.
M. Pandi, 25, has worked outside the Jayaram Bakery on the TPK Road for two years. The stall sells four flavours of corn: butter corn, which is the biggest seller for children; Italian; pepper ‘n’ lime; and hot chili, which is the most popular with adults.
Even when choosing a wholesome snack, Maduraiites just can’t bear to be without their spice. “People like corn because it’s new and has not been there from the beginning,” M. Pandi said. “It’s healthy food, very sweet, soft, and tasty. There is no oil, and it has been boiled.” Its sales do not mirror those of the traditional street fare, but he says the demand is increasing. “Day by day, it is becoming more popular.” Currently the cart sells around 30 cups of corn a day.
Outside the Rajaji Government hospital, M. Maruthupandi, 39, runs a stall selling idli, dosas, onion oothappam roast and pongal from 7.00am until 10.00pm, turning out nearly 500 items a day at affordable prices to the poor and sick. These are also the things he cooks himself at home. “I wanted to encourage the patients to eat better,” he said. “If you are sick, you should go for idli.”
He doesn’t make other traditional night time items like parotta because of the nature of the customers. “It needs to be healthy for the patients. I can’t do things with oil.” He makes his chutneys simply with coconut, water, salt, dal, and green chilies. “It is all quality, with no side effects,” he explained. Breakfast and dinner are the busiest times, as people visiting the patients usually bring them home made lunches.
Fast food nation?
The Kumar Mess has six restaurant around Madurai. Staunch advocates of South Indian cooking, they have had the same menu of traditional food since 1991, and sell 600 plates a day throughout their branches. Rather than burgers and fries, their only idea of ‘fast food’ is the inclusion of noodles and the ‘chicken lollipop’ two years ago.
“Although it contains no vitamins or minerals, sugar cane juice has been proven to contain antioxidants, potassium, and riboflavin”
Owner Mrs. Kumar, 35, said that this spiced chicken fried on the bone can be picked up easily with one hand and eaten with ease, making it a recurring choice for children.
They sell only fresh juices and water, but there are no ‘healthy’ options. They have not had any requests from those watching their waistlines, and everything is cooked in varying amounts of oil, but Mrs. Kumar believes that traditional food is still the best for a healthy lifestyle. “People like traditional food because it won’t harm the stomach. There is no junk in traditional food,” she continued.
There are North Indian breads sold in just one of the Kumar Mess restaurants. Mainly they dish up mutton, chicken, crab and prawn recipes, as well as vegetarian, using recipes passed on through generations from the grandparents of her husband D. Rama Chandra Kumar, 45. They also cater for functions and weddings, where biryani still reigns supreme.
Taste buds in Madurai are discovering new flavours, and beginning to crave a ‘break’ from the food they have eaten from childhood – or perhaps just a break from cooking.
On a visit to the food court in the Vishaal De Mall, North Madurai, although there was a varied selection of Indian, Chinese and Western food available, Indian and fried chicken were the two most popular meal choices with weary shoppers taking a break to eat.
Professor Anand, who works at Madurai Kamaraj University, was enjoying a pizza in the late afternoon as a late meal, having skipped lunch. Although born in Madurai, and normally opting for the usual biryani, dosas and idli, he has been exposed to more Continental food than most because he lived in the US for a while.
“Although I read in many magazines to avoid junk food like pizza, I take it because it’s different,” he said. “I eat Western food only occasionally. I eat traditional food almost daily.” He avoids aerated drinks, tries to eat fruit daily, and often cooks at home.
Professor Anand explained his mentality behind traditional cooking. “It is an extra strain to learn how to make Western food.” Explaining that there is a reassurance in making the foods you know, he continued, “At celebrations we only eat traditional food. At parties we take continental food too.”
No wonder Madurai never sleeps, when on every street there are the ubiquitous hot drink stalls, and often juice bars, where watching them prepare your beverage before your eyes is half the experience.
Tamil Nadu has many tea plantations, but coffee seems to be the prevailing brew. Coffee stall owner R. Murugesan, 52, has run his bustling stall on the T.P.K Road for 35 years. He sells home-cooked breakfast goods to go with the drinks, and for all manner of sweet-toothed desires, he provides a choice of fresh bananas and a selection of biscuits and sugary snacks.
Biscuit and banana sales are on a par, he said. People tend to buy bananas for breakfast and lunch more than any other time. Sometimes they will have them with tea or coffee, or just take them away with them for a filling bite to eat later. He has sold them since the shop opened, “Because they are healthy,” he said. He himself eats a banana every day.
A popular traditional roadside drink is sugarcane juice, where heavy duty rolling machines extract the sweet liquid. Although it contains no vitamins or minerals, sugar cane juice has been proven to contain antioxidants, potassium, and riboflavin. It’s a wiser choice for diabetic patients due to its low glycemic index, and boasts rehydrating properties that are good for summer months. About 15 percent is natural sugar, and it’s fast becoming a popular choice for celebratory functions.
The CaneCan shop, opposite the Hotel Germanus in Kalavasal, Madurai, sells between 300 – 500 cups per occasion. “It is good to have something sweet during weddings,” worker Aravindswamy, 16, explained. Although the juice is on offer with several different natural flavours, the most popular drink is the imported ‘pulpy’ sugarcane juice, flavoured with strawberry.
There tends to be an energy slump in workers between 11.00am and 12.00pm, a time when the shop serves the most customers, and street stalls experience their ‘rush hour’. Sugarcane vendor, Sangu Krishnan, 30, has been selling the juice for 15 years. His juice is all-natural, using only the extracted liquid, ginger, and a squeeze of lime. He drinks it every day when he feels tired or thirsty. “Even doctors recommend it as being good for health. It separates the wastage in the blood,” he said. It is also believed to be a treatment for smallpox.
A less nutritionally beneficial, yet famous and tasty Madurai speciality is Jigarthanda, the traditional drink of the city. Keelavasal is the home of the Famous Jigarthanda Shop, which has established itself over 40 years as the provider of the drink-dessert hybrid made of ice cream, basil leaf, milk, syrup, and China grass (also known as ‘agar’ which is derived from seaweed and said to be full of fibre). Owner Amanulla, 28, took over from his father, Sheak Meeran, who changed the taste of Jigarthanda with his additional ingredients to create the current version, after working as an ice-cream vendor in Madurai.
The shop uses 50 kilograms of sugar a day, so, whilst not the best choice for diabetics, they make their own ice cream and add no essences or chemicals. The shop’s long history and reputation ensures that they have between 300 and 400 repeat customers. Customer Mohammed, 45, said, “It is a little healthy. It usually uses home made ice cream and other cool items.”
Weather is a dynamic that affects sales. In the summer, they sell 1,000 glasses a day, but figures dip when it is cold or rainy. Maduraiites place great emphasis on drinks that reduce body temperature. Even Sangu Krishnan said that he only sells sugarcane juice for six months during the heat wave, before returning to his agricultural job for the rest of the year.
Rose milk is another common drink, often prepared at home, with syrups or powder, sugar, and milk. Availability in restaurants fluctuates, and it is rarely sold at roadside stalls. S.K. Nazir Ahmed, 39, from the Park Plaza Hotel, said that visitors to the restaurant are looking more to lassis, milkshakes, and healthier options, and see rose milk as containing too many chemicals and essences. “It is very rare that they ask for it,” he said, although he mentioned that he drinks it at home.
T. C. Ganesh, 42, from the Hotel Supreme, remarked that rose milk, although still on the menu, has fallen by the wayside in favour of other drinks such as blassam – a mix of pomegranate juice (rich in antioxidants and used for weight control) and vanilla ice cream. “Tastes and preferences have changed,” he said. “Although some people do still ask for rose milk.” On the other hand, S. Chandran, 62, at the Shiram Mess, said that they haven’t served it since the place opened in 1962.
The future is brighter, not wider
Although there is now more variety of food and drinks for Maduraiites to sink their teeth into than ever before, this city will never lose its culinary roots. It has just opened itself up to more outside influences, and become a little more conscious of its waist line.
Traditional food will be around as long as people are there to consume it, whether in their homes or when eating out. Opting for healthier dishes does not necessarily mean they are shunning the food of their people; if anything, Maduraiites are just hoping to live to indulge a little longer, as only they can.