Burma Idiyappam, the city’s first and most famous idiyappam eatery was established in 1960 by S. Petchiammal, an Indian woman from Burma. Today, the successful business is managed by Devika, her daughter. Ellie Daniel fondly hopes that the next generation of the family-run business will expand into England, where the delectable dish of steamed noodles and coconut will be available early mornings when a slice of toast is just not enough!
Situated opposite the Christian Mission Hospital in the heart of Madurai, Burma Idiyappam may be just a tiny eatery, but it bustles with vibrant energy. A practiced system of jovial yet focused, business-like workers process and steam noodles, grind coconut and serve jostling customers. Nestled amongst mountains of fresh, steaming, white rice noodles sits M. Devika, the owner of the restaurant. Devika greeted me with an enthusiastic smile, as she proudly explained the workings of her flourishing business, of which she has been the chief entrepreneur for the past 20 years.
Devika talked about the intriguing history behind her family-run business. She inherited the restaurant from her mother, S. Petchiammal, who relocated from Burma (hence the appropriate name of the shop) to Madurai in 1960. As a mother of 10 children, she needed a means of supporting her family. Devika described how, “The only work she knew was making idiyappam.” And so, Madurai’s first roadside idiyappam stall was born.
Devika has been developing the business ever since. Now, it is a fully fledged restaurant, feeding hungry Maduriites breakfast and dinner for a small price. The success of the initiative has led to a number of further restaurants being established in competition. Devika explained that there are now five rival restaurants in Madurai, although she is the owner of only this one restaurant.
I consider this quirky little business as India’s alternative to the fast food shops I am used to in my native England, open early in the morning (6.00am-10.00am) and late at night (5.00pm-11.00pm), with peak hours between 8.00pm and 11.00 pm.
The restaurant offers dishes for a mere Rs.6 each, which can be instantly procured. It takes just 30 minutes to produce 150 pieces. The meal can either be taken away for consumption later. Or, if you’re like me and unable to wait, it can be enjoyed in front of the restaurant, served on a banana leaf and eaten by hand. Eating noodles minus cutlery, without making a huge mess requires some technique. I was relieved when I was offered a cup of water with which to rinse my hands following my plate of freshly cooked idiyappam!
In contrast to the greasy and unhealthy fast food joints I am accustomed to, Burma idiyappam offers something significantly more wholesome. I witnessed the idiyappam, which is essentially rice noodles, being steamed fresh in front of my eyes. As a customer, you can observe exactly what is involved in the production process and what ingredients are used. Idiyappam is steam cooked without oil, and is comprised only of rice, coconut milk, coconut pieces, and sugar. It is therefore considered a healthy meal. It can also be accompanied with vegetarian gravy for a different flavour.
For Devika, the health benefits of her dish are its main attraction. Unlike many traditional Indian dishes, she explained, “It doesn’t have any negative effects on the body or create any disease.” It does not raise cholesterol, being steam cooked, and this for her is what makes Idiyappam really special.
Personally, however, the health benefits were overshadowed by the taste of the dish! I was initially somewhat skeptical as to how something with such a basic recipe would taste, expecting it to be somewhat bland or unsatisfying. As someone who struggles with spices but has a very sweet tooth, idiyappam presents a famous Madurai dish which is ideal for me. A perplexing mix of savoury and sweet, I was pleasantly surprised by the tropical taste.
And it seems that I am not the only one who appreciates its taste. Indeed, Devika described how the restaurant caters to many VIPs, including politicians and actors, who, according to Devika, regularly frequent her shop. Burma Idiyappam produces 1000 pieces daily, a figure which is testament to the popularity of the dish. Amusingly, Devika’s favourite food is of course, idiyappam with coconut milk and coconut.
Although a roaring success in Madurai, according to Devika, the dish has not yet spread outside the city. Devika hopes to see idiyappam enjoyed across Tamil Nadu and perhaps even beyond, in the near future. Her children are currently studying engineering and she hopes that one day, one of them will succeed her in sustaining Burma Idiyappam and expanding the business.
I am also personally eager to see the business spread; hoping that at some point it will find its way over to England so that, like the Maduraiites, I too can enjoy idiyappam at 6.00am on those mornings when a slice of toast just isn’t enough!