Madurai is known for its sumptuous traditional food and its people love to eat. Ariane Lecuyer delves into the diets of Madurai residents to find out what they eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and their much loved snacks in between
“Madurai is famous for its temple, its jasmine flowers and, of course, its food” said A.Dhilip Bernard, 30, manager of the Sunshine Hotel. Indeed, here in Madurai, the food is available anytime and anywhere. When some shops close, some others will open, giving a constant spicy and intoxicating aroma to the city. It’s as though the city never sleeps, offering a neverending array of food for each meal and every taste.
Nevertheless, restaurants and food stalls in Madurai must follow a strict schedule of dishes served at particular times if they want to be successful, a schedule imposed by the people of the city. So just what do they eat and when?
A light breakfast
In my home country of France, breakfast is always sweet. We have jam toast, muesli, juice, and other sweet tasting dishes. My first breakfast in India was therefore a big surprise and I still remember it fondly: Upma. This tasty semolina is one of the most popular dishes for breakfast in Madurai, and most families eat it at least once a week.
“After a small breakfast, Maduraiites are always hungry at around 11.00am It’s the perfect time to leave the workplace for a few minutes, to take a break and have tea or coffee”
Nevertheless, if a dish has to win the competition, it would surely be… the simple idli! These little disc-like rice delicacies are the heart of Madurai cuisine. “I’m personally fond of idli,” enthused Sumant Khanna, the Gateway Hotel Sales Manager. Even if he could eat an extraordinary breakfast everyday at his restaurant, he still likes the traditional idli. This dish is eaten at any time of the day but is particularly good in the morning because it’s easy to digest.
The dosa is also a dish served at anytime of the day, but eaten a lot for breakfast. Most of the time, basic restaurants will only sell idli and dosa for breakfast since they are the most popular. There are a lot of different varieties, from the plain dosa to the pineapple rava dosa. However, it seems people here prefer the simple, but tasty, masala dosa.
To these three popular breakfast choices, we can add: poori, aappam, idiyappam, adai, paniyaram, pongal and kesari.
“People don’t have the time to eat breakfast, it’s not an important meal for us,” said Mrs. Kumar from Kumar Mess. For example, Mrs. Kumar still hasn’t eaten anything at 3.00p.m., and it’s like this everyday.
Because of this, Kumar Mess feels that the breakfast trade would not be profitable, and so they don’t open in the mornings. One of the most common breakfasts for workers will be at a street food corner while waiting for the bus.
First tea break
After a small breakfast, Maduraiites are always hungry around 11.00am. It’s the perfect time to leave the workplace for a few minutes, to take a break and have tea or coffee.
At Moolakarai bus station, a food chariot operated by M.Kamarutheen and his two sons sells sweet aappam, vadai, and masala vadai. In the afternoons, they sell samosa. They said that 90 percent of people will go for two vadais and a tea. They are open from 7.00am to 3.00pm, but he assured us that his busiest time is around 11.00am.
According to R. Murgesan, a coffee seller at Pasumalai, it’s mostly people working in the local area who come to him just to have a break. For the last 35 years, he has had regular customers coming from the bank, nearby shops and also the Madurai Messenger team!
Vadai and dal vadai are surely the most popular snacks for this morning break. Nevertheless, some people would prefer the healthy option, the sweet and cheaper one - bananas. Sale of bananas at this time of the day is generally good.To this we can add: bun halwa, paniyaram, bonda and all other kinds of vadais.
A satisfying lunch
In Madurai, there is one thing that has reigned for decades and will probably never change: the lunch thali. This traditional meal, normally served on a banana leaf, includes a large portion of white rice with sambar, rasam and curd. With all the different sambars available, this meal is enjoyed by most people.
Wide choices of side dishes are usually available. Some diners eat soup, others prefer boiled vegetables, or even fried vegetables. Curd is an important part of thali, especially curd rice, which is eaten at the end of the meal to aid digestion. There is no better way for Maduraiites to fill their stomachs and ensure they have all the energy needed to work for the rest of the day.
Closely following in popularity is the famous biryani. “People here are crazy for biryani,” said Ashok Kumar, head chef at the Taj restaurant at the Gateway Hotel in Pasamulai.
Kumar Mess restaurant has to prepare it four times a day, and sell an incredible amount of 600 plates each day. Biryani comes in many different varieties: Mutton, chicken, vegetables or eggs. This spicy rice meal is also the traditional dish served for celebrations such as weddings and birthdays. For Mrs. Kumar it’s definitely the “traditional meal.”
Because of the heat, people sometimes don’t feel like having hot tea or coffee after their lunch. At this time of the day, they mostly prefer to go for Jigarthanda. Nobody can say if it’s more a drink or a dessert, but as Amanulla, the owner of the famous Jigarthanda Shop said, “It’s Madurai’s specialty.”
This mix of basundi, milk, ice cream, syrup and china grass was created by the father’s owner. Today, their popularity extends all over Tamil Nadu, and they serve this delicious fresh drink to an average of 1,000 customers a day.
Second tea time
Between 5.00pm and 7.00pm, people can finally stop work and come back home. While waiting for the bus or walking home, it’s the perfect time to stop for five minutes for another tea. It’s mostly the same shops as in the morning, but they serve a different food for the afternoon.
Here people will mostly go for the popular samosa or bajji. The samosa is made with potatoes, onions, curry leaves and masala. Because of this, it is a bit too spicy and heavy for the morning, but perfect for a little afternoon hunger. It’s easy to make. It originates from the North of India and is a popular snack all over India and around the world.
Another bite before bed
At home with the family or out at the restaurant, dinner is a special meal to share. The biryani is a popular choice again. But the real contender and most popular meal is parotta, usually served in pairs with a vegetarian sambar or non-vegetarian curry. A lot of people eat vegetarian because of their religion. Meat eating Hindus will not eat meat if they are going to the temple on that particular day. And vegetarianism is even catching on for those simply seeking healthier options.
However, “People in Madurai love meat,” said Ashok Kumar of The Gateway Hotel. Mutton and chicken are the most popular with diners, and fish is also enjoyed, with the sea not being so far away.
Apparently, Maduraiites are especially fond of crab, which is a healthy and tasty option. Everyday in Kumar Mess, 65 kilograms of mutton, 30 kilograms of fish and 25 kilograms of crab are cooked. This sounds like a lot, and this is just one restaurant! Maduraiites must be fond of their meat.
Parottas have an eminent status in Madurai. Venkatesh from Projects Abroad, confessed that he has to have parottas three times a week because he loves it so much. However, it’s true that some other breads like chapati, naan, kulcha etc. will also be frequently served for dinner.
“I can recognise Maduraiites just by looking at their order,” said Balakrishnan, head chef of the Sunshine Hotel. Traditional food is still deeply anchored in Madurai. Of course, some people, especially the younger generation, will sometimes go for a Western dish. But even in international cuisine, the most popular one here is Chinese because it uses some spices which are similar to Indian food.
Having met all sorts of people in Madurai to find out what they eat, I found a recurring theme: Everyone said that whenever they were away from Madurai, they missed their beloved idli, biryani and parotta!
Madurai is a city that is proud of its food culture Whether it’s their snacks through the day, dining out or cooking at home, eating is an important and much loved part of their day.