What to drink in Madurai

When you do the simplest of searches on Madurai you come up with the unexpected word jigarthanda. “Cold heart” may be an exact translation, but I decided that “Soul soother” captures the meaning better. There are many recipes which you can find, but most agree that you need ice cream, almond gum (badam pisin) and nannari sharbat. Nannari is sarsaparilla. I could not figure out a Hindi name for it, so I don’t know whether it is used in north India.

Jigarthanda was as interesting as it was billed to be. But for a resident of Mumbai it was not a surprise; everyone will recognize it as a falooda. Is it exactly the same as a falooda? Perhaps not, and the need to make taste comparisons can keep your soul happy.

The other specialty of Madurai is the bottled drink called Bovonto. We saw this on the beaches of Pamban, but the bottles weren’t terribly well chilled. We waited until we were on its home ground to order a bottle with a lunch. And then we ordered a second.

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Banana going

The defining craze of Tamil Nadu is definitely bananas, as I found out when I blogged about bananas in Chennai. A helpful fellow blogger left me with the common names of a few varieties: mala pazham, poovam pazham, rasthali, yelakki,karpooravalli, pachai vaazha pazham, nenthram. Pazham is the Tamil word for fruit.

Walking around Madurai it was not uncommon to see cartloads of bananas being pedaled past you. I managed to catch one of these carts piled high with what I assume would be called pachai vaazha pazham, ie, green fruits. This time I gave in to curiosity and checked up the web site of the National Horticultural Board. Tamil Nadu is reported to grow 11 varieties of bananas, second only to Assam, which grows 13 varieties! Here are the ones grown in Tamil Nadu: Virupakshi, Robusta, red banana, Poovan, Rasthali, Nendran, Monthan, Karpuravalli, Sakkai, Peyan, Matti. Of these Robusta is a common cultivar worldwide. The rest seem to be fairly local. I say fairly, because several of these are grown also in the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Kerala.

I see a few names common between the list I got from a reader and the list from the NHB. The small banana which often rounds off a meal is either the Poovan or the Rasthali. Either could be commonly called yelakki. Some of the varieties grown in Tamil Nadu are not eaten uncooked. I wonder which they are.

Great food you won’t see on Instagram

I love the ritual of eating on a banana leaf: sprinkling just enough water over it to clean it without drenching it. I’d just cleaned the leaf which was put in front of us when we sat down in Kumar’s Mess in Madurai. Before I could look at the menu, one of the waiters came by with fried meat balls and asked whether I would like some. That’s a no-brainer. I took the default, so did The Family and Sathiamoorthy.

Earlier, when I told Sathiamoorthy that I would like to have my first lunch in Madurai at Kumar’s, he seemed very happy. It seemed to be a place he was fond of. You had to climb a flight of stairs to the restaurant. At the bottom of the stairs some printouts advertising the day’s special were pinned to a board. They looked interesting. Turkey is already more variety than you would find in most restaurants in Mumbai. When I looked at the menu I was blown away: rabbit, dove, and quail! This is in addition to Tamil Nadu’s special fishes: airai and nettheli. We were in for a treat, clearly.

The Family and I agreed to start with an order of rabbit. Sathiammorthy asked for nandu, Tamil for crab. We were halfway through the rabbit before I realized that I was supposed to take photos of what we ate. This food was incredibly flavourful, but that does not translate to great visuals. You are unlikely to see really great Instagram shots of Chettinad food. The typical good kitchen is focused on flavours and ingredients; presentation is not a winning point.

A very friendly waiter hovered around us. After he told us about the rabbit chukka (chukka turns out to be the local word for a dry preparation, possibly derived from the Hindi sukha) he guided us through the rest of the menu. There were the intriguing fish dosai. The Family made an instant decision when she noticed this. The previous incarnations which I’ve dispatched were all thin crepes wrapped around fish, looking just like any other dosai. This one was the thick pancake which you see in the photo above. Wonderfully redolent of fish, but a surprise in the way it was put together.

Having read any number of breathless blogs about kothu porotta in Madurai, I couldn’t possibly pass up the version with mutton. I was surprised again by the look of what I got. It looked more like a farmer’s omelette, and was quite as heavy. My visions of working through the menu were clearly fantasy, if these were regular servings. After working our way though the kothu porotta and fish dosai, I had to turn down Sathiamoorthy’s generous offer of sharing a crab. Everything I’d tasted was wonderful, including the buttermilk with which we washed down our food.

I didn’t have enough days to try out everything, but it was already clear that what passes for Chettinad food in Chennai is a pale shadow of this. Madurai is food heaven if you want to taste Tamil food.

Food in Aryaman Beach

Around the parking lot in Aryaman beach are food stalls. I strolled around the perimeter looking at the choices available. We’d planned on eating at the beach, after the previous day’s spectacular lunch prepared by fishermen in Dhanushkodi. There were the obligatory few ice cream vendors. As you can see in the photo below, they weren’t doing much business. Elsewhere people were just setting up their make-shift stalls and cleaning out pots and pans. It looked like it was too early in the day for customers to turn up.

On one edge of the parking lot someone had already started frying fish. I liked the roof: a canvas hoarding for a movie would lead a zombie life here providing shade (photo below). No coal fire in this stall; the cook was using wood. He’d probably just collected it from the area around him, because the wood was not completely dry. The fire sputtered a little, and produced quite a bit of smoke. The fish sizzled in hot oil. Any time is fried fish time I suppose, but maybe not just before you get into the water. There didn’t seem to be a cooler full of fish with these guys, so either they just shut down their shop when the fish on display was sold, or they got fresh supplies from local fishermen.

Fishing boats were drawn up on the beach. Fishing nets had dried and were bundled up next to the boats. Maybe they fish at night here, like the fisherfolk in Mumbai. We walked along the beach and came across two men washing cleaned fish in the waters of the Palk straits. Sathiamoorthy had many questions for them while I took photos. In the featured photo you can see how gentle the slope of the beach is. Sathiamoorthy summarized the long conversation for us. These were not fishermen, but they’d bought the pan full of fish from the morning’s landing. They are preparing for people who’ll appear for lunch. There wasn’t much choice of catch here, so we decided to drive on.

Snacking on a beach

Across the world there’s always food on the beach. Ice cream is a standard, and Dhanushkodi was no exception. No stalls or trucks, though. Ice cream was served out of the back of a three wheeler along this beach. I liked the attention to fashion that this ice cream man showed. The haircut is copied from Virat Kohli, the captain of the Indian cricket team, and so is the body language. He’d just shown the kid his place for asking for a flavour he did not have. He wasn’t put off at not having made a sale. But then Kohli is not very put off by not winning a match.

What The Family and I couldn’t have enough of was the other staple on this beach: slices of cucumber, pineapple and watermelon, with a dash of powdered red chili sprinkled over them. The beach was lined with women selling these long slices in paper cups. The cucumber and melon was grown on the island, we were told, but the pineapple comes from inland. On a hot day on the beach, the juicy fruits with their jolt of sugar and chili were addictive.

For stress

We were delayed getting from Madurai to Rameswaram. The hotel called us and suggested that we have dinner on the way, since their restaurant would be closed by the time we reached. Sathiamoorthy knew just the right place. A market place had grown up at a crossing of highways outside Ramanathapuram, and it had this one special restaurant which was so busy that it had to be good.

We looked at the day’s menu written out on large whiteboards arranged around the restaurant. This was no ordinary short-order kitchen. It had a herbal soup “for stress”. Elsewhere there was a list of utthapas which they make. I’ve always wondered about the fiber content of Tamil food. A misplaced concern, at it turned out. The leaves in the utthapas probably make up a significant portion of it. They looked interesting, but it seems that we had arrived too late for this bit of interesting food. Unfortunately I don’t read Tamil, so I didn’t know what the Tamil words describe. There’s clearly enough traffic here from across the country that a large part of the menu is written in the Roman script.

Sathiamoorthy ordered a “meal”. We looked at the plate: three vegetables, four kinds of lentils, yogurt and a rice and milk sweet! This looked very good, but perhaps it was too large a meal at the end of a day in which we’d spent ten hours sitting in various forms of transport. We loved the presentation, with the banana leaf over the plate. The Family decided that she wanted something much smaller. The waiter rattled off a list of “tiffin items”, and she chose a familiar dosa. That’s the one in the featured photo.

I dithered. The waiter went off to place the other orders, and came back with Sathiamoorthy’s meal. I went for a north Indian style combination of south Indian elements: a porotta and mushroom 65. I have no idea what makes something 65; and it seems that even Wikipedia hedges its bets, although it traces the name back to Chicken 65. TV quiz shows have nailed their colours to one of these stories, and I suspect that it will become the real history by popular choice. “South Indian porotta”, the waiter warned. I nodded assent; I love this variety.The thick, flaky, hot spiral of porotta which you see in the photo above was everything I’d imagined. Stress was thing of the past.

Hacked Ichthyoids

Just a few days ago, someone passed around an old Calvin and Hobbes strip in which Calvin has a newspaper article about his mother making fish for dinner with the headline Knife wielding mother hacks Ichtyoid! Family devours victim!. So when I spotted fishermen’s shacks in Dhanushkodi, the meme was fresh in my head as I shared lunch plans with our extended family.


You 09:45 More murdered ichthyoids!

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

A 09:55 Brutal

 
 

B 10:02 😝
Did they find their way to your tummy yet?

 
 

You 11:32 Soon. We pre-ordered today’s catch.

 
 

B 11:34 👍👍😊
Enjoy

 
 

 
 


You 12:01 Fresh victims

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

B 12:02 👍

 
 

C 12:02 Were they given a respecful burial?
Inside you?

 
 

You 12:03 No trace remains

 
 

C 12:03 Way to go

 
 


You 12:06 OMG!
Preserved dead bodies.
Are we in Hannibal Lecter country?

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

B 12:13 Dried fish 😖 😖

 
 

A 12:14 Silence of the Ichthyoids.
I will pray for the murderers.
Going to a Ganapati puja

 
 

 
 

B 12:17 😝 😝

 
 

 
 

You 12:20 👍

One meter of coffee, please

Everything had gone well. We missed all traffic in Mumbai because we had to reach the airport in the middle of the morning on a holiday. It was the beginning of the Ganesh festival, but it was too early for crowds. The flight was on time. Sathiamoorthy was waiting for us at the airport in Madurai with his car: a clean and well-maintained little thing, just right for the two of us at the back. We were on the highway almost immediately.

Before I was prepared for anything to happen, I saw one of the odd sights that trips usually hand you: an elephant riding a truck. I fumbled for my phone and took a bad shot as we passed by. What was it doing on a truck. Tame elephants just walk from one place to another. Maybe this was being taken too far away for a half day’s walk. It didn’t look unhappy with its situation. We zipped along, and I was fairly sure that we would reach Rameswaram in three hours, just after sunset.

Our luck ran out soon, as we hit a road block. Tamil Nadu has been in a political turmoil recently, with two major party leaders dying. Parties have to keep spirits up in such situations. One party had a campaign in which workers cycled from village to village. They were going to use the same route that we planned to use; so the roadblock. We had to wait until the whole cavalcade passed. The police and the political workers were a friendly lot, so I managed to take some photos.

The Family decided to make use of the stop to get some coffee. Right at the crossing there was a small highway food stall. The usual small snacks, tea, and coffee were available. I looked at the goodies on display and got a hundred grams of wonderfully crisp ragi murukku to go with the coffee. The filter coffee is always the star of the show in Tamil Nadu, and this place was no disappointment. The piping hot coffee was poured into a small cup in a meter long stream for each of us. The aroma, the sweet milky taste, and the jolt of caffeine wake you into the beginning of a holiday.

Unfortunately we were delayed by a couple of hours between the roadblock and a detour. We reached Rameswaram late.

A simple life

My needs are simple: a nice beach, good sun*, clean sand**, food and drink. Other simple needs include: being far from home***, a clean and comfortable bed to sleep in, enough plug points to charge my phone, laptop, and camera, a good breakfast, reasonable wifi****, fresh fish, good coffee, a nice aromatic tea*****, lots of water to drink. Simple really. That’s all. I do appreciate a lack of mosquitoes and other biting insects, a shower whenever I feel hot, nice people******. Not too much to ask for, is it?

But I would give that all up for an interesting photo. This shack on Dhanushkodi beach had nice coffee and great chiaroscuro. Later, walking along the beach I stopped at the play of light and shadow on a piece of driftwood. No crab poked a head out of their bolt holes.


(*) Remember the sunscreen.
(**) Hold the plastic.
(***) But with a comfortable connection without too many layovers.
(****) That can’t be hard, can it?
(*****) Make that hot, please. I hate cold tea.
(******) The kind who read, like, or comment on your blogs are the best

Preserving ancient grains

I visited The Traveler, an old friend who I’d lost touch with, and met his wife, The Glittering, for the first time. She is very deeply into preserving old grains. That’s something The Family and I are also interested in, although not in a practical and hands on fashion. So we spent a long and pleasant evening listening to her experiences. There was an interesting story behind the millets which you can see in the featured photo. The Traveler said that he’d been trying to help his wife grow millets for a while, but they would always be eaten up by birds before they could be harvested.

The Glittering continued the story and told us how she met a farmer who had a few stalks of heavily bearded millet. Birds found it difficult to peck at the grains through the beard. He gave her half a stalk to plant. The year that she planted it she was very careful, keeping watch on the patch constantly. Everything that she’d planted grew, and she harvested more than a kilo of the foxtail millets. She put all of it back into the ground the next year, and now she has a continuing stock.

What is the Hindi word for this grain? The Family thought it must be ragi or nachni, but The Traveler pointed out that these are probably words for finger millet. Pearl millet is called bajra. A little search threw up two unfamiliar Hindi words for foxtail millet: kangni or kakum. So these are known, but as the grains have fallen out of use, their names are also slowly being forgotten.

This is her method. Find seeds of grain, plant some, and keep planting it. Preservation is use, according to her, not just a seed vault buried in a frozen but warming continent. She showed us this rice. “No smell,” she said. I sniffed at it, and thought I could get a mild sweet smell from it. The Family got no aroma. The Glittering said that she found this from a farmer who had just a little of it to spare. “How much land to you set aside for each?” I asked. She said, “Very little. I own a very small piece of land.” We decided to go and look at it another time when we come by.

Seeing our interest, she brought out a different variety of rice. “I grew up eating this,” she told us, “but it cannot be found in shops any more.” She spent seasons looking for it, and only found it deep in the interior of a tribal area in Chhattisgarh. The soil and weather are very different there, she told us. It took a while for her to figure out how to grow this rice, but now she has a continuing crop, and grows enough to keep a year’s supply at home.

We had no idea how much grain she would consider sufficient until The Family asked whether we could get some of it. The Glittering said “I don’t have enough to give you any this year.” She promised to send us ten kilos the next. This was not what The Family meant, and they had a laugh when she said she wanted only a kilo. We are light eaters, and a kilo of this variety to rice added to all the others we have collected could well be eaten over three months. Viable farming, on the other hand, means several tens of kilos of yield just to continue the grain.

The Glittering said that she’d started with sorghum, jawar in Hindi. The Family has been eating jawar rotis for years, and I’ve grown to prefer those to wheat because of the interestingly different taste. The rotis turn out thicker, so one has to resist the temptation to eat more. We saw the grain that The Glittering grows: a nice dark shade. She had enough of it to share. We are now looking forward to visiting her farm. There’s such a variety of grains which have fallen out of use, and are only grown in forgotten little pockets. They add many different tastes to meals, and deserve to be brought back.