Goodbye to Madurai

Madurai shares with cities like Patna, Banaras, Ujjain and Mathura, the distinction of being among the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. I use the word city quite deliberately here, because in every era, starting about 2700 to 2500 years ago, when travelers describe these places, they are called cities.

Although I’d spent a while living in Chennai, I’d not explored Tamil Nadu much. The heart of the Tamil cultural landscape, Madurai, was a whole new experience, and one that I realized I could grow to love. Some of the reasons are the food you get in Madurai. I’ve written about Chettinad food already. Here is another example: a signboard that might be hard to find in Chennai, and, increasingly, in the rest of India: “Sri Balaji Evening Mutton Stall”.

The street food of Madurai has to be tasted to be believed. The Family and I have fond memories of idli and vada with sambar and three kinds of chutney in a little hole in the wall in the old town called “Murugan’s Ildi Shop”, laddu and murukku from a stall inside the Meenakshi temple, coffee and biscuits at numerous stalls across the city, not to mention two wonderful lunches at two different “messes”. In the photo above you see a place where Sathiamoorthy took us to taste Tirunalveli halwa, a mildly sweet and oily halwa wrapped in banana leaves. Many blogs advised us not to miss this, and we are happy to pass on the recommendation.

Part of the fun in Madurai was having Sathiamoorthy drive us up to places we would not have thought to try eating in. We have seldom had the luck to travel with a driver like him.

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.