The chef at The Gateway Hotel, Madurai, looks grim as he tells me about a guest who ate a dosa by the roadside and returned to the hotel in raptures, claiming the taste was unmatchable. The chef made his way there the next day. He says, “I had to agree with him. It was a truly great dosa. And this is the sort of thing I’m up against all the time. There is so much variety, so many places selling good food at such low prices. How can we keep up?”
The writer beginning a food piece on Madurai looks grim for the same reasons. Madurai is one of India’s oldest continuously inhabited cities — two-and-a-half thousand years in recorded history and probably older. In that time it has found itself in contact with many cultures, represented in the numerous cuisines and endless variations in food. No classification, no system, will tame this profusion. So one might as well dive in.
First, the stereotypes. As friends asked me: isn’t Madurai food just a lot of idli-dosa? It’s not. But they do have excellent idli and dosa. The idli as we now know it — fermentation primed by a mixture of rice and urad, steamed to a white softness — probably came into being in these parts around a thousand years ago with some help from Indonesia. With all that practice, idlis in Madurai are as white and soft as they get. Renowned for its idlis — served with coconut, tomato, coriander and pudina chutneys — is Murugan Idli Shop (0452-2341379) on West Masi Street, the original branch of a chain that now extends to Chennai and Singapore. Murugan Idli started some forty years back as a roadside shop, and there are still plenty of those, as well as ‘platforms’ — pushcarts — all serving idli and dosa with their own combination of chutneys and sambar.
The sixty-five-year-old Modern Restaurant (2344487) on Netaji Road serves a delightful combination of adai (like a dosa, but with lentils) with avial in the evenings. (The adai, from mention in Sangam literature, was apparently a popular snack here even in the early part of the first millennium AD.) Other ‘pure’ vegetarian restaurants in this part of town, close to the temple, are the funkily named but oldest of the lot, Neww College House (2342971-79) on Town Hall Road, seventy-five years old, stately and spacious; and in the vicinity, Anna Meenakshi and Sree Sabarees (4379037). All these places serve perfectly respectable idli, vada, varieties of dosa, pongal, coffee, and a meal consisting of a heap of rice with vegetables, rasam, sambar, curd and buttermilk on a plantain leaf. It’s difficult to run up a bill of more than Rs 100 per person in any of these places. By way of sweets these places will serve rava kesari and sweet pongal. Nearby is ‘halwa chakravarti’ Lala Kadai handing out leaves filled with the dark gloop of Tirunelveli halwa for Rs 7. All these sweets seem mere pretexts for packing unconscionable amounts of ghee.
At the higher-end hotels, we decide to ignore the expansive multi-cuisine menus and explore offerings with a local connection. There is a Sri Lankan community in Madurai that routinely requests chef Neranjan Morais at the Heritage Madurai hotel (2385455, heritagemadurai.com) for foods they miss. For us he makes lump rice (or lamprais; a Dutch-influenced Sri Lankan meal: a mound of spiced yellow rice and tempered potatoes with fish flakes), a sweetish brinjal moju, dal, chicken pepper fry, a meat ball or kofta, all packed in a plantain leaf and baked. Wattalappam for dessert — a set custard of coconut milk, egg and jaggery, spiced with cinnamon and cardamom (meal for two Rs 1,500).
The cuisine from the Kongunadu region, bordering Madurai to the north, tends to use much coconut and turmeric, and avoids marinating meat and fowl, allowing them their own taste. At the GRT Regency (2371155, grthotels.com), chef Ayyasamy prepares a meal with roast chicken as starter, yeral manga kozhambu (a curry of prawn and raw mango, a piquant combination), kongu kozhi curry (a delicately spiced chicken curry), coriander rice and a thin egg parotta made with coconut oil (meal for two Rs 1,500).
Madurai is just to the west of Karaikudi, home of the Chettinad cuisine that evolved as a result of commerce with Southeast Asia. Chettinad food gets its distinctive flavour from the use of spices such as star anise, marathi mukku (which also works as a meat tenderiser) and kalpasi (a lichen that adds the satiating taste of umami). As the cuisine has spread, its use of spices sometimes descends into parody. Chef Krishnakumar of The Gateway Hotel (previously Taj Garden Retreat) has been trying to produce a faithful version of Chettinad food by visiting homes in Karaikudi for recipes and at intervals inviting Chettiar matrons to monitor the cooking in his kitchen. The result is a wonderfully balanced meal — spiced richly and variously but never oppressively — consisting of brinjal curry, dry beans with coconut, potato cooked in coconut milk, pepper fried chicken and the classic chicken Chettinad, served with parotta and rice, and rasam, sambar and buttermilk (Chettinad thali, available in vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions, Rs 300).
Madurai has a large Saurashtrian community, mostly silk weavers by trade, who migrated from Gujarat a few hundred years ago and who even today speak a language that sounds vaguely like Marathi spoken as Tamil. The taste of their tamarind, tomato and lemon rice and pongals are near legendary. Nagalakshmi Annexe (4375409), near Alankar Theatre, and Revathi Tiffin Centre on the next street are the standards. We also stumble upon the tiniest of eateries in the form of Mahalakshmi Tiffin Centre (6549152) in Krishnanagar Colony; it has an astonishingly flavourful lemon rice (Rs 50 for a couple of dishes followed by coffee).
A man with a walrus moustache tells me on the street, “In Madras I have to run around for NV. There V is everywhere. Here in Madurai I can get NV on every street.” He is referring to what is called the ‘mess culture’ — small eateries, though not always inexpensive, that are ubiquitous and take pride in serving an overwhelming variety of food. These are particularly popular for ‘NV’ — fish, prawns, crab, chicken, pigeon, rabbit and the Madurai favourite, mutton. Goats are used up with admirable efficiency — heart, brain, pancreas, bone, liver, kidneys, intestines, all appear as curries. Amma Mess (2534544) at Tallakulam is the most recognised name, though everyone appears to recommend a different place from among the hundreds of messes. Amma Mess is famous for its quail, eaten whole, and its ayira meen kozhambu, a curry made from fish prepared for cooking by releasing it alive into warm milk. This apparently prevents colds. Vaigai Mess, down the road, is also popular. The Muniyandi Vilas messes, found on every other street, are all run by Naidus who have migrated here. There’s one on Azhagar Kovil Road (meal Rs 25). Konar Kadai, Simmakkal, is renowned for its mutton curry dosa (Rs 75) that looks and tastes less like a dosa and more like a quiche. Amsavalli Bhavan (2620117), on East Veli Street, is known for its biriyani, prepared with the temperamental seeraga samba rice, and usually eaten with their Madura chicken — a tiny, deep-fried country chicken served whole (Rs 140 for both).
The atavistic urge to finish all the food set before me has made me a glutton for punishment. I make my bloated way about Madurai with photographer and patient translator, Jyothy, who has been a model of ascetic restraint when it comes to eating. But even she gives in at the Bharma Ediyappa Shop, East Veli Street, which sells steaming idiyappams priced at Rs 5 with a choice of spicy gravy or coconut milk, sugar and grated coconut.
The Madurai heat is sapping even in November. And this is exactly what the drinks here are designed to deal with. Buttermilk is served with meals, and there’s the invigorating sweet lime-and-gooseberry at juice stalls. Madurai’s soda of choice is Bovonto, manufactured in Tamil Nadu by Kalimark, one of the few soft drink companies to have survived the Pepsi/Coke buyouts. Bovonto brings together cola, grape and raspberry into a dark, fizzy drink I can only describe as Red Bull on Red Bull. Local wisdom has Bovonto with a dash of lime juice as something of a miracle remedy for an upset stomach. And in a crate, next to a bottle of Bovonto, is a relic of my ’80s childhood I thought I’d never see again — Torino.
While not exactly a drink, straddling as it does several forms of matter, Madurai’s most heavy-duty coolant is the addictive jigar thanda: agar agar seaweed jelly suspended in milk flavoured with nannari (sarsaparilla) syrup and topped with bhai (basic) ice cream. (The most popular is Famous Jigardanda near the Tirumala Naiker Palace; starts from Rs 10.)
Despite the heat, coffee is incredibly big in Madurai. Even if much of it comes from Coorg, the brew here is prepared better than at most places in between and every street has at least a couple of specialist establishments called ‘coffee bars’. These also sell an assortment of fried snacks to go with the coffee. It’s difficult to go wrong with coffee in Madurai, but New Visalam Coffee (2526538) at Goripalayam is particularly well-regarded (Rs 10 for a glass). My favourite: Sree Sabarees ‘Memorable’ Coffee, Town Hall Road.
Madurai appears to consume its alcohol mostly in the drinking annexes of its ubiquitous liquor shops. These range in size from cubicle to cavern, and emphasis is on quick and cheap inebriation. The larger hotels come with standard-issue bars where a drink comes with an overwhelming number of side eats. The hotels clustered on West Perumal Maistry Street have terrace restaurants serving beer and multi-cuisine food. The Temple View at Hotel Park Plaza (3101122, hotelparkplaza.net) is a fine place for chomping on prawns and sipping beer while gazing irreverently over the towers of the Meenakshi temple (prawns fry Rs 250; beer Rs 130). Surya Rooftop, the vegetarian restaurant on the seventh floor of Hotel Supreme (2343151, hotelsupreme.in), started the rooftop boom here. I ask for their speciality and am told it is — brace yourself — paneer. They make it on the premises and turn out a fine paneer butter masala considering the latitude. It goes particularly well with their parottas (PBM and parottas Rs 150).
But Hotel Supreme’s supreme achievement is its basement bar, Apollo 96. This is the first vegetarian bar I have seen and, in what must be an attempt to compensate, it is themed on the extravagant premise of a voyage to Venus. The doors are almost triangular; the interiors are contoured and recessed in keeping with the constraints of space travel; the angled walls have panels of green and red LEDs (almost a lakh in all); the menu folds into a silver pyramid; port-holes; light switches on a glowing console. And then the UV bulbs, disco lights and pop-rock come on. The place is packed. They used to have waiters in space-suits, but not any more. I ask why. “Suffocation,” says the manager (beer Rs 140; cocktails — moon recker, star flash — from Rs 120).
I visit Apollo 96 again the day before leaving Madurai. A storm is in progress, the streets are flooded and, unlike last time’s crowd, there are only a few men drinking by themselves. Despite all its bizarreness, the place is strangely comforting. Points of light all around, the cool counterpoint of Rahman’s ‘Kannum Kannum’ in the air, we sit still in our oval single-stem chairs and hurtle through inner space.
Outside, the streets bustle with activity. Madurai is known in Tamil as ‘thoonga nagaram’, the city that never sleeps. Most food joints, including some of the larger places, are open well past midnight. Small eateries serve idli, dosa, appam, parotta, egg and gravy in various forms and combinations (including an interesting minced parotta with scrambled eggs). The streets are filled with pushcarts selling an endless range of small eats. Roadside platforms and the women with stalls on the footpaths run a brisk business in the dark.
Madurai is serious about its food. One can get into an autorickshaw and ask for a hole-in-the-wall eatery across town by name. Everyone has their own favourites; to seek consensus is futile. There’s something almost guerrilla-like about the food culture here. The dosa place that was such a hit with the Taj guest and chef proves untraceable, having moved just a month ago. Many eateries are closed in the day, preferring to open only in the evening. One can visit a small establishment only to find that the proprietor has gone arbitrarily on “leave”. But this seldom matters in Madurai. It’s just an occasion to be pleasantly surprised by the food next door.