To serve seasonal dishes with roots planted in regional traditions,
Chef Zacharias travels to Tamil Nadu and finds an unexpected feast waiting in Madurai.
A GASTRONOMICAL HOLIDAY does sound ideal, but in my case, it comes with the territory—it’s part of my job. At Mumbai’s Bombay Canteen, our food philosophy has always been about showcasing regional Indian cuisines. The idea is to create seasonal, crave-worthy food with context, and recipes rooted in age-old traditions and cultures across the country. Therefore, travelling for research becomes a necessity.
Over the past four years, this hungry cause has taken me to towns and cities all over India—places that are known for their food. The most recent of these food trips was spent in Tamil Nadu. The perception of Tamilian food, for most people living outside the state, never extends too far beyond the classic idli, dosai, and sambhar. On the contrary, the cuisine, as I discovered, boasts of unique culinary techniques, some spectacular ingredients, and several distinct cooking styles such as the kongu nadu, chettinad, and Tam Brahm (Tamilian Brahmin).
My road trip began in Coimbatore and ended in Chennai, covering eight cities and towns in between, selected specifically to get a crash course in the state’s diverse sub-cuisines and traditions. After having over three dozen culinary experiences, my vote for the city with the most thrilling food scene in the state does not go to Chennai, as most would presume. On several counts, from sheer variety of choices to consistently outstanding quality of food, Madurai stands out.
The city’s glorious 2,500-year-old past is dotted with significant events that have influenced its rich culture. It was a major centre of trade for several hundred years and has witnessed travellers from even Rome, China, Indonesia, and Greece. It has also been ruled by several characteristically different dynasties, such as the Pandyans, the Vijayanagaras of Hampi, the Delhi Tughlaqs, and of course, the British.
Modern-day Madurai, also known as the Athens of the East, is famous for the ancient Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple. Although the temple city attracts hoards of pilgrims every year, what most people fail to tap into during their visit is its underrated food potential.
The Tamilian concept of a ‘mess’ is an integral part of the city’s culinary scene, and Madurai has some fantastic ones. A ‘mess’ is a family-run restaurant where food is cooked in the traditional home style with recipes that are often closely guarded and passed on through generations—each one has dishes they’re famous for. Amma Mess is a legendary establishment that dates back 80 years. It specialises in dishes such as rabbit biryani and bone marrow omelette. What is truly exceptional at Amma Mess is the ayira meen kulambu, a spicy curry soured with country tomatoes and tamarind starring tiny, freshwater fish called ayira meen or Indian spiny loach that practically melt in your mouth.
Kumar Mess, on the other hand, is popular for dishes such as the crab omelette and the ever-so-popular quail 65, not to forget the mutton kari dosai, a fluffy dosai the thickness of a deep-dish pizza topped with one layer of egg and then another of mutton masala, which is then kissed on the tawa to get a char.
Even the most celebrated restaurant in Madurai, a tiny spot near the temple quarters called Murugan Idli Shop, comes across as being deceptively ordinary. There is no printed menu, and you can count the number of dishes they serve on one hand. The podi idlis here are by far the best I’ve ever had. If your breakfast cravings still need to be satiated, Gopu Iyengar Tiffin Center, a stone’s throw away from Meenakshi Temple, has a range of excellent dosais, their ghee masala roast and the podi dosa being the standouts.
One can’t quite ignore the desserts of Madurai either. The city’s famous contribution to the world of beverages is their favourite roadside drink—the jigarthanda. The sweet drink is believed to have originated during the brief Madurai Sultanate rule of the city in the 14th century. Apart from milk and homemade ice cream, jigarthanda gets its body from badam pisin (a gum obtained from the almond tree), and flavour from nannari (a syrup made from the root of the sarsaparilla plant). The special version available at Famous Jigarthanda (famousjigarthanda.com) is finished with basundhi (condensed milk), making it rich and creamy.
The most exciting side to Madurai, however, comes alive at night. The city has long been known to its dwellers and the rest of the state as thoonga nagaram, or the ‘city that never sleeps.’ Most eateries open later in the evening and their operations extend well past midnight. The energy of the city transforms from being solemn in the early hours of the morning to electrifying after the sun goes down. The repertoire and variety of streetside snacks, especially on the main road of Kamarajar Salai, is nothing short of mind-boggling, with a different street cart at practically every corner. The vadai cart, for example, stocks fritters of various colours and shapes, including the puri-like keerai vadai made with a medicinal plant called mullu murungai. For a cold salad experience, the sundal cart gives one a chance to mix and match a selection of chickpeas and lentils stir-fried with coconut and curry leaves. There’s also the paruthi paal, a unique warm beverage made with the milk extracted from dry cottonseed, which one can try at Sri Thirumalai Madai Paruthipaal Kadai.
My favourite amongst Madurai’s street food specialities is the bun parotta, and no one does it better than Madurai Bun Parotta Kadai at Aavin Junction. It pairs perfectly with different curries and kulambus like naatu kozhi kulambu (country chicken curry), thala curry (made with goat heads), and kaada kulambu (quail curry).
Although I had crowdsourced dining recommendations and researched extensively, many of Madurai’s food gems, especially its street food, were chanced upon by being an inquisitive traveller. This sense of discovery and wonder, which the city feeds so marvelously, is why I think Madurai’s such an incredible food city, and yet practically a secret. Then again, for the sake of retaining that sense of wonder, it’s best left that way.