Recently there was a ‘Festival of Madurai Cuisine’ at a swanky hotel here in Chennai, and as a Madurai person myself my first reaction was one of immense happiness, primarily over the fact that someone had managed to put Madurai and cuisine in the same sentence.
Let us face it, food is not the first item that readily comes to mind when you say ‘Madurai’. When you utter ‘Madurai’ the thing that pops up in many people’s mind is naturally Tirunelveli Halwa, which sells like the proverbial hotcake opposite the Madurai railway station.
Madurai, as the recent spate of Tamil movies that featured it as the backdrop showed, is mostly well-known for lending itself as the backdrop for the recent spate of Tamil movies. OK, Madurai has plenty of history, rich history that actually dates to several centuries back, the kind of which people have no time for because mostly they are busy talking to people and telling them that they are busy.
You cannot speak of Madurai without bringing up Meenakshi Amman Temple. Architecturally brilliant and culturally remarkable, it is one of the important landmarks of this country, which the locals have paid the right tribute to by having plenty of stinking urinals around it. Talking of temples, Madurai is also home to Thiruparamkundram and Pazhamudhircholai, — both part of Lord Muruga’s Aarupadaiveedu chain and the latter also part of the bigger chain of vegetable shops in Chennai.
Then there is the imposing and impressive Nayakar Mahal, whose gargantuan pillars and sweeping halls are suffused with the rich heritage of a series of Mani Ratnam movies (Bombay, Iruvar, Guru). The sound and light show at the Nayakar Mahal, one of the major attractions for tourists, is also unique for the fact that it is possibly an event that no local has ever seen. Most things that are popular among outsiders tend to hold absolutely no interest for those who are part of it on a daily basis. Parliamentary proceedings, for instance.
Another thing that Madurai is famous for is bus stands. At one point, the city had at least four operational bus stands, whose specialty was that the bus that you had to board usually departed from any of the other three bus stands than the one you were actually in. Many people visiting Madurai eventually ended up as its residents because they couldn’t find a bus that could actually get them out. Now, mercifully, there is only one major bus stand (for outstation buses). And it has been conceived and constructed in such a manner that it is able to cause the same confusion that it took four different bus stands to pull off previously.
In terms of cuisine, Madurai’s street food has won a name for itself among the discerning people who choose to taste it at snazzy hotels. Those who taste it on a real street are mostly people who cannot afford the dine-in eateries. In general, street food in these parts is overrated and over-romanticised, and in the case of star hotels, overpriced.
The restaurant that I was at recently had recreated Madurai street food by the commonsense method of faithfully recreating parts of Madurai street, while being pretty liberal with the actual food part. Madurai Street itself was sought to be represented through a couple of pushcarts doling out idlis and dosais. The idea was to create the ambience of, say, Mela Masi Veedhi. In reality, I felt like I was standing inside a SP Muthuraman film set.
Among the dishes on offer was one not dissimilar to the Panneer Butter Masala. But the chef had craftily infused robust local flavour into it by spicing it with — probably at low heat— a strange Tamil name. ‘Aachaari Panneer Kolambu’ was how it was named.
Then there was a ‘Gobi fry’, which immediately stirred up in me emotional aroma of Madurai, in that it tasted exactly like the ‘Gobi fry’ that I had at a Madurai hotel several years ago. Otherwise, gobi is as much a part of traditional cuisine of Madurai as much as Manmohan Singh is a member of the famed West Indian pace quartet.
The fare, overall, turned out to be the standard mash-up on offer at most places where anything can be deemed Chinese if there is chilli sauce to go with it and anything can be taken to be Punjabi provided a Daler Mehendi song is blaring in the background. This ended up as Madurai food for me because the waiter kept calling me anne (elder brother), my wife akka (elder sister) and my daughter papa (daughter).
Only a Madurai man could be so hospitable to total strangers. Because, one is what one eats.