Its been 10 years since I have lived in India, a country whose vibrant colors are synonymous with its spectacular food. I hail from Tamil Nadu in South of India, whose culture and food is so very different from the rest of the country. Visiting home this time felt bittersweet. I felt like a visitor in so many ways to the land that I was born in and spent the first 25 years of my life. I felt like an outsider struggling to navigate its streets and communicate my ignorance. On the other hand, I was able to appreciate it’s beauty as only a visitor can.
Madurai in the state of Tamil Nadu, India is a temple city, home of the famous Meenakshi Amman Temple and known for its Madurai Malli (Jasmine) which is used in the J’adore perfume by Dior and it’s rich and varied cuisine.
I always visit Madurai (Tamil Nadu) when I am in India, my husband’s home. Usually, my time is spent at home with relatives and friends, eating delicious home cooked meals and of course paying homage to Meenakshi Amman. This time however, my husband and I decided to explore and re-discover the city, especially its rich cuisine.
We stumbled upon this street food tour company called Foodies Day Out, formed by a group of millennials who love exploring local cuisine. Foodies Day Out is as their tag line says “tour by the foodies for the foodies!”. We decided to give the tour a shot.
Warning! This tour is not for the squeamish! The tour guide, Pandian, picked us up at a designated meeting place in a very comfortable car. And off we went on this adventure with another couple from America. It was surprisingly informative and extremely enjoyable. The cost is about Rs.2500 per person but the tour took almost 5 hours and if we were ardent meat lovers would have taken even more. That speaks to the passion of the tour guide who will take you to every nook and corner of Madurai till you say STOP!
I expected Sambar, Idlis, and Dosas for sure on the tour and it did not disappoint. Our tour guide took us to various street stalls and our bellies cried out in gastronomic delight. But for me, certain items made an impression. I call them my Tour Treasures!
Like, Paruthi Pal, a delicious concoction made with crushed and filtered cottonseed, milk, coconut and jaggery, from a roadside vendor. This drink is one of the specialities of Madurai, found in few other places in the state of Tamil Nadu. And my tour treasure number one.
My tour treasure number two – Aama Vadai (fried lentils like falafels, tastes different though), is next. While I have had this vadai numerous times and make it at home as well, it is one of those simple appetizers that has to be made exceedingly well and one that 90% of the time people make just adequately palatable. This street vendor who had a small mobile cart, made these bite sized vadais that exploded with flavor in your mouth – crisp on the outside, soft within, perfectly seasoned with salt, green chilies and herbs.
The same vendor also sold these Green Puris (fried puffed up dough). The green color of the puris come from steamed and mashed Murungai Keerai (Drumstick leaves) and Toothuvalai (Solanum trilobatum) leaves. Drumstick leaves were familiar to me as a culinary use, but, Thoothuvalai is usually used as medicinal herb, for treating cough, cold and other respiratory problems like asthma. I was astounded by the flavor of the puris. They were something new that I had not tasted before. The vendor serves it with a special house-made spice powder on top, which just enhanced the taste of the puris. This is my tour treasure number three.
Have you ever tasted the inside of the bark of a coconut tree? I did not either till that day. I did not even know that the inside of the bark of the coconut tree was edible (which a lot of people know apparently). Its called Thennakuruthu (Heart of the Palm) and is rich in fibers, potassium, iron, zinc, phosphorus, copper, vitamins B2, B6, and C. The English use it in a salad called Millionaire’s Salad. While it is an exotic delicacy in other parts of the world, it is sold on the streets of Madurai extremely cheap. It tastes like Jicama, crunchy, a little sweet, something you can munch as a snack. And thats my tour treasure number four.
I have three more outstanding culinary delights that stood out for me that day. Coconut Poli, again, like the Aama Vadai, something that I have grown up eating but this poli was just outstanding. It was dripping in ghee (as good poli’s should be) and made with a heavenly mix of coconut and jaggery filling wrapped in an almost invisible rice flour wrapper. We did not wait to take a photograph, just gobbled it up. I did manage to snap a shot of the shop though. My tour treasure number five.
My tour treasure six is Idiyappam (steamed rice flour noodles). The guide took us to this small Idiyappam place that churns out 5000 Idiyappams per day and has been in business for over 50 years. We met the owner/chef, a lovely lady who promised to teach me how to make them for a million dollars! The store is opposite a hospital and everyone – patients or people who work there, eat at the least one meal at her shop. There is no seating, so you have to stand and eat. Idiyappams are healthy because they are steamed and are served with various mixtures – coconut milk, coconut and sugar, tomato gravy and kadala curry (black chick peas curry). She also makes Ragi (finger millet) Idiyappam. The Idiyappams were fluffy, lip-smacking, deliciousness.
My final tour treasure number seven is the famous Madurai Bun Parotta, a multi-layered bread made with all purpose flour, eggs, milk and sugar. The dough is allowed to rest for 4 to 6 hours.Then they are shaped into round balls like shaping pizza dough and then it stretched thin, with a skill and speed, that only comes with practice. It is then folded again into a circular shape and almost deep fried. The result is this, crunchy, flaky and soft all at once awesomeness! The chefs were kind enough to let me try my hand at it. I failed miserably, of course! It is served with vegetable korma or lamb korma. They also make Kuthu Porotta – made with shredded bun parotta, lamb gravy, eggs, onions and a host of other things. The shop has been in existence for over 50 years and even at 10.00PM at night was hopping with customers.
We tasted many more delights like the Famous Jigarthanda which failed to make an impression with me, maybe because, they dont make it with seaweed anymore. The tour started at 6.00PM and ended at 11.00PM and was full of discoveries and memories, shared with strangers and a knowledgeable street food guide. My husband and I give it two thumbs up! So my recommendation is, go on the tour, whether you are a tourist brave enough try at authentic Madurai street fare, or you are, like me rediscovering your heritage. It’s worth it!
Foodies Day Out – http://foodiesdayout.com/