One of my most spontaneous decisions on travel took me to Madurai and kept me there for 78 hours. Now, a day later, I can tell you that I carry a lighter heart and a happier tummy.
Madurai is the third largest and probably the oldest (with a documented history of over 2,500 years) city in Tamil Nadu. It is built around the historic Shri Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Temple which is dedicated to Goddess Meenakshi.
The temple complex is surrounded by high masonry walls with four towering gateways for entry and exit. Fourteen distinct gopuras, a golden lotus pool, the thousand-pillar hall and many small shrines are the other highlights.
My sense of tranquillity always aligned with the ambience of a bustling city. Madurai - the thoonga nagaram, the city that never sleeps - fitted snugly in.
I did many things.
Inside the temple complex, I wandered barefoot and free of all electronic shackles. I watched the super-high ceiling, the many pillars and the intricate sculptures on the gopuras. I tried both available queues for darshan — first the free one and then the paid one.
I had the lemon-rice version of prasadam with reluctance and the laddu version with relish. I sat by the temple pond and read the set of miracles — of the stone elephants eating sugarcane and of the flowers on the Lingam remaining fresh for 48 years - devotionally placed in "The Great Temple of Madurai", a book that was on sale there.
I smelt the incredibly sensual Madurai Malli, which women visitors of all ages wore dutifully on their heads. I listened to the music played by troupes at seemingly random places inside the complex. I tried counting the number of pillars in the famed Hall of Thousand Pillars, only to give up after the third time.
Outside, I squeezed myself onto those low and narrow perimeter walls to watch people pass by. I strolled on the cobbled path, with no destination or time limit, enjoying the cool shade and occasional light breeze until my feet blistered from shoe bite. I stopped multiple times for coffee and once for a sinfully sweet boli.
Far outside, I haggled with auto drivers until I found my Basha, who took me places. I ate at several places, some of which were far too crowded and too dirty for my liking.
I also saw many faces.
A saffron-clad swami with a thick moustache and long beard who was keeping his eyes glued to his mobile phone. A lady who was trying to sell me toys. A guide who was elbowing his way to the top of the queue with an evident sense of entitlement. A middle-ager who was putting his balloon belly to good use by pushing the darshan queue forward. A happy family who was posing for a portrait by the pond. A bunch of devotees who were devouring prasadam as if they were starving.
I saw the desperate desire of a colourfully dressed man in a wheelchair to learn about the temple. The resignation in the eyes of the lady at the shoe counter. The exasperation of the lady at the queue counter who kept pleading for exact change. The eagerness of a young couple to capture each other on their phone cameras.
A flock of pigeons fluttering their way to the gopuras. A few stray dogs. An occasional cow. And, an earnest-looking old woman with welled-up eyes.
My sanctum sanctorum was not the innermost sanctuary where the Swamy or Amman is said to reside, but the intriguing temple complex, complete with its many visitors and the bigger chaotic city that seems to radiate from it.
In the collective ambience of all those things I did and all those faces I saw, I felt my heart grow lighter.
To belly's delight
In those 78 hours between my alighting and boarding Amrutha Express at Madurai Junction railway station, I visited 17 eateries to sample about 30 dishes.
Interestingly, Madurai eats a humongous amount of non-veg, particularly mutton, for a temple town. I have read about it before, but it still came as a little surprise.
In these and many other remarkable dishes, I found a happier tummy:
1. Mutton Kola Urundai
Mutton Kola Urundai (Mutton Keema Ball) is a Madurai classic.
Chandran Mess (Alagar Kovil Main Rd, Mellur, Tallakulam) has the best reputation for these deep-fried balls, which combine perfectly minced mutton and freshly ground spices. They are slightly crunchy on the outside and have an exceptionally soft inside - a true "melt in your mouth" experience!
However, at Rs 35 a ball, these balls do not come cheap.
Jigarthanda is Madurai’s answer to Falooda. It contains milk, almond gum, nannari syrup and ice cream prepared using caramel and sweetened khoya.
The place to have this cold sweet beverage, going by its popularity among the locals, is Famous Jigarthanda (near Vilakkuthoon, Kamarajar Salai). A glass of Jigarthanda Special costs Rs 60.
It may come across as a notch too sweet, but you must have this signature Madurai drink when in Madurai. Period.
3. Kari Dosa
It’s a three-layered dosa: the base layer is plain dosa, the middle layer is egg omelette, and the top layer is minced mutton. Another Madurai classic!
I had this rather heavy meal from the no-frills Simmakkal Konar Kadai, a small eatery that could improve upon its cleanliness. I have no complaints about the dosa, though – with a crunchy top (the mutton layer) and a soft base, it tasted superb.
A Kari Dosa costs around Rs 250.
4. Paruthi Paal
Paruthi Paal (Cotton Seed Milk), usually served hot, is a milky, thick and sweet drink.
To make this delicious protein-rich drink, the milk, extracted from the cotton seeds (not surprisingly, cotton is a major crop here) soaked overnight, is mixed and boiled with rice or millet flour, jaggery, dry ginger, cardamom, coconut and cashew nuts.
Several street-side vendors offer this drink in the mornings, but I chose to have it from Sri Sastha Cotton Seed Milk, a small shop on Netaji Road near the Periyar bus stand.
It tastes like payasam, a good one at that. It definitely carries more calories than I should have and more sweetness than I prefer to have early in the morning, but it’s supremely refreshing. It costs Rs 20 a glass.
5. Non-veg meals
The non-veg meals from the legendary Amma Mess is another must-have when you are in Madurai.
The rice is served with a couple of standard veg dishes and delicious gravies. I had two fish gravies (yes, the famous meen kuzhambu) and one chicken gravy. There was a long list of side dishes to choose from: I ordered Ayirai fish curry (this fish, being too small to be cleaned the conventional way, is made to drink milk before cooking to cleanse their gut – don’t ask me how it works, that’s what they say), crab omelette (a delicious ensemble of eggs and crab meat, with a subtle hint of garam masala) and Neymeen fry. The highly recommended bone marrow omelette too was on offer, but that was not my cuppa tea.
The food was fresh, and I got some excellent service. The place is reasonably clean, despite an awkwardly positioned wash area. The dishes are slightly pricey, especially the omelette, but I have no complaints - there is good value. Don't go there for the ambience; it's just a mess - Amma Mess, to be exact:)
6. Podi Idli and Uthappam
Murugan Idli, now a well-known food chain, serves a variety of idlis, dosas and uthappams.
Podi idli (idli with podi smeared on it with a liberal amount of ghee) is one of their signature dishes and a must-have. Their Uthappam had more shallots than many hotels I know serve in an entire day – the right amount of ghee and the perfectly sautéed shallots elevate their taste to near perfection. All the dishes come with four types of chutneys, which are distinct but not particularly impressive. I am not a big fan of their Chettinad-styled idlis though - they are soft but too sticky for my liking.
Gopu Iyengars Tiffin Center is also a highly recommended place for breakfast. I did not make it for breakfast there but managed to wash a baji and a boli down with a fragrant filter coffee at a later time.
7. Kalkandu Saadham and Tomato Saadham
I had those pre-mixed rice items from New Nagalakshmi (Kamarajar Salai), one of the few remaining eateries serving Saurashtrian cuisine in Madurai.
The kalkandu rice was moderately sweet and light on stomach. The tomato rice had modest looks, but it was flavourful and tasty.
Every other food blog refers the establishment as Sri Nagalakshmi Annex – it either does not exist anymore or is replaced by the New Nagalakshmi. Or was it just a change of name, a practice that is so common among the eateries in this part of the world?
8. Bun Parotta and Mutton Curry
When a bun meets a parotta, you get bun parotta – it’s smaller, flakier and more layered than a standard parotta thanks to its longer kneading with eggs, milk, butter, sugar and bananas.
Sulthan Hotel (near Anna statue, North Veli Street) serves one of the best bun parottas in town, crispy and soft at the same time. They go well with their mutton dishes. You get good kothu parotta too.
Perhaps, a more famous place (I did not try it though) for bun parotta is the Madurai Bun Parotta Kadai at Avin Junction.
9. Filter Coffee
Visalam Kappi Nilayam, a 70-year-old nondescript 10x15 feet coffee shop on West Perumal Maistry Street across the Pandya House, is said to serve over 1,000 filter coffees a day. The "perfect balance of quality, taste, convenience and price" appears to be the key to its success and longevity.
The strong decoction that blends coffee with chicory and the right proportion of thick milk make their coffee unique. It surely packs a lot of taste and aroma (and perhaps a pinch of nostalgia) - trust me on that, I drank two cups (rather glasses) back to back to make sure.
You must have idiyappam (string hopper) from the Burma Idiyappa Kadai at East Veli Street (opposite the Christian Mission Hospital).
I was there in the morning, and the lady in charge of this single-item store served me idiyappam with sugar (I expected jaggery though), grated coconut and coconut milk. The fluffy and light idiyappam tasted simply outstanding. Another melt-in-your-mouth dish. At Rs 10 a piece.
There is another shop by the same name across the road – their idiyappam tastes almost as good.
11. Veg meals
Special veg thali served on banana leaf at New Sriram Mess is hailed by many locals as the best vegetarian fare in town.
I ordered (well, I bought a coupon and went upstairs) a special vegetarian thali – which comes with rice, chapati, an assortment of curries and accompaniments, and an extra-large appalam. It did feel very peaceful after all the mutton "riots" I had in the previous days!
The veg meals at Sree Sabarees is also highly regarded by the locals.
Prema Vilas, which describes itself as the Halwa Chakravarty (the Emperor of Halwas), sells one of the best halwas (Tirunelveli-styled) in the whole of Madurai. Wheat halwa, mixture (some call them mota mixture because of their relative big-size) and pepper seva may be bought from their outlet (established in 1954) near the Madurai Junction railway station.
An equally good place for halwa is the much older Original Nagapattanam Halwa Shop (established in 1901) located at West Chitrai Street, right in front of the temple complex.
(Rajesh C Muttath, a lawyer by profession, loves to explore, write on food and travel.)