Madurai # Improve Vocabulary

Guts and Glory: On a Chettinad Food Pilgrimage in South India

Madurai’s towering temples are feats of the imagination, filled with deities and demons draped in jewellery, armed with weapons, and often, bearing more limbs than usual.

There are two reasons people visit Madurai: Meenakshi and mutton. Meenakshi is Madurai’s feared and revered temple deity, the three-breasted consort of Shiva, who presides over the scorching city from the cool, stone sanctum of the Meenakshi Amman kovil. The temple is an arresting sight, its gopuram crowded with candy-coloured angels and demons that seem crafted from fondant. Like a gaudy, tiered confection of mythical proportions. But I am more interested in the mutton. Madurai’s no-nonsense Chettinad messes, I am told, serve every part of the goat—brain, intestine, liver, lung, tongue, hooves, and head—and I intend on sampling each one.

My hankering for the peppery flavours of Chettinad food dates back to my schooling in Madras. Thanks to generous neighbours, classmates’ dabbas, and a mother who is both curious and a wonderful cook, I am well acquainted with the powers of traditional Tamil cooking. I know, for instance, that a good rasam delivers not just potency but also clarity of thought. That there is no better way to start the day than with a tumbler of filter coffee, and no better way to end it than with a steel plate of sambhar, rice, and ghee, preferably with pappadums. But my most treasured food memories of Madras are dinners at Chettinad restaurants. Decades later, recollections of that feisty mutton pepper fry flecked with curry leaves and glistening with pure coconut oil, still make me quiver.

Geographically, Chettinad is part of the districts of Sivaganga and Pudukkottai in Tamil Nadu, spread over some 1,500-odd kilometres of arid scrubland. Today, the region is known for its cotton saris, heritage hotels, and antique markets. But before India became independent, and even before the British colonised our ports, spices, and princely states, Chettinad was part of the ancient Tamil Pandyan Kingdom. Its capital was Madurai.

The one thing that has remained constant from the 13th century is the city’s blistering weather. Our auto weaves past rickety cycle rickshaws, ambassador cars, and ladies on mopeds, hair neatly plaited and gleaming with oil. We’re headed to Amma Mess, one the city’s most popular restaurants, known for its delicious, inexpensive fare. Within minutes of scoring a table, we’re faced with seven shiny steel plates piled with food: rabbit roast, pepper quail, dosa layered with keema and eggs, parotta mashed with mutton, a neat mound of pigeon biryani, fish curry, and an omelette stuffed with bone marrow. As my fiancé and I lock eyes across the table like soldiers before battle, a waiter appears. “Madam” he says, smiling. “Ghee?”

Later that day, we meet Praveena and Mukunthan, a chatty couple who conduct food trails, introducing travellers to Madurai’s markets and lesser-known culinary gems. Within minutes, we see the merits of walking with a local. Madurai’s Old Town seems like a warren of rickety lanes, but Praveena tells us it’s actually remarkably well planned. The streets are laid out in concentric squares around the Meenakshi temple. Each has a different focus: jewellery, flowers, spices, saris, kitchenware. The layout instantly becomes easier to grasp.

It’s past 9 p.m. but the market buzzes like a Mumbai railway station at peak hour. It’s warm and terribly crowded and yet, I can’t wipe the smile off my face. The scent of jasmine, the snatches of Tamil, the roly-poly script on store-fronts, like a queue of plump ladies waiting for a bus: Like an incantation, these sights and sounds invoke long-forgotten memories. It’s strange, the things our brains choose to save. With every recollection, the dust clears a little more, my confidence is boosted, and soon I tentatively ask for a bottle of water—in Tamil.

As we eat our way through the market, we learn about Madurai’s earliest association with food. Madurai is named after maduram, which means nectar in Tamil, and according to Hindu scriptures, the city was birthed when a drop of ambrosia fell to Earth from Shiva’s dreadlocks. This is why “God and food are Madurai’s favourite pastimes,” Praveena says grinning. Egged on by our charming and enthusiastic guides, we devour ungodly amounts of meat: chicken parottas, goat’s trotters, uttappam and mutton keema, idli and fish curry.

And yet, it’s the vegetarian flavours that have me scribbling in my food diary. From street carts we have slices of tender coconut tree bark, cottonseed and jaggery payasam, and adirasam, a decadent cross between a doughnut and a puff pastry that’s deep-fried in ghee. The cottonseed payasam, Mukunthan says, helps curb respiratory disorders and was traditionally consumed by workers in Madurai’s cotton mills.

Every plate of food we eat is memorable (pigeon incidentally, tastes like gamier chicken) but it’s not authentic Chettinad food, our hosts inform us. Like the many migrant communities that moved to Madurai for work, regional cuisines too adapt to survive, especially when they’re served in restaurants. Recipes are tweaked for local palates—a little more oil, a little less cooking time, maybe a dash of colour—and before long they barely resemble the original. “You’ll have to go to Karaikudi for the real thing,” emphasizes Mukunthan.

We round off our night with Tirunelveli halwa, a gooey, melt-in-the-mouth dessert made from wheat, just the right amount of sugar, and far too much ghee. Served warm, on a dried peepul leaf, it is the closest thing to maduram I have tasted.

Oddly enough for a community that loves meat, the Chettiars were originally vegetarians from Kanchipuram in northern Tamil Nadu. They lived there for thousands of years before moving to a place called Kaveripoompattinam, a small thriving Chola port town in the marshy Kaveri delta. Here, they began trading in plump Kaveri rice and salt from the Coromandel Coast but before long, they were travelling with fleets to Malacca, Sumatra, and Java. Their zeal for commerce grew, and with it, their appetite for the Southeast Asian food they encountered on their voyages. Seafood entered the Chettiar kitchen, and soon pots of crab rasam were gently simmering in their handsome homes.

WORDMEANINGSYNONYMS
1. ToweringVery high or tallColossal, gigantic, imposing, lofty, magnificent, massive, mighty, monumental, prodigious, soaring, stately, tall, elevated, sublime, surpassing
2. ImaginationThe action or process of forming images or conceptsThought, artistry, awareness, fancy, fantasy, idea, image, imagery, ingenuity, insight, inspiration, intelligence, inventiveness, originality, resourcefulness, thought, vision, wit
3. DeitiesA god or goddessDivinity, idol, immortal, creator, goddess, godhead, celestial, demigoddess, divine being, supreme being
4. DrapedTo cover or hand with cloth or other fabric, especially in graceful foldsCloak, clothe, cover, dangle, don, dress, enclose, envelop, fold, hang, sprawl, swathe, wrap, array, display, droop, drop, enwrap, line, model, roll, spread, spread-eagle, suspend
5.ReveredTo regard with respect tinged with awe; venerateAdmire, adore, apotheosize, appreciate, be in awe of, cherish, defer to, deify, enjoy, esteem, exalt, hold in awe, honor, look up to, love, magnify, pay homage, prize, put on pedestal, regard, respect, think highly of, treasure, value, venerate, worship
6. ScorchingBurning very hotBlistering, fiery, searing, sizzling, sweltering, burning, hot
7. SanctumA sacred place, especially a shrine within a temple or churchAltar, chancel, shrine, temple, holy place, sacrarium, sanctorium
8. FondantA thick paste mad of sugar and water and often flavored or colored, used in making of sweets and the icing and decoration of cakes.
9.MythicalOccurring in or characteristic of myths or folk talesAllegorical, fabled, fanciful, fictitious, imaginary, legendary, mythic, storied, unreal, whimsical, chimerical, created, fabricated, fabulous, fairy-tale, false, fantasy, fictive, folkloric, invented, made-up, mythological, non-existent, pretended, supposititious, traditional, untrue, visionary
10.HankeringA strong desire to do or have somethingCraving, pining, yearning, ache, druthers, hunger, itch, longing, thirst, urge, want, weakness, wish, yen, fire in belly, munchies.
11.GenerousShowing readiness to give more of something, especially money, than is strictly expected or necessary.Acceptable, benevolent, big, charitable, considerate, fair, good, helpful, honest, hospitable, lavish, reasonable, thoughtful, tolerant, unselfish, willing, altruistic, beneficent, bounteous, bountiful, easy, equitable, excellent, free, greathearted, high-minded, honorable, just, kind, kind-hearted. Kindly, liberal, lofty, loose, magnanimous, moderate, munificent, noble, open-handed, philanthropic, profuse, soft-touch, ungrudging, unsparing, unstinting
12.AcquaintedMake someone aware of or familiar withAbreast, conversant, informed, advised, enlightened, familiarized, apprised of, clued in, familiar with, in the know, versed in
13.PotencyThe power of something to affect the mind or bodyCapability, efficacy, efficiency, vigor, authority, birr, capacity, command, control, dominion, energy, force, go, hardihood, influence, juice, kick, might, moxie, muscle, pep, potential, power, puissance, punch, sinew, snap, sock, steam, strength, sway, virtue, zap, zing, zip, what it takes
14.TumblerA drinking glass with straight sides and no handle or stem;Clown, dancer, gymnast, performer, aerialist, artist, athlete, balancer, contortionist, funambulist, stunt person, trapezist
An acrobat especially one who performs somersaults
15.FeistyLively, determined and courageousBubbly, courageous, excitable, fiery, gritty, gutsy, high-strung, lively, scrappy, spunky, active, alive, difficult, enthusiastic, frisky, full of pep, game, gutty, hot-blooded, mettlesome, ornery, peppy quarrelsome, sensitive, thin-skinned, tough, truculent, zestful
16.GlisteningShine with a sparkling lightBright, burnished, glassy, glazed, gleaming, lustrous, polished, shining, shiny, silky, sleek, reflecting, slick, smooth, brilliant, silken
17. QuiverTremble or shake with a slight rapid motionConvulsion, flash, glimmer, glitter, oscillation, palpitation, pulsation, shake, shimmer, shiver, shudder, sparkle, spasm, throb, tic, tremble, tremor, twinkle
18.ScrublandLand consisting of scrub vegetationBackwoods, bramble, briar, brush, chaparral, creeper, forest, hedge, hinterland, jungle, outback, plant, scrub, shrubbery, thicket, vine, wilderness
19.BlisteringIntenseFiery, heated, scalding, scorching, searing, sizzling, sweltering, torrid, baking, boiling, broiling, burning, roasting, blistery, intense, broiling, burning, roasting, blistery, intense, red-hot, severe
20.GleamingShine brightly especially with reflected lightBright, burnished, glassy, glazed, glistening, lustrous, polished, shining, shiny, sleek, reflecting, slick, smooth, brilliant, silken, silky
21.WarrenA network of interconnecting rabbit burrows
22. RicketyPoorly made and likely to collapsebroken, decrepit, derelict, dilapidated, flimsy, ramshackle, shaky, wobbly, feeble, fragile, frail, imperfect, infirm, insecure, jerry-built, precarious, rachitic, rattletrap, rocky, tottering, tottery, tumble-down, unsteady, wavering, weak
23.BuzzesMake a low, continuous humming soundHum, murmur, whisper, drone, fizz, fizzle, hiss, purr, ring, ringing,whir
24.IncantationA series of word said as a magic spell or charmEnchantment, hymn, abracadabra, bewitchment, chant, charm, conjuration, conjuring, formula, hex, hocus-pocus, hoodoo, invocation, necromancy, rune, sorcery, voodoo, witchcraft, wizardry, ala kazam, black magic, mumbo-jumbo, open sesame
25.AmbrosiaThe food of the godsDelicacy, nectar, heavenly food, immortal food
26.ScribblingWrite or draw carelessly or hurriedlyCacography, graffiti, graffito, griffon age, hieroglyphics
27.TweakedTwist or pull sharplyTease, twist, jerk, pinch, pluck, pull
28.TradingThe action or activity of buying and selling goods and servicesCommerce, deal, dealing, exchange, industry, manufacturing, market, sales, selling, trade, traffic, transaction, affairs, bargaining, barter, commercialization, contracts, game, industrialism, merchandising, racket, undertaking, buying and selling, capital and labor, free enterprise, production and distribution
29.ZealGreat energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of a cause or an objectiveArdor, determination, devotion, diligence, eagerness, earnestness, fanaticism, fervor, gusto, inclination, intensity, passion, perseverance, sincerity, spirit, urgency, verve, warmth, zest, alacrity, bustle, dispatch, drive, enterprise, fierceness, fire, hustle, initiative, intentness, keenness, mania, push, readiness, vehemence, yen, stick- to-itiveness, what it takes
30. SimmeringStay just below boiling point while bubbling gentlyBoiling, heated, hot

 

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