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Of Mutton Balls & Idli Indulgences: Madurai is a Food Lover’s City

Madurai might be famous for its many, many temples – but its also a town full of delicious non-veg surprises!

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Chennai might boast of a vibrant restaurant scene, but Madurai is where you are most likely to find Tamil Nadu’s own version of ‘soul food’.

This is no city for a relaxed Sunday brunch. You need to roll up your sleeves and remember not to ask for cutlery. I asked for a spoon at one of the restaurants and was bluntly instructed to eat with my hands by the waiter. “Our food is meant to be relished with your hands”. I learnt my lesson.

You don’t need a spoon to dig into Madurai’s most famous dosa though. Simmakal Konar Mess’ kari dosai is thick enough to qualify for a deep dish pizza. This three layered dosa begins with an omelette at the base, a thick dosa in the centre – and ends with a layer of finely minced mutton on top. Awesomeness.

Madurai might be famous for its many, many temples – but its also a town full of delicious non-veg surprises!
The kari dosai at Konar Mess. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

The Konars are proud of their history – a community of cowherds and goatherds. Offal dishes which can shock the mild carnivores dominate the menu at this restaurant.

The city loves its mutton and the villages around the city ensure a never ending supply of high quality meat.

My last two visits to Madurai in search of another local specialty proved futile. (Ratha Poriyal or stir-fried blood is still served in some homes in southern Tamil Nadu.) This is goat’s blood, quickly stir-fried with finely chopped onions, green chillies and seasoning. Many restaurants pulled it off their menu to ensure they don’t lose their halal certification.
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There’s Something in it For the Vegetarians Too

Madurai might be famous for its many, many temples – but its also a town full of delicious non-veg surprises!
Madurai flower market. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

One of the best places to start your day in Madurai is the city’s flower market which is among the busiest in India. This market is also home to the famous Madurai Malli (jasmine) that fragrance houses from Paris make a beeline for.

Madurai is not a complete lost cause for vegetarians – Murugan Idli shop is not too far from the flower market and it churns out its trademark soft (and slightly sticky) idlis with factory-like precision through the day. This shop also has one of the city’s best known all-vegetarian dining experiences.

Madurai might be famous for its many, many temples – but its also a town full of delicious non-veg surprises!
Bharma Idiappa Kadai. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

Then there’s Bharma Idiappa Kadai – one of my favourite street food experiences in the city. Devika’s family used to run a successful rice noodle business in Burma before moving to Madurai as part of the massive exodus in the early 1960s. This tiny establishment’s idiappams (string hoppers) are served with coconut milk or tomato chutney.

Of Mutton Balls and Jigarthanda

Madurai might be famous for its many, many temples – but its also a town full of delicious non-veg surprises!
Kola urundai (mutton balls) at Chandran Mess. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

The city’s restaurant scene is dominated by family run establishments that are fiercely proud of their recipes. Chandran Mess is one such restaurant where the owner is happy to let me walk into his kitchen. It’s remarkably clean and is managed by his family. They don’t use packaged masalas here – instead, every dish features hand-ground masalas with unmatched flavours. The most famous dish here is the kola urundai (mutton balls), a melt-in-your-mouth mutton delicacy made with finely ground mutton that actually comes from the nearby Chettinad region.

Madurai might be famous for its many, many temples – but its also a town full of delicious non-veg surprises!
Parotta Madurai style. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

Recent curbs have meant that some of Madurai’s round-the-clock establishments have to shut earlier than before. And yet, it’s possible to sample the city’s famous layered parotta with a fiery mutton kurma past midnight at establishments like  Sulthan’s – or wash it all down with the unique Paruthi Paal (cotton seed milk).

But don’t leave town without sampling Madurai’s best known dessert. Queue up at ‘Famous’ for jigarthanda, the cloyingly sweet dessert that features condensed milk, hand-churned ice-cream, cream and tree gum in the mix.

Enough said.

Madurai might be famous for its many, many temples – but its also a town full of delicious non-veg surprises!
Jigarthanda is Madurai’s best known dessert. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

Getting there and around: Madurai is well connected with major airports in India. It’s nine hours by road from Chennai. Autos are the best way to get around the old city’s crowded streets.

Accommodation: Heritage Madurai is a 100-year old property spread over 17 acres with a gorgeous pool styled like a temple tank. (www.heritagemadurai.com)

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(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, one of India’s only cross cultural trainers and a consultant for a global brand services firm. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends)

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