The Tasty Tales of Madurai’s Sourashtra Weavers
The silk-weavers of Sourashtra settled in Madurai 600 years ago have woven their unique flavours into the city’s culinary heritage
Growing up a stone's throw away from the Thirumalai Nayak Mahal where the Sourashtra community settled down centuries ago, the language and food of this community have been a part of my childhood memories. Rooftops conversations and calling out "Bei" (addressing a younger or older sister) when the beautiful Sourashtra women untangled their long silky strands of hair to dry them in the sun. My mother told me stories of how the women of this silk-weaver community cared for every strand of their hair, exactly the way they treated every thread of silk.
Weaving Tales of TasteThe Sourashtra community of Madurai settled in this ancient trading city around the 14th century. Over the years, it’s enterprising members mingled with the locals, adding their unique stories to the cultural pool of Madurai, a city that grew into an important trading centre in the south. While there is a feeble attempt to try and preserve the dying language and culture of the community, the script has been lost along the way. However, the cultural identity continues to live in the recipes and foods of the Sourashtra community, adding an interesting twist to the street food and pongals cooked in the region.
Pongal PleasuresThere are various pongals, or rice dishes, cooked in the kitchens of Sourashtra homes of Madurai, and distributed to friends and neighbours on special occasions. There is the Ambat bath (Puliyodharai) and sundal. While tangy Ambat bath and other items like the Thakali pongal (tomato rice) and Limbu pongal (lemon rice) have become an integral part of Tamil cuisine, there are recipes like the Thoop pongal (ghee rice) and Muri pongal (rice tempered with mustard seeds and curry leaves) that are unique to he Sourashtra community. Another Sourashtra specialty is the Bun Halwa, cooked with ground rusk, sugar and ghee. Bun halwa has a place of pride in every Sourashtra feast.
Bun Halwa prepared by Rakesh Raghunathan on Dakshin Diaries
Also read: Sakkarai Pongal for the toothless sun god at Kumbakonam
These recipes have now travelled from home kitchens to restaurant menus—in Madurai, restaurants like Nagalakshmi Annexe and Narayana Pongal kadai serve Sourashtra pongals. Drive along Kamarajar Salai, and you will spot roadside eateries just by the crowds thronging around them. The Kalkandu sadham (sugarcandy rice) of Nagalakshmi Annexe must get a special mention because it's delicious, and not available elsewhere.
The making of keerai vadai (Pic courtesy: Priyamvada Kowshik)
While pongals are a lunch or dinner affair, the Sourashtra snacks sold on street carts have become an intrinsic part of Madurai's food scene. Back in the day, it was quite common to hear the sing-song voices of vendors going "Pankarapan Bhairiiiii" and "Bholiyal". It was a mystery to me then, because I didn’t know what they were saying or selling. The Pankarapan Bhairi is also known as "Mullu murungai vadai" or "Keerai vadai" and is available on street carts all over the city. The leaf of the Mullu murungai (Indian coral tree) has medicinal properties and it is ground along with pepper corns and rice to make this healthy green vadai. The vadais are usually topped with a podi chutney made from ground channa dal, and various spices and herbs like galangal and pepper.
The owner of one of my favourite Keerai vadai carts told me how his grandmother made these Keerai vadais whenever the silk weavers needed a break from their chores. The fine dust and fibers from the silk threads caused respiratory problems among the weavers and the leaves of Mullu murungai and Thoothuvalai (purple fruited pea eggplant) were added to the snacks like Pankarapan bhairi, for their medicinal value in treating respiratory issues.
The Bholiyal I mentioned above, is a sweet stuffed bread or Bholi. Another popular snack on these carts is the Sojji Appam. It's basically Poori dough stuffed with Rava Kesari, and fried just like a Poori. Though it has a shelf life of few days, eat it piping hot, straight out of the oil... with a slightly crisp exterior and sweet kesari stuffing!
If you’re visiting the temple city of Madurai, don’t miss the amazing diversity of food that the city offers. From the traditional Saadam, to spicy fish and meat, mutton dosa to keerai vadai, there’s enough to keep your tastebuds tickling for a long time!
Praveena Mukunthan is one of the founder of Foodie’s Day Out which organises food tours in Madurai
Banner and bun halwa image by Prateek Sharma
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