Most tourists in Madurai are here to visit the famed Meenakshi Amman temple. At the most, these passersby try out the jigarthanda here (because you absolutely cannot miss the shops selling it! They are smack in your face!). The city, though, has many well-kept secrets, foodie and otherwise.
One relatively unexplored aspect of Madurai’s food scene is its halwa kadais or shops selling halwa. Not many know that Madurai is home to a number of halwa shops, most of them existing for almost a century now, most with a loyal following of customers. Which of these shops will serve you the best halwa, though? Asking locals (who have been around in Madurai for a while) will get you one or more of these names – Nagapattinam Halwa Shop, Prema Vilas, New Nagalakshmi Bhawan Halwa Shop, and Happy Man Iyengar Halwa Shop.
On our recent trip to Madurai, we explored the city at considerable length, as many of its nooks and crannies and foods and drinks as we could manage. However, we were able to visit only the Nagapattinam Halwa Shop, out of the four touted-as-best stores in Madurai.
Located on West Chitrai Street, near the Meenakshi Amman temple, Nagapattinam Halwa Shop is an unpretentious thing. It is so non-descript that you might write it off as nothing if you are passing by, and do not know about its history. This is the very shop that dignitaries like MS Subbulakshmi and MGR frequented, once upon a time.
The shop was started by a K.S. Vishwanatha Iyer in the year 1901, when he came to Madurai from Kumbakonam. Iyer apparently had with him a traditional recipe for wheat halwa, which was a relatively unheard-of thing in Madurai of yore. So, the gentleman set up shop opposite the Meenakshi Amman temple, and his halwa went on to become hugely popular. The shop became very famous as ‘Ambi Iyer kadai‘ (Ambi Iyer’s shop) and ‘Nei mittai kadai’(ghee sweet shop).
The outlet shifted to its present location, on West Chitrai Street, in 1942. Over time, apart from halwa, they also started making other sweets and savouries, but the halwa remains one of their best-selling items till date.
Presently, the shop is owned by V.A. Venkataraman, the fourth-generation member of the same family.
When we visit, at about 5.30 PM one evening, the shop is manned by an elderly gentleman who talks in Tamil from a bygone era, which we have a little trouble deciphering, even though the husband and I speak the language very fluently. We ask for some of the shop’s signature halwa, and are handed about 200 grams of it, packed neatly in a plastic wrapping. We are told the halwa is very fresh, but isn’t hot (if you want to have hot halwa, you need to visit as soon as the shop opens, at about 10 in the morning, I believe).
Eager to get our first taste of the famous halwa, we open the packet then and there, and put a wee bit of it in our mouths. And then, magic happens. We are transfixed. We are unable to stop eating, till all the halwa is gone. We stand there, speechless, with silly grins plastered on our faces. This is, clearly, one of the best halwas the husband and I have ever had – absolutely beautiful silky-smooth texture, gorgeous taste, redolent of ghee, and very, very fresh. We head back to our hotel, armed with some more of the halwa to take back home as a souvenir, as well as some of the shop’s famous kara sev.
For those of you who are interested, the halwa is priced at INR 320 per kg.
Back at the hotel, we snack on the kara sev, which is just as beautiful, just the right amount of crunchy, salty and spicy.
Halwa is not the only thing that this shop is famous for, though.
We go back to the shop the next morning at about 10.30 AM, to see if we can get our hands on their famed ‘kizhangu pottalam‘ (which literally translates from Tamil into ‘root vegetable parcels’. The kizhangu pottalam is nothing but a cone of spicy potato curry, parceled in a dried lotus leaf, available for sale at the shop every morning. Priced at INR 10 per cone, these pottalams sell like hot cakes, we hear.
from Nagapattinam Halwa Shop, On the right: the spicy potato curry inside the
Apparently, Madurai, in years past, used to have a huge influx of people from the neighbouring villages, every day. These people would work here as construction workers. These villagers would start from their homes in the villages quite early in the mornings, armed with a box of day-old rice and some curd for their lunch. The Nagapattinam Halwa Shop started selling this spicy potato curry at nominal prices, as a sort of service to these construction workers, so that they would have something to eat their rice with. The curry became such a big hit with the Madurai denizens that the shop continues to sell it. Legend has it that the prices of the pottalams haven’t changed much over the years.
We are lucky to get our hands on two of these pottalams, before they get entirely sold out. The potato curry in them tastes lovely, but is way too spicy for the husband and me. It is heavily laden with fennel (sombu), I think thanks to the influence of the neighbouring Chettinadu. I can see how this curry can become a hot favourite with people who are used to high spice levels in their food. And, then, the curry was originally meant to be an accompaniment to curd rice, not eaten as is.
Don’t miss this place, whenever you are in Madurai. You’ll be missing out on some seriously beautiful halwa otherwise!
We will certainly be making a pit-stop here, again, the next time we visit Madurai. The other famous halwa kadais are still on our radar, too.
Have you read my other posts about Madurai? I hope you have!
If you haven’t, do check them out.