Madurai is one of Tamil Nadu’s and India’s most important cultural hubs. Earliest records of Madurai show a city in early 300 BC with trade relations reaching as far back as with the ancient Romans and Greeks. Kautilya made a specific mention of Madurai as a trading and commercial hub. Madurai’s rich cultural heritage is married to its culinary identity as Tamil Nadu’s food capital. A cuisine that draws influence from all its trading partners, from the Saurashtra Gujuratis and Chettinad to Sri Lanka, food in Madurai is a hodgepodge of all these culinary styles. Humble yet fierce and bold flavours characterise Madurai’s cuisine.
Idlis at Murugan’s idli shop
Heralded across the country with namesake restaurants cropping up even in Singapore and Malaysia, Murugan’s idli shop is a staple of most of Madurai’s residents. Locals swear by the original establishment for its fluffy, almost sticky idlis. Served with four varieties of chutneys and their distinctive podi, or powder, lines for Murugan’s grow long fast so be sure to get there early to eat at one of Madurai’s most famous food joints.
Melt-in-your-Mouth mutton balls at Chandra Mess
Fried minced mutton balls, manually ground by the cooks, spiced with masalas freshly ground in stone pestles, this delicacy is a must have at the Chandra mess. The crispy-on-the-outside and soft-on-the-inside kola urundai are a delicacy in Madurai. Made in a kitchen that is still cleaned and maintained by the family owners, it harks back to a simpler time.
Non-vegetarian Meals at Amma Mess
Standing in stark contrast to the vegetarian side of food in Madurai, the Amma mess serves non-vegetarian meals that will make the most ardent carnivore ogle. Gorge on prawn biryani, bone marrow omelette, and their signature meen kuzhambu, as portraits of Tamil movie stalwarts and the owner, surround you. Amma mess is also famous for their unique versions of omelettes that include the crab and bone-marrow varieties.
No-frills Idiyappam at Burma Idiyappam Kadai
Fluffy and light idiyappam is the only item on the menu at Burma Idiyappam Kadai. This no-frills store stays true to its roots and serves this Madurai staple with two sides, a tomato-based chutney and a coconut-milk sweetener. Expect nothing apart from Madurai’s favourite idiyappam from this bare-bones establishment.
Dessert at Famous Jigarthandai
After a meat-heavy lunch or a light vegetarian meal, Madurai’s people love to wash it down with a cold, refreshing glass of jigarthandai. Its origin in Madurai is disputed, with different versions of the tale crediting either the Madurai sultanate or attributing it as a Nawabi import. Either way, this concoction of condensed milk, fresh-made ice-cream, and sarsaparilla syrup from Famous Jigarthandai, is a favourite of locals and is a sure-fire way to beat the afternoon heat.
Kothu Parotta at Any Time of Night
Thoonga Nagaram, or ‘The City that Never Sleeps’ cannot be a more valid moniker for Madurai. One can find food in Madurai late into the night on account of the ubiquitous street vendors selling kothu parotta. The constant clanging of metal utensils fluffing up and buttering the flaky flatbread ensures that nobody sleeps and everyone knows where to find food in Madurai at all times.
Three-tiered Dosa at Konar Mess
Descendants of a cattle and goat rearing community, the Konars use every part of the animal and let nothing go to waste, and offal dishes feature prominently on the menu at the Konar mess. The Konar mess is also famed for their stacked dosa, the kari dosa, which includes an omelette and a layer of ground mutton to top it off. Another favourite dish of the locals, elumbu roast is prepared using mutton bones roasted in a myriad of spices, served hot with several boldly flavoured gravies. Paired with a cold glass of Bovonto, an aerated grape drink that has a dedicated fan following in this part of the world, Konar mess promises a great meal with some of the best food in Madurai.
Kalkandu Sadham at one of the last Saurashtrian restaurants in Madurai
Unlike jigarthandai, there is no doubt about the origins of this sugary, rice-based dish. Kalkandu sadham is thought to have been brought to Madurai by the silk-weaver Saurashtrian Gujarati community sometime during the 14th century. Indulge in this sweet dish at Sri Nagalakshmi Annexe, one of the few remaining authentic Saurashtrian restaurants in Madurai.
Madurai’s Most Famous Halwa
The people of Madurai have a strong sweet-tooth as is shown by their love for Halwa. Halwa is everywhere in Madurai, especially around the time of Diwali as families offer it to guests at their home. The Nagapattinam Original Halwa shop has the distinction of being one of the first establishments to bring halwa to the city and is famous for their wheat variant of the sweet. Prema Vilas is another beloved halwa vendor of the city, with its version celebrated for how soft it is.
Paruthi Paal is a thick drink made up mainly of cotton seeds, coconut milk, rice flour, cardamoms, jaggery and ginger. This drink is a remedy for cold, aids digestion and has numerous other health benefits.
With its rich cultural heritage, Madurai offers a culinary scene that is incomparable to anywhere else in the world. From light vegetarian options to heavy meaty meals to tasty street food to delicious dessert options, Madurai has everything to offer a true foodie.