The parottas of Madurai are legendary. They are a world apart from the parathas of the north and are different even from the Malabar parottas of our neighbouring state. Here, the flaky flatbreads are denser, richer and tastier. Ask any local foodie and they would recite the adaptation of a popular meme: “Parottas are an emotion.”
Mostly served in the evenings, parottas are a versatile dish that takes many forms across the restaurants of the temple city. Depending on the locality, variety of the parotta and the kind of restaurant, they cost anywhere between ₹10 - ₹250 a plate. It is believed that the dish originated as a cheap, filling meal for labourers when rice or millets were unavailable or unaffordable, and today, it is at the heart of the food scene in Madurai.
The preparation of the classic parotta is pretty straight forward: Maida flour is mixed with water, salt and oil to make dough that is allowed to rise before being flattened, tossed, rolled up, flattened again and shallow-fried on the tawa. When you order just parottas at a restaurant, you are typically served a couple of these on a banana leaf-lined plate with a side of salna, a thin, spicy gravy made of vegetable, chicken or mutton stock, and onion raita.
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The famous bun parotta of Madurai is a more recent invention, which is claimed by a local restaurant that shot to fame because of the dish. “One of our masters came up with it in 1999 by incorporating eggs, milk and sugar into the regular parotta recipe,” says K Karuppanan, proprietor of the Madurai Bun Parotta Kadai. The dough is then allowed to rise for four hours: this combined with the technique of tossing the flattened dough in the air until it is thin and supple gives the parotta a lusciously layered texture. The sweetness and the fluffiness are reminiscent of buns, hence the name.
On their own, the bun parottas pair brilliantly with spicy vegetable or meat curries. Although it needs to be said that Madurai is a haven for meat lovers and vegetarian options are usually very limited. For instance, a place called Charles Chicken Point in Narimedu is famous for serving six different chicken and mutton curries along with parotta, while such variety is just not available for vegetarians. It is only the exclusively vegetarian restaurants that even bother making vegetable salna. However, if you’re the kind of vegetarian that doesn’t mind leaving out the meat and enjoying the gravy, you might still be able to sneak a delicious meal out of the deal.
The bun parotta becomes the base for another dish that has gained popularity over the past few years: the vaazhai ilai parotta or kizhi parotta. Shredded pieces of bun parotta layered with salna and chicken or mutton chunks are packed in a banana leaf and steamed on the tawa. The flavour of the banana leaf is said to enhance the taste of the parotta which softens as it soaks in the juices of the meat and the gravy. The dish is such a crowd-puller that most restaurants in the city have added it to their menu.
While these two varieties have become the showstoppers in recent times, the old favourites like kothu parotta (regular/bun parotta minced with salna, onions and/or egg), veechu parotta (thin, soft parotta made by tossing the dough repeatedly) and Ceylon parotta (veechu parotta with an egg-onion-salna stuffing) are still made, served and enjoyed widely.
There is another kind—the poricha parotta—which is basically regular parotta that is partially cooked on the tawa and then deep fried in oil. As it is the least healthy of all, fewer people prefer it and restaurants only make them to order. However, for those who have the stomach for it, it is said to be crisp, tasty and less chewy than regular parotta sometimes becomes. At K Subbu Bamboo Garden in KK Nagar, the combination of poricha parotta with mutton onion curry comes recommended.
From roadside stalls to fancy restaurants, the basic recipe of parotta remains unchanged. Therefore the secret ingredient is the kai pakkuvam (loosely translated, it means the practised hand) of the cook or the ‘parotta master’. Major restaurants in the city employ five to seven parotta masters, and word on the street is that the experienced ones make about ₹2,000 a day. The hefty investment on the part of the restaurants goes to show how fast moving the parottas are and how profitable the business is.
One can see it in action in the evenings as patrons gather: one master kneads the dough (prepared hours in advance and allowed to rise) and cuts it up evenly; another flattens it, tosses it, rolls it up, flattens it again and throws it to the master at the tawa who gathers them all, douses them in oil and fries them to a golden, flaky crisp. Another fluffs them up to unstick the layers and hands them over to the waiter to be served. The swiftness and the impeccable rhythm of this process is a delight to watch, and everyone can, because at nearly every restaurant, the al-fresco cooking area is at the forefront.
It is extremely satisfying to have your meal prepared right in front of you, and that too with so much gusto. If you’re up for it, you could strike up a conversation with the parotta masters, who tend to be a cheery lot. They share tricks of the trade and show you scars on their hands from when they got in the way of an oil splash. It is perhaps all this that makes parotta the quintessential street food dish of Madurai; a rich, inexpensive, filling meal and a wholesome experience all in one.
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