"See? No oil!" This was followed seconds after a spoonful of biryani was dramatically dunked into a transparent glass full of water. I was startled and transfixed in equal parts. Startled because it was totally unexpected and transfixed because it is a surreal sight to watch grains of biryani making their way through water. As the grains and spices slowly sank to the bottom, the surface of the water was surprisingly clear and the expected film of grease failed to appear. A triumphant look, mixed with pride, swept across Prabhakar's face, the visual equivalent of 'I told you so'. As demos went, it was certainly fascinating. The test, Prabhakar painstakingly explained, proved that only quality ingredients were used and the biryani was slow-cooked to allow the grains to completely absorb everything--ghee, spices and flavours of the meat. I could only nod in stupefaction, partly in acquiescence and partly because I was so blissfully overdosing on the most glorious biryani.
But Prabhakar was not done yet. He carefully laid a large, fresh banana leaf on the table and then proceeded to drop some biryani on it. The grains plopped on the leaf with a dull sound, separate and all of them uniformly glistening brown in colour. "The grains stay separate only if it is slow-cooked and the method is correct," he explained. He should know. A third generation restaurateur belonging to Dindigul's Ponram Biriyani Hotel brand, Prabhakar grew up learning to make it at his father and grandfather's knees at the restaurant started by the latter almost four decades ago. He continues to follow the recipe which belonged to his grandmother and is a zealously guarded secret.
So popular is the dish that Ponram has opened many branches in town and a couple of other places, but never too far away. "I need to be able to go and check from time to time; quality is everything," he said. In fact, Prabhakar's family is among a handful that has helped Dindigul, an otherwise nondescript town 60 km north of Madurai, attain the moniker of Biryani City, where people travel from nearby towns just for some taste of some sinful biryani.
Predictably, the recipes are age-old. The methods are old too: the biryani is cooked over firewood and red hot coals are heaped on top, such that there is heat from both sides. Each batch takes almost three hours, but sells out within minutes. And it was not difficult to see why. Unlike the biryanis of the North, South Indian biryanis tend to have a more robust flavour. So too with this. It was mild brown in colour and slightly spicy, but not so much as to be overwhelming. The rice (called jeera samba, a kind of aromatic small grain rice grown in Tamil Nadu) was packed with flavour and the meat, mutton in this case, was tender, falling off the bones and melting on the tongue. Both are cooked in a special kind of ghee that Prabhakar sources locally and monitors strictly for quality. And despite the ghee, there was none of the heaviness that one would expect. A fact that came home to me as I tucked in gleefully, enjoying the meal.
Meanwhile, Prabhakar tried to entice me to try some of the other non-vegetarian dishes popular at the restaurant such as mutton fry, chicken curry, keema (minced lamb) fry, which I did. On their own, they were good, but they didn't quite measure up to the biryani. For vegetarians, the eatery dishes up a Tamilian thali with rasam, sambhar, vegetables and curries, and which my companion assured me was quite tasty and fulfilling. I took his word for it; it seemed almost too criminal to dilute the taste of the biryani with anything else right now.
I was amused by this notion since I had happily gorged on vegetarian stuff less than five hours earlier in the day. Having arrived in Madurai the previous night, I had headed to Konar Kadai near the railway station. A nondescript eatery, it was buzzing with people, always a good sign. After a bit of waiting, I tucked into one of Madurai's specialities, kari dosa. It involved a spicy dry curry of minced lamb and fresh broken egg encased in a soft but firm dosa.
It was delicious, as was the egg dosa. From there, I headed to the bus stand, to one of the pushcarts, to try one other Madurai delicacy--kothu parota. Fussy eaters might balk at having to eat at the roadside stalls, but locals insist that's where you get the best variety. Besides, they were clean and everything was made fresh in front of you. At its simplest, kothu parota means a layered maida paratha which is minced on a griddle and sauteed along with onions, tomatoes and spices, and whatever other accompaniments you may want to choose such as egg, chicken or mutton. I chose chicken and the concoction was an explosion of flavours and textures that lingered long after I had reached my hotel for the night.
Early this morning, I decided on a quick visit to the sprawling Meenakshi temple complex in time for the Suprabhatham. Spread over 60,000 sq mts, comprising 12 gopurams, exquisite pillars, carvings, sculptures depicting various stories and incidents from the Puranas and epics, intriguing ceiling art, and a stunning edifice called the 1,000 Pillar Hall, it is a mesmerising place full of assorted sounds and myriad colours. Having worked up an appetite for breakfast, I headed to another of Madurai's institutions--Murugan Idli Shop on Westmasi street. Started more than 40 years ago, the place is always crowded. I had to battle myself in and managed to find a seat, and then launched into the idlis. With the very first bite, I knew why fans swear by the restaurant. Delicate and soft, there was just a hint of the urad dal and methi seeds in the idli, and it completely dissolved on the tongue. I was spoilt for choice in terms of accompaniments: a plate of idlis came with four kinds of chutneys--coconut, coriander, mint and tomato-and sambhar. I wolfed down four idlis without realising it, such was its lightness. Enthused by the blissfully beatific look on my face, the waiter suggested I try one of the dosas or uthappams, but I regretfully declined. I was too full from the goodness of the idlis and didn't want to mess with its taste. Besides which, I wanted to be adequately prepared for the biryani at Dindigul.
Now that I had tasted the biryani, I was glad to have left it for last. The idlis had been superb, the kari dosa and kothu parota had no peers, but the biryani was almost nirvana-like. I am sure Freud will have a field day with this: I even occasionally dream about the biryani and I swear I wake up with its taste on my tongue.
What to eat
Biryani at Dindigul, Ponram Biriyani Hotel, 32/33, Opp Canara Bank, Salai Road; tel: (0451) 244 1003
Idlis and dosas at Murugan Idli Shop, 196, Westmasi Street, Madurai; tel: (0452) 234 1379
Kari dosa/egg dosa at Konar Kadai, 32, West Veli Street, near Railway Station, Madurai
That's a lot of biryani!
On a typical day, Ponram Biriyani Hotel dishes out 500-750 portions of biryani, with mutton biryani being the most popular. It uses 150 kg rice, 120 kg mutton, 15 kg ghee, 1 kg each of cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, garlic and kg cloves to produce its lip-smacking signature biryani.
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