Food Safari… In search of Madurai jigarthanda

Posted on September 15, 2012


Sheikh Abdul Qader is not an easy man to miss. For one, he runs the most famous jigarthanda store in Madurai, the rather immodestly (if obviously) named Famous Jigarthanda. Secondly, when this affable 50-year-old smiles, as he is wont to whenever he speaks, he reveals a mouth only partially filled with teeth, which are all on the left side. “I am a sugar patient,” he says, trying to explain away the gaping hole on the right. But listen to his story, and you may arrive at a different conclusion. Qader was 10 when he joined the family business, which was run from a pushcart. (This store, which is really just a stand backing into a small one-room by the side of the corridor leading to the Madanagopalaswamy temple, came into existence five years ago.) His mother’s brother taught him the ropes. “And when he was not looking, I used to drink countless glasses of jigarthanda.” Could that be why Qader is a walking-talking cautionary tale today, which mothers can tell their chocolate-bound children? “Now,” Qader says somewhat ruefully, “I limit myself to two glasses a day.”

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Little girls in school uniforms hand Qader steel dabbas to be filled with jigarthanda, which is Madurai’s most favourite roadside drink. But chef Jacob Sahaya Kumar Aruni, over the course of a telephonic conversation, locates the origin of jigarthanda to regions more northwards. “Just look at the name,” he says. “Those are Hindi words – jigar thanda is something that cools the heart. The drink was invented to cool the hearts of Muslim settlers in India. It is thought that the Mughals brought it in.” Aruni points to its mention in the Ain-i-Akbari, that administrative record of Akbar’s reign. “It is called something different there,” Aruni says. “But that drink too is made with almond pisin [gum].” The pisin is the thing that separates jigarthanda from its northern cousin, the falooda, which uses vermicelli and is therefore scooped up and eaten; jigarthanda, on the other hand, is stirred and drunk.

Falooda is also a more innocent preparation, its truck solely with the gustatory. Jigarthanda, though, was a fixture at wedding nights. Almond is an aphrodisiac, and milk a soporific. “The almond pisin would give them strength, and the milk would later help them sleep,” says Aruni, seemingly unaware that the drink has just made the leap from cooling the heart to warming the loins. He guesses that jigarthanda must have come to the Pandian kingdom along with Mughal cuisine, possibly through a marriage alliance. “Also, the Muslim population of Madurai, who were originally from Hyderabad, must have brought it with them, as people had the habit of bringing along their own kitchen staff.” Now, of course, jigarthanda is associated more with Madurai than with Lucknow or Hyderabad.

R Venkatraman, Professor of Art History (Retd.), Madurai Kamaraj University, subscribes to a different view. Sitting in his living room in his vest and lungi, and clearly relishing the opportunity to deliver another lecture, he maintains that jigar stands for spirit or courage, while thanda comes from the Arabic word thandal, which stands for the captain of a ship and also the rower of a boat. (Hence the Tamil word thandalkaaran.) Such a person would need physical and mental strength, and kadal paasi [sea algae], rich in nutrition, was a staple food of seafarers. “The Arabs made the drink popular,” he says, before taking a detour into a dizzyingly free-associative history of Madurai. “The city, at one point, was under the control of Sultans. And later, the Nayak viceroys of the Vijayanagara empire came here. At some point, jigarthanda became jigardanda – where danda stands for stick or club, the king’s sceptre. It could also stand for the mace, which is associated with Hanuman and Bheema. All of Madurai’s Hanuman temples came after the Vijayanagara empire – earlier it was only Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita. Even today, pushcarts selling jigarthanda will have, on the side, an illustration of Bheema.”

No such illustration adorns the pushcart of Amanullah, where a painted sign screams: “Rosemilk, Badam Kheer, Sharbat, Jil Jil Jigarthanda.” This is the only cart on this roadside. He says we will find more in places where there are plenty of pedestrians, rather than this big road with its incessant vehicular traffic. How, then, does he make a sale? “I am near this children’s park,” he says, pointing ahead. “The customers come from there.” Amanullah’s jigarthanda, at the standard rate of Rs. 15 per glass, is watery, with lots of ice, and not very sugary – and there’s a residual taste of vanilla. Like most makers of jigarthanda, he buys kadal paasi and soaks it overnight, till it becomes loose and stringy. Then he adds milk, sugar syrup, vanilla essence, and a signature splash of orange colour.

The owner of the store opposite the old Imperial Cinema says that he makes his jigarthanda with milk, kadal paasi and nannari [sarsaparilla] sharbat. Attesting to the popularity of this recipe, he boasts that he sells 3000 to 5000 glasses a day, during the summer months. Elsewhere, at the Murugan Idli Store, the recipe (like Amanullah’s) switches nannari sharbat with sugar syrup, and the glass is garnished with a dollop of ice cream and even basundhi (if you request a “special jigarthanda,” which costs Rs. 26, six rupees more than what Famous Jigarthanda charges for its special). The drink at Murugan Idli Store is a little sweeter, the paasi a little chewier in texture than in the earlier stores – but it comes in the same shade, more or less, which is the colour of a malt beverage. Another shop named Famous Jigarthanda on East Marret Street – they claim to have “no branches,” despite being run by relations of Sheikh Abdul Qader – uses a pre-mixed recipe.

Is jigarthanda made of almond pisin, as Aruni claims, or kadal paasi, as everyone else seems to refer to the gelatinous substance that dissolves into noodle-like extrusions? The confusion is resolved by Qader, as he discloses his recipe. (See sidebar.) “The almond pisin looks like kadal paasi, so everyone calls it that. It’s the same thing.” (I wonder what the Professor, with his seafaring theories, would have to say to this.) Qader’s day begins at 6 a.m., when the milk is boiled and cooled. Cream is set aside. Ice-cream is made by hand. The pisin, left to soak overnight, is stripped of impurities like tree bark. The root of nannari is boiled and mixed with sugar to make sharbat. The store opens around noon and closes at 11 p.m. Jostling crowds notwithstanding, Qader says that what we’re having is not really the jigarthanda he used to have as a kid, for five or ten paise. “The milk was so pure then,” he says. “Now they use injections and all sorts of chemicals. Also, earlier, it was cow’s milk, which was more fragrant. Now it’s a mix of cow’s milk and buffalo’s milk. That’s why that  old taste is not there anymore.”

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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