Tirunelveli halwa might sound more familiar, but the version made in Madurai district’s Othakadai town has its own, pilgrim-like following
It is mid-afternoon on a hot Sunday in Othakadai, a town in Narasingam Panchayat, barely 20 minutes away from Madurai. Here, there is no sign of the weekend lull at Patchi Raja Vilas as passengers disembark from mini buses and cars and rush in to place their orders. “I want 10 grams,” says a woman, clutching a cloth bag. “A hundred grams for me,” says another, as a man clamours for “my 250 grams”. And as the aroma of hot ghee fills the tiny stall, we finally snatch a glimpse of the product that customers have been hankering for.
Patchi Raja Vilas and and its sister concern Sri Lakshmi Vilas across the road, have been selling a version of Tirunelveli’s iconic wheat halwa over 50 years, and the translucent amber dessert has become so famous in its own right, that local residents and Madurai foodies refer to it as ‘Othakadai Halwa’. And in a nod to nostalgia, the gooey treat comes in a distinctive wrapping of mandharai (yellow orchid) leaves and newsprint (for servings up to 250 grams).
Says proprietor Senthil Murugan, “My father Paramasivam Pillai started making wheat halwa, based on the Tirunelveli style recipe, in the late 1960s in a small hut, and established this shop in Othakadai in 1971.” He adds, “I joined him soon after finishing school, and worked with him for 20 years, learning all his recipes for traditional sweets and snacks. In fact, appa was actively involved in the business until his demise last week at the age of 80.”
Thought to be an import from North Indian cuisine, wheat halwa is a favourite in the roster of traditional southern Indian menu of sweetmeats, with each region having its own spin on the glutinous dish.
Othakadai halwa is lighter in texture and less sweet than the Tirunelveli version, and since it is cooked at an extremely high temperature, it has a long shelf life, says Senthil Murugan.
“Some of my friends in the US take a large serving with them, freeze it, and then reheat and eat small helpings through the year,” he says while showing us around the kitchen off Thirumogur Road where the day’s batch of halwa is already on the boil, alongside savouries like murukkus, masala peanuts and omapodi, a vermicelli sized sev flavoured with thyme.
Though there are only three ingredients: wheat, sugar and ghee, besides cashewnuts for crunch and nutmeg for fragrance, cooking the halwa is a time-consuming process. “It takes us two days to soak the samba wheat and make a soft batter with manual stone grinders. The batter rests for a day, following which we strain it through cloth to get godhumai paal (wheat milk or extract),” says Senthil Murugan, who sells approximately 50 kilos of the sweet at the stores daily, besides catering orders.
“We use one measure of wheat milk with four measures of sugar and three of ghee for the halwa,” he adds. “But the hardest part is cooking this mixture down to the right consistency, because you have to stir continuously for at least four hours until it starts resembling nongu (ice apple) in texture.”
When we visit, a huge cast iron kadhai, set on an earthen cooking station, its fire fuelled by cashewnut husks, is bubbling away with the day’s second batch of halwa.
Senthil Murugan wields the long-handled iron spatula with ease as he stirs and scrapes the hot mixture in circular motions. In four hours, the beige wheat milk has caramelised and turned darker, the sugar and ghee giving it a glossy finish. “The halwa is ready when it begins to leave the sides of the pan and the ghee floats to the top. At this stage, you can easily roll it into small balls.”
The halwa is transferred into heavy-bottomed brass vessels and then taken to the store where sweet chaos reigns from 8.30am to 10.30pm as customers troop in for their dessert fix, usually balanced with a handful of savoury omapodi. Demand has been steady, including during the earlier restricted business hours of lockdown, says Senthil Kumar, as he requests people to maintain social distance while he serves them.
“Though it is such an old recipe, several generations of customers relish the taste of this sweetmeat. The best lesson I learned from my father was patience — whether in making halwa or in life, some things in life are worth waiting for,” says Senthil Murugan.
A fresh batch of Othakadai halwa awaits customers in a traditional brass vessel. Photo: Nahla Nainar/THE HINDU
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