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Halwa cooking
Tirunelveli's Gift
... word of mouth

A Ganesh Nadar

E-Mail this travel feature to a friend Tirunelveli is a bustling town which stretches for just five or seven kms in all directions. Shops and houses crowd the sides of the roads. But if you have the time to go behind the houses you will be amidst lush green fields. The fields can be found right in the centre of the town.

There is a huge bus terminus which is awake around the clock. Here you can see men hurrying-scurrying around in dhothis, lungis and pants. Women in colourful saris walk at a more sedate pace. Majority of the young girls still wear a thavani or half-sari or perhaps the salwar-kameez. Jeans and skirts are a rarity.

There are bus routes to every place in Tamil Nadu -- inter-state buses to Trivandrum, Tirupathi, Ernakulam and Bangalore too -- out of this busy little town. The railway station is just a three minute walk. Trains are available to the temple town Tiruchendur, the touristy Kanyakumari, the state capital of Madras and one even to Bombay.

Around the bus station are innumerable shops selling cloth, das-paisa-type bags, stationery --tempting but useless knick knacks that you never need and of course innumerable STD booths. And even three computerised colour labs where you can develop a film roll in one hour flat while you drum your heels waiting for your Kulesekarappattinam ramba fast connection. There are few good hotels and innumerable smaller cheaper ones.

The Arasan ice cream parlour outside the bus depot, stands out in its décor, service and taste in these parts. College students can be found at this 'modern' hang out. Tirunelveli has a number of colleges, a law college and even a medical college attached to the huge government hospital. The famous Arvind Eye Hospital of Madurai has a very big branch hospital here.

The huge Thiru Nelliappar temple dwarfs everything around here. Legend says that a farmer put his paddy out to dry here, told his gods to keep an eye on it and went to bathe in the Tambiraparani. While he was bathing, it started raining heavily. He hurried back wondering what had happened to his paddy. While it continued to pour, he saw that the paddy remained unaffected because on that spot it was not raining. The lord had protected it 'like a hedge'. In Tamil paddy is 'Nel', hedge is 'Veli' and 'Tiri' is holy, therefore the name Tirunelveli.

There is a road right around the temple. The road houses the wholesale grains, provision and electrical market. One stretch is filled with cloth shops.

The River Tambiraparani meanders sluggishly right through the heart of the town.

The backroom boys cooking up the famous Tirunelveli halwaLike any other bus terminus and any other town, there are plenty of sweet shops around. But now don't forget we are describing the town of Tirunelveli, whose sweet shops are famous all over the South for its halwa. And unlike other places where all sweets sell, in Tirunelveli this sweetmeat outstrips all in sales and popularity.

The Tirunelveli halwa is a continuous love affair between the halwa and saliva. Mention it to anybody and you will see them smacking their tongues in anticipation and appreciation.

The most popular shop, in my estimate, must be selling over Rs 100,000 worth of halwa everyday and another ten must be selling at least Rs 10,000 of the commodity every 24 hours day. But nobody mentions figures because the Tamil Nadu tax officials are so sincere, honest, diligent and sharp eared.

But though the halwa shops outside the bus terminus do brisk business, enquiries reveal that none of these halwais are the pioneers of the original Tirunelveli halwa. The pioneer I was told was a mile away in a place called 'Town'. Just as people going to South Bombay say "I am going to town" -- this area of Tirunelveli is simply known as 'Town'.

Waiting for the special halwaFrom the 'Junction' there is a bus to 'Town' every five minutes. The fare is only one rupee. This bus crosses the famous three tier bridge across the railway line and travels past an automobile spare parts market, a few theatres, a mela and then reaches 'Town'.

The market was as crowded as the Junction area. Buses proceed at a frantic pace inspite of the crowd. An elephant walked past leisurely. From the main entrance of the Nellaipper temple you must turn left to reach the town's famous halwa shop. The sixth shop on the left is known as Iruttukadai' -- literally translated it means 'dark shop'. It has no board identifying it. It has been known as the 'Iruttukadai' for the last five decades.

The shop was closed. The wooden shutters were down. At 5.45 pm a small crowd gathered outside the shop. The shop opened at 6 pm sharp. The halwa was already packed in ¼, ½ and one kg packs. Only smaller amounts needed to be weighed and parcelled out.

One customer wanted 3 kgs in 1/4 kg packs. He explained, "My friend is going to Bangalore tomorrow and from there to the US. Please pack it specially for me!" The shopkeeper tried to convince him that their packing was very good but the buyer was persistent. Finally twelve ¼ kg packs were repacked with additional cellophane paper at no extra cost. Some wanted to send it to Madras. Others to Bombay. Quite a few bought 50 or 100 gms and ate it on the spot, glued to the floor as they wolfed the halwa down with relish. The owner continuously pleaded, "Please throw the leaves into the garbage bin." But most people just threw the leaf on the road, wiped their oily hands on a paper and threw that too on the road.

K Bijli SinghWhen I chatted with the owner K Bijli Singh I was surprised to learn that the famous Tirunelveli halwa was a Rajasthani gift to Tamil Nadu -- introduced by the Rajput community in Tirunelveli -- 85 years back. "Earlier we used to make it ourselves, now we use local cooks but the recipe remains with us". Bijli Singh and even his late father Krishna Singh were born in Chokkanpatti village of Tirunelveli districts. They have been here for five generations.

So while the rest of the country knows the Rajputs for their fighting skills, in Tirunelveli they are known for their culinary skills.

The basic difference between this halwa and others is the ingredients used. But if only ingredients matter then you may wonder why Tirunelveli halwa made in Madras or Bombay tastes different. "Simple," says Bijli Singh with a twinkle in his eye "Here we use Tambiraparani water".

Krishna Singh was the man who started the shop. In those days he used to make the halwa himself and thus was busy during the day in his kitchen. In the evening he used to sell it. Bijli Singh has stuck to that routine. "I haven't changed the décor or the 40w bulb. You see if I modernise people will think the management has changed. I'll lose business. I love tradition and sentiments." Even his cash box remains a box made from dry palm leaves.

Some time ago he was interviewed by the Tamil magazine Kalki. "A man came from Malaysia with that Kalki in his hand" he said proudly. "And bought halwa." And when this gentleman left Tirunelveli a few days later by train he was surprised to discover that quite a few had the same idea as him. Passengers departing from Tirunelveli were each carrying a precious bag of 'Iruttukadai' halwa!

Iruttukadai's Tirunelveli Halwa

Soak one kg of whole grains of wheat for eight hours.

Hand grind. Let the milk-like batter settle.

Pour the milk-like batter and 4½ kg sugar into a wide iron karhai or wok. Heat, stirring continuously till it begins to boil and bubble. Then add 2¼ kg ghee. Boil it down till it thickens and is nearly solid.

Pour onto a greased thali or plate. Let it cool and cut or serve into desired portions.

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