Tiny bits of nuts embedded in a soft juicy centre can make even a moderate sweet-lover like Serena Josephine M. ask for more.

That food can speak volumes about the history of a place holds true for Arcot, a small town in Vellore. A sweet lover’s paradise, this historical town has carried forward a piece of its rich legacy in the form of a delicacy — Arcot Makkan Peda.

On my first trip to Arcot, it took me more than just a sweet tooth to understand the essence of the town. Buzzing with commercial activity, Arcot’s numerous sweet stalls could send even a sweet lover into a dizzy. As I walk on the busy Bazaar Street surveying the contents in the sweet stalls; some publicising the royal sweet which resembles the Gulab Jamun on its name boards, I decide to find out what sets Arcot Makkan Peda aside.

My first stop was The Arcot Chettiyar Sweet Stall. A few people told me that it was one of the oldest sweet stalls in Arcot owing its popularity to Makkan Peda. In its 187 year, the shop is now run by 64-year-old P.D. Sundaram, the fifth generation proprietor. Enthused at the mention of Makkan Peda, he displays a number of Tamil books and magazines, which have featured him and the shop. He lightens up as he traces the origins of the sweet to the Arcot Nawab and speaks of his ancestors.

It all started with Govindasamy Chettiyar, who established the sweet shop, a family friend of the Arcot Nawab. Chettiyar had once tasted Makkan Peda in the house of the Nawab. Blown away by its sumptuousness, Chettiyar decided to introduce it in his stall but went on to make new additions in the form of dry fruits filling. “The sweet is an intricate part of Arcot’s tradition. It is being prepared here for generations. It was my uncle Varadarajulu Chettiyar who told me the history behind the sweet in the early 1970’s,” Sundaram says.

I decided to take a look into the actual making of the sweet. The medium-sized kitchen is filled with the aroma of sweets and savouries. Here, 57-year-old Rajendran of Kilvisharam does what he learnt nearly 40 years ago. He neatly arranges small ball-shaped pieces of dough measuring 100 grams each on a large aluminium plate and keeps it ready to be fried in hot oil.

“It is the stuffing inside the dough that makes the sweet special. It consists of several dry fruits including almond, pistachio, walnut, cashew nut, raisins and many more,” says Rajendran. Made of maida and sugarless khoa, the dough is rolled into lemon-sized balls and then stuffed with grated dry fruits. The balls are slightly flattened and then fried in oil till golden brown and soaked in sugar syrup.

“It should soak for at least 10 hours. What we serve today was prepared yesterday,” adds Rajendran. He along with Manohar, another cook, makes at least 50 to 60 kg of Makkan Peda a day. “During festival season and for marriage orders, we make even 100 kg. What adds to the uniqueness of its taste is the river water in Arcot,” Manohar opines.

Now that I knew what goes into the making of the Makkan Peda, I was ready to pick up the bowl of sweet earlier handed to me by Sundaram Chettiyar’s son S. Sivasankar.

Its close resemblance to Gulab Jamun triggered my curiosity, only that it was a bit flattened. As the soft juicy texture of the Makkan Peda melted in the mouth, it was the dry fruit filling that gave the edge.

Sundaram Chettiyar recounts how Makkan Peda was one of the favourite sweets of Thanthai E.V.R. Periyar. “His followers used to buy the sweet for him from our shop. In 1973, when Periyar was in Arcot, he was told about our shop when he walked by during a rally. The sweet was also savoured by late Congress leader G.K. Moopanar during the wedding of Anbumani Ramadoss,” he proudly remarked. His son S. Sivasankar, a second year mechanical engineering student, tells me how popular Makkan Peda is among his friends and college staff.

That the sweet has many ardent followers is proved when 65-year-old Sampath enters the Chettiyar shop. He quickly orders “Oru Makkan Peda (One Makkan Peda)” and sits briskly on a plastic stool with the soft juicy ball placed on a thermocol bowl. I wait till he finishes, and before I could even say Makkan Peda, he pipes up, “It’s Rs. 20 and tastes heavenly.”

A resident of Brammadesam in Tiruvannamalai, the dhoti-clad sexagenarian makes it a point to relish his favourite sweet on his monthly visit to Arcot. “I come here once a month to purchase groceries. For the last 10 years, not once have I left Arcot without tasting the sweet at the Chettiyar shop,” he says.

As I resume my tasting trip for the mouth-watering delicacy, I hear another order for a kilo of Makkan Peda. Durai Kannu of Vellore is a regular customer at the shop. “If I visit Arcot, I would certainly pick up a box of Makkan Peda,” he points out.

Just diagonally opposite Chettiyar shop is a huge board that announces “Tamil Nadu Pugazhpetra Makkan Peda”. This is Arcot New Sweet Stall, another hotspot for the sweet. Its proprietor V. Kuppan Naicker began his career in sweet-making decades ago. After his demise, his sons A.K. Raja and A.K. Arun, have been running the shop.

Sparing time away from customers, Arun chips in with his bit of information about the sweet. “Not just in local areas, but Arcot Makkan Peda is popular in neighbouring States and also abroad. People call in to place an order before leaving from Bangalore. They pick up the sweet on the way. In fact, the sweet has travelled to Singapore, Malaysia and the US, as several regular customers place order with us and take the delicacy during their trip,” says Arun.

S.P. Mani, who heads the shop, is 43 years into sweet-making. “This is a traditional sweet of Arcot. There might be several varieties of sweets decked up in the shop but Makkan Peda tops the list and is the most-sought after sweet,” he notes.

Here, the Makkan Peda was more sphere-shaped; its juicy texture and nut-content retained. But more than just one Makkan Peda could be a challenging task for a moderate sweet lover like me.

The shops followed more or less the same recipe and ingredients, with minor differences in the variety of dry-fruits used. Also varied were the shapes of the Makkan Pedas and serving styles.

Makkan Peda is anybody’s story to tell in Arcot. A fruit vendor noted that it was a popular dessert for biryani lovers, some of whom never failed to take a serving of one or two Pedas from any one of the shops here. Chairman Sweets and Bakery near the bus stand was another old and popular shop for Makkan Peda, he adds.

For sweet lovers like M. Sudhakar, a local shopkeeper, Makkan Peda is a definite take-away during his visit to relatives in Chennai. No other sweet can equal Makkan Peda for him.

HOW IT’S MADE

Ingredients

(For sugar syrup)

Sugar 1.5 kg

Water one litre

Ghee100 gram

(For pedas)

Sugarless khoa 1/4 kg

Maida 1/2 kg

Dalda 100 gram

Baking soda 10 gram

Curd 1/4 litre

Dry fruits — cashew nut, almonds, pistachios, raisins, walnut, apricot, cucumber seeds, water melon seeds - 300 grams

Cardamon powder 25 grams

Oil one litre

Method

To prepare sugar syrup, pour water into a bowl of sugar and bring it to boil on low flame. Stir continuously till the syrup starts to thicken. Keep it aside and add ghee. Allow it to warm.

To make the dough, take maida and sugarless khoa in a bowl and mix well. Add dalda, curd and baking soda and knead it into a soft dough. Keep it aside.

Grate all the dry fruits and prepare a mixture. Add the cardamom powder.

Roll the dough into small-sized balls, fill the inside with the dry fruits stuffing. Roll it into a ball, flatten it slightly and keep aside. Heat oil in a pan and deep-fry the balls until golden brown.

Immerse the balls in the sugar syrup and allow it to soak for at least five hours.