In a land of homemade sweets and savouries, Olympia Shilpa Gerald discovers the magic of a chunk of peanuts held together by glistening syrup.

Wiping down the foggy car windows, I see men with decidedly drab umbrellas wading through the waterlogged road. The sky is a bulging grey, a cold wind creeps in and there is something phantasmical about a solitary car zipping through the roads when visibility is near zero. It is the highest rainfall recorded in years, the cab driver informs me. Adding to the effect are pyramids, bleached a blinding white, sprouting on the wayside. They turn out to be the salt pans that Thoothukudi district in Tamil Nadu is renowned for.

The rain is receding as we speed towards Kovilpatti, a major town in the southern district. Though not many miles away, there is only heat and dust as we turn into Market Road, with its multi-coloured sweets, inflated plastic toys and knick-knacks. Kovilpatti, a hub for matchsticks, has another export that is often suffixed to its name — the kadalai mittai. Unlike Thoothukudi, whose macaroon has an air of exclusivity about it, this town’s chief boast is humble fare, one that every non-descript streetside shop in Tamil Nadu stocks in old-fashioned beaker-like bottles.

As I walk up to K.S. Kadalaimittai, I’m stunned at the rows of sweets and savouries in the shop. Kovilpatti and its neighbouring towns are candy paradise and most shops sell eatables in shapes, sizes and colours I’ve not seen before. As I point excitedly at dark brown spiral candy, bright yellow wavy sev, Kathiswaran ticks off names — Ellu mittai, cocoa mittai, cheeni mittai, karupatti mittai and yeni padi mittai .

The makers of the kadalai mittai here are taking a lunch break and I cross the road to V.V. Ramachandran (V.V.R.) Kadalaimittai. And there they are — freshly made little chunks of peanuts held together by glistening syrup, topped with wisps of grated coconut dyed pink, green and yellow.

“It was through word of mouth that Kovilpatti’s kadalai mittai became famous, and the bus services added to the popularity,” says Selavaraj, co-proprietor of the shop that has been around for 40 years. His partner Ramachandran says, “Kadalai mittai is made all over the State, but in Kovilpatti, the best ingredients go into making it. That is how the practice of buying the candy in kilos rather than slabs became common here.” The kadalai mittai usually takes the form of a slab of squares wedged together. In Kovilpatti, it is found as single rectangular chunks, or rather cuboids, sealed in packets. I nibble at the candy and the flavour of peanuts and slightly intoxicating syrup make a heady combo. The best part is not only that it’s cheap (you can get a slab for Rs.9 and a kilo for Rs.64), but you can gorge on the candy without reaching that tipping point that happens with most sweets.

When I coax him to spill more secrets, Ramachandran says, “Apart from the quality of ingredients, it has to do with the jaggery — we melt two or three types of jaggery to get the syrup.”

Nagajothi at MNR Sakthi Ganesh, which has a 60-year-old history, shows us the special jaggery — “Theni vellam”, named after a town in south-west Tamil Nadu. This is not the brown, hardened, round lump of jaggery. Theni vellam is a pale, soft triangular block of jaggery, freshly made. The groundnuts are sourced from the nearby town of Aruppukottai. The groundnuts are shelled, and then roasted in a machine.

But the essence of getting this South-Indian equivalent of chikki right, lies in the consistency of the jaggery syrup, says Gokul Ram. He leads us to the recesses of M.N.S. Anjaneyar Vilas that has an image of an air-borne Hanuman bearing a tray of kadalai mittai. While the shop front has mounds of yellow, orange and red sev twisted into coils and ribbons, the kitchen is blackened with soot and is searing with the heat from stoves fed with wood chips (leftovers from the match factories).

A stocky, bare-bodied Kannan is bent over a massive cauldron where the special and ordinary jaggery are melted in boiling water. As the paagu or syrup thickens, a mind-numbing aroma fills the room. Once Kannan decides the syrup is ready, he adds glucose water. Ayyakannu, his mate, empties the roasted and crushed groundnuts into the syrup, sprinkling a little vanilla essence. Finding each other, the ingredients send out a giddy scent —warm and overpowering.

When the syrup bubbles up turning a golden brown, the preparation takes on an alchemical turn. Ayyakannu may have no education to speak of, but he evidently has mastery over some strange principle of physics. With accurately timed, swift clockwise and anticlockwise moves of his ladle, he ensures the bubbles dissipate and a lump of peanuts embedded in hardened syrup emerges. Folding it like a pillow, Ayyakannu plunks it on a board. With a rolling pin, he proceeds to flatten it into a nutty bed. Rolling over a measuring plank and knife, he makes surgical strokes till hundreds of lines crisscross the mittai. Finally, with a sweep of his hand, he breaks up the chunks that fall apart like the pieces of a finished puzzle. I am a little alarmed at the rapid strokes with the knife that are just half-inch apart. “I did have bleeding fingers in the first few months when I started, but I have been doing this for 50 years now,” he smiles.

Who made kadalai mittai synonymous with this town? Sakthivel at MNR, says: “Our father and the experts who serve them today learnt the tricks from Ponnambala Nadar. He is no more and his family diversified into other trades.”

Though none of the stores could volunteer much information, Vaithialingam, an 85-year-old wholesale dealer in the town, says, “Ponnambala Nadar had a grocery store in the Bazaar area around 1940. Five years later, he decided to use the excess peanuts in his store to make kadalai mittai. He was quality conscious and made a name.” Though no more, Ponnambalam’s kadalai mittai, the first to be branded in the town, is remembered by old-timers. He called it “Baby” after his daughter.

HOW IT’S MADE

Ingredients

Peanuts 1 kg

Jaggery 1/2 kg

Theni jaggery 1/2 kg

Glucose powder, vanilla essence or cardamom powder: a dash

Method

Roast groundnuts. In a vat, heat water. Melt both types of jaggery. Keep stirring till the syrup reaches a fine consistency. Empty groundnuts, add glucose water, vanilla essence or cardamom powder and stir repeatedly. Let the syrup bubble over; stoke the vat till peanuts are embedded in jaggery. On a board, flatten the lump with a rolling pin. Make crisscross cuts with a knife. Break up the pieces. Store and eat.