Olympia Shilpa Gerald returns to childhood, munching on the noisiest snack she has ever known.

My earliest memories of Manapparai town, an hour’s drive from Tiruchi in the heart of Tamil Nadu, are as a child on a bus bound southward every summer. This was one stop I could never sleep through, sure to be woken up by shrill cries of “Murukku, Murukku”, the trademark call announcing the town’s signature snack.

At least three hawkers would shove temptingly transparent packets of deep fried rice flour murukku (known as chakli in some parts of the country), through the window. More than any other wayside fare, the murukku unfailingly found favour with many. Being neither sweet nor spicy, and guaranteed to keep your stomach together on the bumpiest of stretches, it was the ideal South Indian travel snack. For someone who felt awkward eating murukku in company, (no snack can sound more like a cracker inside your mouth), the rumbling bus was just right for crunching contentedly!

Here I was again besieged by hawkers, admiring their acrobatic artistry in hopping from bus to bus balancing their baskets. Tasting random samples, I found variations in taste and colour; one was pale yellow, another a fiery orange, yet another greasy. Passing through the principal road crowded with barrows of tomatoes and fruit sandwiched between clinics and tea stalls, I make a beeline to “Kumara Vilas”, which I was told held a monopoly for murukku sales within the bus stand. After pointing out the production centre half a km away, Subramani, the proprietor did not volunteer much information, confining to monosyllabic replies. Priced at Re.1 per piece, the murukku here is small, pale and crisp, albeit redolent of oil.

Hungry for more information, I step into one of the biggest units, the Venkateshwara Murukku company, popularly called as “Alagar kadai”, after the proprietor. In a long room with an asbestos roof, a dozen men and women are grouped around two cauldrons simmering on a log fire, kneading the flour with spices and water, patting it into the funnel of a “muruku maker” (mould) and shaping white coils that are slid into hot oil. The murukku is drained in a colander, transferred into a bamboo basket, weighed and packed in less than five minutes. On what makes the murukku special, Alagar echoes the universally repeated statement, “The water in Manapparai is uniformly salty and gives the murukku its distinctive flavour.” While wells were the major source few decades back, today bore wells pump water expressly for murukku making. “You won’t get the same taste with any other water,” Alagar asserts. He produces around 100 kg of the crunchy fare with the characteristic subtle flavours. Yet profits are marginal, for competition ensures the murukkus are priced at Re.1 a piece, despite hike in prices of ingredients.

Every few feet apart, there is a board screaming “Manapparai special rice murukku available here”, proof of cashing in on the town’s best known offering. I discover there are around 150 to 200 families and cottage industries and at least 10 companies churning out the snack.

Made to perfection

“Do you want to taste the original Manapparai murukku?” asks the friend of a local acquaintance. Determined to find the best, I follow him through a couple of narrow lanes to the house of “Murukku Manohar”, whose family has been in the business for 60 years and arguably makes the best murukku. Inside a house with walls the colour of lime green and rosemilk, the man introduces himself, laying additional stress on his prefix. “If you taste the murukku here, you will never buy anywhere else.” Before I dismiss it as an exaggeration, I catch sight of the soft buttery yellow murukkus studded with black slivers, looking superior to everything I’ve seen so far. These are double the normal size and cost Rs. 2 per piece. While Manohar’s wife expertly kneads the flour, a woman rotates the mould till pearly white spools of flour pile on top of one another, with dozen pieces done in less than ten seconds. Even as I marvel at the precision of technique, she discards the slightly errant ones.

The process looks deceptively easy but involves hard labour, with the day beginning at 4 am and winding up at 2 pm, except during the Deepavali season when heavy demand keeps them up till midnight. Export offers and expansion plans have been eschewed for want of trained labour. “The production is confined to the family. If we go in for mass production, we may lose out on the flavour and quality which come from knowledge of right proportions of salt with salty water, kneading technique, refined palm oil and special murukku rice flour milled in Madurai,” says Manohar.

Though no longer involved in production, Manohar’s 70-year-old father, Doraisamy, reckoned as a doyen in the business shares the trade secret, “We use the double fry technique, which is followed by only three or four families today.” As I watch, the first batch is fried, set aside for a couple of minutes and fried again till it acquires the creamy texture. “I haven’t travelled further than Tiruchi but my murukkus have been taken by people to relatives in Gulf countries, Malaysia, Singapore, the U.S. and even a bishop in Rome,” he says proudly ticking off a list of celebrities from Rajiv Gandhi to A.R. Rahman, who have feasted on his fare. “When it comes to special orders, we mix ghee or butter with the flour,” he says as I wonder if it could get better than the murukku in my hand, which redefines “crunchy”.

“The double frying technique was perfected by Mani Iyer who sold murukku before Independence in the railway canteen, the birthplace of the snack’s popularity,” reveals Doraisamy as I prod him on why the ton is synonymous with the food. Sadly, every reporting trick in the bag to identify Mani Iyer’s successors drew a blank. Though most murukku makers in town, while trying to garner credit for the dish’s popularity, acknowledged Mani Iyer’s contribution, they were quick to remind me that his family had moved out of town after his demise and were no longer involved in the business.

Luckily, my quest for information on the “murukku man” ended where it all began. Though there is nothing left of the erstwhile railway canteen, murukkus made the double-fried way are sold at a stall owned by Prabhu, a dear friend of Mani Iyer. “It was in fact Mani’s uncle Krishna Iyer who laid the base for what was to become Manapparai murukku,” chuckles the old man. “Apparently no passenger passing through the station would return without a packet and that’s how the murukku became famous. The canteen was so popular that trains used to arrive ahead of schedule for an extended break at Manapparai station.”

Inevitable compromise

The murukkus made today are not a patch on Iyer’s that were made of locally grown raw rice and fried in groundnut oil. The ingredients have been replaced owing to cost factor, he rues, pleading guilty.

As I am about to leave, a steady rain starts beating down and I decide to wash down the murukkus with some tea. My hosts press the pal gova (milk sweet) on me, claiming it is the best I would ever taste, owing to the district’s milk society accounting for the highest supply of milk in the State. For Manapparai has another claim to fame — a famous weekly cattle market, where the best of cows are traded. The sweet does melt in the mouth, but that is another story.

HOW IT’S MADE

(Serves four)

Ingredients

Rice flour: One kg (ground with a dash of urad dal)

Cumin seeds, gingelly, asafetida, ajwain (omam): Five to 10 grams

Salt, water and oil: As required

Method

Mix all ingredients with flour. Add water little by little, kneading into a thick batter. Pat it into the murukku maker and rotate to form coils. Set aside for two minutes. Fry a batch in oil, set it aside, fry a second batch and fry the first batch again. Store in air-tight container. Butter or ghee can be added for richness.

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