FOOD SAFARI Baradwaj Rangan travels to this southern temple town to indulge his sweet tooth.

For four years now, Selvam — a journeyman of medium height, swarthy and stocky — has been showing up for work at a house a quarter-km from the Andal temple. His station, which overlooks the street and which he shares with five other workers, is a longish shed with a sextet of small kilns. Like the others, he is here every morning at 7:30, which is about the time milk from the cooperative society is delivered. He stokes the kiln with scoops of cashew nutshells (it’s cheaper than gas), warms a large wok, decants 10 litres of milk into it, adds one-and-a-quarter kg of sugar, and begins to stir. He will keep stirring for three-quarters of an hour, by which time the liquid will have congealed into three kg of a sticky, off-white semi-solid. He will pour this mass into a cooling tray, and then turn to the kiln and begin the process all over again.

Milk. Sugar. Stir. And again, and again, till the morning’s consignment of milk has been consumed before it can spoil. By 11:30 a.m., Selvam and his co-workers will have produced some 25-30 kg of palgova.

There is surely some kind of cosmic comedy in such rigorous physical activity being expended on the production of a product whose consumption will entail, in the fitness-conscious, an equal amount of sweaty exercise.

But Selvam and his colleagues have little time for dry existential pensées. They will head home, rest, and return for the afternoon shift, when the afternoon’s supply of milk is delivered. Selvam’s employer, Vijay Merchant, an affable young man with the unlikeliest name in Srivilliputtur, says that the 60 kg of palgova produced per day will be sold entirely by the time he closes shop at 9 pm.

Merchant and his father, Vimal Singh, run a 25-year-old establishment clearly named to compensate for its small size: Sri Venkateswara Vilas Lala Sweet Stall. It’s more commonly known as “Singh kadai” (Singh’s shop). This was the name thrown at me when I asked, in Madurai, where I’d get the best palgova in Srivilliputtur.

The Singhs are originally Rajputs, who were brought to Tamil Nadu as cavalrymen for the kingdom of Sokkampatti. Merchant says that his grandfather’s grandfather introduced halwa to Tirunelveli, which is a little like talking about the man who extracted the first lump of coal in Newcastle.

According to Merchant, the now-legendary Tirunelveli halwa was first made and sold in the mid-1800s, in Lakshmi Vilas, which stands even today. Gradually the family dispersed to other parts of Tamil Nadu — to Nagercoil, to Tuticorin, to Srivilliputtur — and so did the art of sweet-making. Sometimes, more than one branch of the family settled in the same neighbourhood, as is the case with Merchant’s cousin, Sunder Singh, whose product is named “Puliyamarathadi palgova”, as his was the first shop by the local puliyamaram (tamarind tree).

Singh shows me a sheaf of legal papers he has drawn up to trademark the “Singh Lala” brand name, with an S logo. He urges Merchant to follow his footsteps, but Merchant demurs. He feels trade-marking the product will result in more taxes, and Singh argues that that’s better than others setting up palgova stalls with the same name.

Sunder Singh, in a sense, is the odd man out in a sea of palgova-makers, who are content to do things the way things have always been done in this small town. Merchant does not worry about competition because he knows he has a steady and loyal customer base. He says the secret of his success lies in the fine-grained texture of the palgova, obtained by Selvam and his cohorts knowing just when to allow the mix to cool. He also attributes his fame to “thaayin anugraham”, the blessings of the goddess. This is not an entirely sentimental statement.

Bus stand abuzz

Like Madurai nearby, whose legend is built around Meenakshi, the economy of Srivilliputtur is driven by large flocks of devotees from near and far coming to visit the birthplace of Andal, and when they leave, as if custom-bound, they will take back with them “Srivilliputtur palgova”. The local bus stand is one of the busiest points of sale, where hawkers with plates of palgova perched on their heads move from transport to transport in the hope of attracting customers.

There are also stalls in the bus stand, one of which sells, exclusively, the palgova made by the cooperative society. Mayandi, a salesman with clumps of ear hair and a thick streak of ash between the eyebrows, has been at this counter for 10 years, and he says that the society, which was established in the waning days of the Raj, was the first to make palgova. His story is that a crew dispatched to Haryana in the 1950s saw how khoa was made there, and they returned with the resolve to make the product here, with the surplus milk: Hence paal (milk) khoa, which the pidgin vernacular has mutated into palgova. Mayandi remembers sampling the sweet as a child, when it was sold in far fewer quantities, primarily for local consumption.

But when the “white revolution” in the 1970s resulted in a flood of high-quality milk, the cooperative began to make more palgova to sop up the excess supply. Their incentive: Palgova will stay for two weeks without spoiling, unlike buttermilk and butter whose shelf life is a matter of mere days. (Also, it needs no refrigeration.)

There is a theory that palgova was “invented” so that the common man, accustomed to gruel rather than milk, could be tempted to consume more dairy, but K. Koodalingam, who has been with the Srivilliputtur Milk Producers Cooperative Society Ltd. since 1977 (he began as a vendor and is now manager), doesn’t make much of it. He says that the white revolution is the reason Srivilliputtur became famous for its palgova, because people from the cooperative aggressively “marketed” the product by taking it around — to Courtallam during the season, to the Theni exhibition — and making it known. He gives us a sample of the sweet, hot from the kilns. (Unlike the Singhs, the cooperative uses wood from the tamarind tree as fuel, which accounts for a slightly brownish tint, and they add one-and-a-half kg of sugar per 10 litres of milk for a yield of three-and-a-quarter kg. But like the Singhs, they sell the product for Rs. 180 a kg.) The taste of palgova is essentially that of sweetened, condensed milk, and a few mouthfuls can immune the tongue to further sensation. (You may need the equivalent of a cup of coffee beans in a perfumery.)

Even so, the cooperative’s palgova is the finest we’ve had all day. It has a gummy texture, the consistency of cooked oats, and it’s so much richer in taste. Koodalingam says that they sell 100 kg a day, mainly at the bus stand, and he gently mocks the fly-by-night operators who vend their wares there. “Any person without a job in this town will buy milk, make palgova, and sell it at the bus stand.”

HOW IT’S MADE

Ingredients

Milk: 8 cups

Sugar: 1 cup (or less, depending on sweetness of milk)

Method

Bring milk to a boil. Reduce the flame and simmer for one hour stirring every few minutes. After some time, the colour changes and the milk begins to solidify. At this point, stir continuously until the thickened milk begins to leave the sides of the pan. Pour and allow to cool.

A fortnightly feature on food and the places that made them famous.