Following the whiff of ghee in Tirunelveli, Olympia Shilpa Gerald discovers why you should never return without halwa.

Every evening, auto driver Ramachandran rushes to a sweet stall close to the eastern banks of the copper-tinged Thamirabarani River. He reaches out to pick up a sliver of reddish brown, slapped on a translucent sheet of paper. Stepping away, he savours each morsel with a relish that betrays no hint that Ramachandran has performed this twilight ritual everyday, for the last 30 years.

In Tirunelveli, I learnt, the halwa is no indulgence reserved for special occasions; here it amounts to staple food, as self-confessed halwa addicts like Ramachandran will tell you. “I don’t think what I eat will digest without the halwa.” But the halwa is hallowed in the world outside, where the very mention of the city is almost always followed by its signature sweet.

Once in Tirunelveli, I make a beeline to the city’s arguably most popular place for halwa — the “Iruttukadai Halwa” (translated it reads “dark shop”), a popular appellation given by customers for the shop opens its doors only at night. Still, I am keen to get a peep at the making of the much-talked about halwa. I am told the shop is right in the heart of the city, where the ancient Nellaiappar temple stands majestically. The shutters are down as expected, but someone directs me a few feet away to Visagam Sweets, which is the only authorised outlet for those who want to taste the Iruttukadai Halwa before dusk. “How will I find the place?” I ask him, when he tells me the halwa is prepared in a house on the adjacent Amman Sannidhi Street. I needn’t have asked, for all I had to do is follow the whiff of ghee that grows overwhelming at a traditional style house, where open doors reveal a cloud of smoke in the backyard. Supervisors who greet me at the threshold make it clear they are not too happy about sharing secrets, though the owner, over the phone, extended a welcome to the shop in the evening.

Turning back, close to the temple, I stumble upon Ganesh Pasumpal Sweets, a non-descript store, an acquaintance had mentioned. Acceding to my request, the proprietor leads me down the lane to a decrepit house with a narrow staircase. On the landing, a grey-haired man stands over a vat with sticky yellow substance, bubbling on a firewood oven. Paddling it with his long oar-like ladle, he says it is a concoction of ghee, sugar and wheat. “It takes a lot of patience to prepare the halwa, as we have to keep stirring it for over an hour,” says Ram Shankar, who has been doing this for 30 years. The halwa is wrapped up by noon and allowed to cool for six hours. Ganesh stall turns out a limited quantity of halwa, which smells of unadulterated ghee, and has a regular clientele besides those who miss out on the Iruttukadai Halwa.

That the halwa is Tirunelveli’s most acclaimed product is a mixed blessing. While the sweetmeat is easily available, there are a mind-boggling number of sweet shops to confuse the sweet-toothed, but quality-conscious buyer. Entering the Old bus stand, I blink. Every second shop in every direction bears the name “Santhi Sweets”, with minor additions in the form of suffixes and prefixes like “new”, “Nellai” etc. Somehow every localite seems to know the “original” Santhi. “You cannot miss it, madam, it is the shop with the crowd,” a cab driver tells me. Little wonder that proprietor Subramanian has no qualms about the name being borrowed by scores of shops, all over the city. “Naturally a visitor wonders at the proliferation of shops and asks after the original store, which people in the city are well aware of,” he smiles. “Though production is mostly mechanised, the taste of the halwa depends on the subtleties of proportions of ingredients used and techniques employed, besides the weather and water,” he says, ruing the shortage of skilled labour.

Namasivayam, the supervisor, takes me on a tour. “Tread carefully or you may slip,” he warns me, as I pick my way through water-soaked floors scattered with grain. “The grains are samba wheat which must be soaked overnight before grinding, as the smell of the halwa depends on it,” he says. Women with hitched up skirts rinse and strain the wheat with buckets of water, filling large steel containers with milk-like liquid, which is left to ferment. Previously fermented frothy milk is mixed with sugar in large vats that churn mechanically, while ghee is added manually. Here the men take over and the atmosphere has something of the savage about it, given the black, burnt cauldrons, six-ft-long iron ladles and steady fires. Beakers are dipped in to fill large vessels when Namasivayam decides the jelly-like halwa is ready. Rolling a morsel into a ball, he says, “When the halwa does not stick to the fingers, we know we’ve got it right.” The plate of halwa he offers is searingly hot with a gum-like texture and somehow pales in comparison to the accompanying savouries.

Just opposite Santhi Sweets, another buzz of activity is Lakshmi Vilas, the oldest in town, started in 1882. Folks at Lakshmi Vilas Lala Sweets claim the founder Jegan Singh is the father of Tirunelveli halwa, with an interesting story of how the town’s favourite dessert owes its genesis to creators from the desert. “The halwa was first prepared by Rajput cooks who were hired by the zamindar of Chokkampatti (a village near Tirunelveli),” says a spokesperson for the shop. The zamindar, enraptured by the sweets he tasted at Kasi, insisted that Jegan Singh’s family prepare them in his palace. Later, Singh moved to Tirunelveli where he opened Lakshmi Vilas, naming it after a female relative who was incidentally the first to sell the halwa on the streets of Tirunelveli. The tale is validated by old halwa masters like Pitchaiyah of Chandra Sweets, whose ancestors, like many others, learnt the trade from the Rajput cooks. While the yesteryear halwa, made of pure ghee was ambrosial, Pitchaiyah acknowledges that the pressing need to keep prices competitive has compelled many sweet-makers to mix Vanaspathi with ghee. Though the Thamirabarani river water is said to contribute to the distinctive taste of the halwa, many shops use borewell water. Yet the halwa has its legion of followers as S.R. Subramanian at Sree Ram Lala Sweets, Palayamkottai, points out. “There are 70 and 80-year-olds who walk up twice a day here, just to have a little halwa.” While Subramanian’s father sold halwa in a pushcart, a common practice 50 years ago, today he has added a touch of the exotic, offering mixed fruits, cucumber and dates halwa.

Still nothing beats the traditional Tirunelveli halwa, Subramanian avows — proof of which I find as I return to the Nellaiappar temple. While fervent pilgrims line up before the deity, outside the temple there are devotees queuing outside a wooden shuttered structure with no name above it, for a darshan of a different kind. The doors open and clad in a pristine dhoti, Hari Singh and his men ladle out their prasadam in plantain leaves, that the clamouring numbers clutch at avidly. “First have this,” he says, handing a strip of plantain leaf, stalling any questions. Surprisingly, though warm, this is not off-the-stove halwa, which I’ve been tasting all day. Not the cloying kind, the Iruttukadai variety has a crumbly exterior. “If you eat it off the stove, it is not halwa. Halwa should never be packed hot as the steam is trapped inside,” Singh tells me. “What you’re eating now was prepared 24 hours ago.” So, the secret behind Iruttukadai Halwa is it is actually yesterday’s halwa? “The halwa is prepared over three days. We extract the wheat milk on day one and let it ferment overnight, the halwa is prepared the next day and sold on day three,” Singh informs me. But the aura of elusivity that the shop wears and the highly coveted nature of the halwa are primarily because the successors Hari and the late Bijili Singh have perpetuated a practice of convenience. Originally Krishna Singh who opened the store spent the day preparing the sweet and could find time to sell it at night, with the help of kerosene lamps, which earned it the sobriquet “Iruttukadai”. Today a bulb burns.

“Still this halwa is ideal for taking home to friends and relatives as it tastes fresh even after a week; just microwave it.” I took Singh’s advice. For it is sacrilegious to return from Tirunelveli without a packet of halwa. Did I say a packet? Well, you’re lucky if family and friends let you off that easily!

HOW IT’S MADE

Ingredients

Wheat (samba): 1kg

Sugar: 4 kg

Ghee: 3 kg

Cashew nuts: if required

Method

Soak wheat for six hours if it is young, and 12 hours if it is matured. Grind wheat. Add water and strain with a sieve to extract milk from wheat. Repeat process with cloth to filter out wheat granules. Ferment milk overnight. Stir sugar with fermented milk on stove for half an hour till sugar thickens. Add ghee little by little and keep stirring. Continue till halwa collects in the middle of the pan/ vat without sticking on to the sides of the vessels. Cool for a few hours and serve. If consumed after a day, heat in a microwave oven or on a pan before serving.

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