Throw caution to the winds and binge on oil-fried parottas by the roadside.

The very thought of eating oily parottas made me feel queasy. And yet, with the temperature touching 41°C, I drove down 45 km south of Madurai to try them out for lunch! I thought I was crazy to chase the Ennai Parotta in the neighbouring Virudhunagar district, when Madurai itself is famous for a variety of parottas. But what local acquaintances told me proved right: “With the first bite of the Virudhunagar Ennai Parotta, you will realise what taste is all about!”

My first stop was the famous Burma Kadai (since 1969). A dish made of super-refined white flour (maida) and deep-fried is not exactly health food. But the first two crunchy bites snared me. The choice of side dish is usually spicy mutton/chicken curry, vegetable kurma or mushroom-peas curry. At Rs.13 a piece, it was worth the sinfulness.

Shaktivel Veluswamy, who runs the shop, let me savour the parotta first before I started talking. Inside the kitchen, orders flew. Parotta master Nayagan was busy mixing maida with water and oil, kneading vigorously. He pounded the dough with both hands and intermittently applied oil to its surface. “Practice is the only way to master this,” he smiled and continued for another 20 minutes, often stretching a part of the dough to test its elasticity. Once done, the dough was wrapped in a wet muslin cloth and set aside for 10 minutes.

On another side, the parotta kal, at least 10 times bigger than the normal tawa, was being heated.  At the centre, a pool of oil bubbled. The second parotta master, Surendran, announced his arrival by striking the long metal spatula against the hot iron tawa. Like a drum beat, he played on it for sometime and scraped the edges.

It was now Nayagan’s turn. The dough was unwrapped and kneaded again, then tossed, flipped, rolled and divided into 50 pieces the size of a tennis ball. With the rolling pin he flattened each ball into a thin sheet, folded it from bottom to top and then rolled to look like a long string, which he coiled into concentric circles. The coil was pressed between his palms before being placed it on the edge of the tawa. Once each parotta was uniformly baked, Surendran pushed it into the oil at the centre. The parottas were tossed, turned and deep-fried till golden brown. With a juggler’s skill, he lifted the parottas one on top of the other and transferred them on to a wire mesh to drain off the oil. When cool, it looked like a freshly baked biscuit. It was then crushed to pieces and piping hot salna poured over it.

It was not difficult to find my way to the next parotta shop. Rickshawallahs, auto drivers, bystanders, shopkeepers, cyclists and pedestrians directed me to four places — the Burma Kadai, Kamaliya, Banu and the Prince.

At these joints, the Ennai Parotta’s popularity is obvious. “It is a food of convenience, easy to serve, pack or deliver and also very filling,” says Shakthivel, whose shop sells 1,500 parottas a day. In the 1970s, it sold at Rs.1.50 a piece and in 1988 it was Rs.6. Burma Kadai was earlier famous for kothu parotta but the ennai parotta raced to the top about two decades ago.

My next stop is Kamaliya, which flips out 2,000 parottas daily. The characteristically crisp, parched-looking outer crust cracked in my mouth and left a lingering earthy aftertaste. In no time, the ennai parotta and vegetable curry, which was a tear jerker, disappeared.

Parottas mean business for the restaurateurs, but they rue that the street shops that sprout all over the town after 7.00 p.m. give them stiff competition. Says Balamurugan, a parotta master of 15 years at Prince Hotel, “The Ennai Parotta is ideal for those who can’t afford frequent meals and want to keep hunger at bay.”

It’s rush hour when the market plunges into darkness. Inverter or generator-powered lights come up. At a distance, a row of shacks is dimly lit by lanterns. The Excellent Parotta Stall catches my eye and I decide to take a chance. Ashok is busy in his open air kitchen. He tosses one parotta fresh off the tawa on my plate. It looks like an oversized jangri. “The dough,” explains the street chef, “should be tight yet soft.”

At the small shops with a seating arrangement ranging from four to 10, the crowds start swelling. I peek into Ganesh Parotta Shop with two tables, soot-covered ceiling, and wires hanging down. But parottas sizzle and bob in boiling oil. The one at Saravanan’s Stall is smaller, thicker and fillingAt Kanthiraja’s street stall, people are impatient to tuck in but are forced to wait. He sells 500 parottas daily and an additional 250 on weekends. But he admits that, given the pressure, he is unable to enjoy his job. His hands and back ache after those six crucial hours every evening.

It is amazing to watch the endless streams of Ennai Parottas emerge from these kitchens, like a mini parotta factory coming alive on the streets by night. Most of these shops sell parottas for Rs.6-8 a piece.

I admit, for once, I threw caution to the winds. The ambience and the dish broke my inhibitions. However, the experience of savouring the delicious Ennai Parottas on a shoestring budget is a dieter’s nightmare. The full-stomach feeling seems to last forever.

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