A fabulous food trail that rediscovers local cuisine and city after dusk

What new could Madurai offer?, I wondered, till the young voice from “foodiesdayout.com” roped me in, “I promise you will enjoy!”

It is the time when the sun turns bleary-eyed, the air is little cooler and everybody is in a rush to get home. But I was not. And neither were Alba Bordes, a chef-cum-blogger from Cantalonia (Spain) and Thomas Leppa, a graphic designer-cum-foodie from Helsinki (Finland). The couple was in Madurai for just the night and chose to walk the city after dusk.

Where to start in a city like Madurai with a personality and lot of history, which basks in the flavours of its street cuisine and where a story unfolds at every corner?

We stood at the junction of West Veli Street and Town Hall Road. Thomas, after three weeks in Kochi and Bangalore, said, “Let’s keep it simple.” “It should be fun,” followed up Alba, after three months in Goa. We crossed over to decades-old Prem Vilas famous for its Tirunelveli halwa for a sweet start.

A swelling group of people beat their own rhythms and in mismatched steps vied to walk on the sidewalks as vehicles honked an orchestra. There was no sign of an interruption. The counter at the sweet shop got busier by the minute.

We managed a foothold on the edge of the pavement. It is an art to elbow your way in a crowd. Unmindful of flies, dust, sweat and noise, people jostled and shouted to get their orders through first. The delicious and piping hot ghee-dripping gooey halwa made up. The guests pinched out rounds of the slippery halwa generously wrapped in a lotus leaf. “It’s yummy,” they echoed, signalling a perfect start to the culinary excursion.

We snaked around North Masi Street to get the business of the city streets. There is a strange delight about walking – err, hopping down congested streets. We did it here and there over strewn garbage from the fruit market on the perpendicular Keezhamasi Street, chock-a-block with trucks off-loading goods, vendors arranging their baskets for the evening sales, buyers haggling over the price.

We competed with stray dogs and cattle in frightfully jumping out of the way of several honking four-and-two-wheelers. We ran across a zebra crossing at the switch of traffic lights. We passed our feet over puddle to slush on Dhalavoi Street. The place teemed and an unflustered Alba screamed, “Wow, this is real India!”

Praveena from ‘foodiesdayout’ quickly ushered us inside Murugan idli kadai. We were the first customers and the freshly prepared super soft white idlis with four chutneys and paruppu podi and butter dosa with hot sambar -- were promptly served on a plantain leaf. By the time we came out, the sky had changed its colour.

The street was now wrapped in a transparent shawl of darkness. The East Tower of the Meenakshi Temple with its intricate colourful carvings glowed under the flood lights. The cobbled street at the entrance was hijacked by jasmine sellers and other vendors. The face of a little girl finishing her homework under the street light with her mother by her side selling jasmine strings stuck with me. Mystery of the night deepened as we made a diversion to the East Veli Street up to the elegant St.Mary’s Cathedral built in 1840. In the greyness of the night, the country’s oldest Roman Catholic Church with its two tall bell towers lit up in blue lights looked imposing. It felt as though time is buried in eternity here.

Shutters were mostly down on this stretch barring one hotspot, the Burma Idiyappam Kadai. We opted for ragi string hoppers soaked in coconut milk and sprinkled with coconut shavings that went down easily.

A tipsy man ambled off blabbering incomprehensibly. The idiyappam maker was keen to pose with the foreigners. “He is my favourite type,” gushed Alba. “I love to see their proud face after the photo is taken,” she said, “simply undemanding, they continue with their business with a smile.”

We moved on to Kamarajar Salai, which changed to a picture in contrast. The Vilakkuthoon, Madurai’s oldest symbol of street lamp, at the East-West Masi junction was a hub of unusual activity.

Our gentle two hour stroll had many stops with frequent tastings along the way. Alba and Thomas greeted strangers with a hello or a hand shake, some asked them their names or countries. In between we picked up a piece of jackfruit each and also stopped by Husain’s cart selling ‘Thennang kuruthu’. At Rs.10 for two slices of the tender coconut bark, we contributed to his earnings.

The spice market on Keezhamasi resembled a brisk day bazaar. Mounds of coriander seeds, cloves, cardamom, tamarind, red chillies and garlic were a riot of colour. Women made late night purchases fearlessly. Mohan’s four decades old shop stood out with its digital display board and his photograph.

Tucked in between the pungent and aromatic spices, we found a small old sweet shop famous for adhirasam. Thomas, relishing the sweet made with rice flour and jaggery, compared it to a donut. We followed it up with a cup of paruthi paal -- cotton seed milk boiled with jaggery and spices.

We spotted more local flavours on the Kamarajar Salai and soon steaming hot sundal and crispy keera vadai and bhajjis made their way into our stomachs. Though the clock ticked, the night was still young on the busy market road.

We walked past scores of sweet shops and street stalls by the side of which makeshift benches, plastic chairs and tables were being laid. We stepped inside textile and untensil shops and met people whose families have traded in the area for generations.

We thought we wouldn’t need dinner. The Ashok Evening Mutton stall inside a narrow lane was the kind of outlet you would normally ignore. But wait till somebody introduced you to its signature dish – the stuffed Ceylon parotta with mutton chukka. Alba and Thomas sportingly dug into the spicy dish, sipping Bovonto in between to neutralise the fire on their tongue.

We reached Konar Mess in Anna Nagar after 10 and it was brimming with customers. And who could stop us from joining the bandwagon for the Kari Dosa (mutton and egg spread over dosa and pan cooked liked a pizza).

We longed for a break now. Theppakulam at this hour presented a different world. Pillows of clouds shadowed our steps. A light breeze caressed our faces. People thronged the dry tank for a late sit-out waging a war with mosquitoes. The push carts selling Chinese and fried food still had cash ringing in.

We met a few regulars like Bhagyaraj from Teacher’s Colony. “It is like Madurai’s beach!,” he exclaimed, “instead of wasting time and money at the cinema, it is better to spend time here and watch the world go by.”

A tiny spot near Golcha complex in Anna Nagar chilled us out with its glass of lassi and Jil Jil Jigarthanda. By now silence had descended on the road and we could hear the sound of our footsteps. “There is no limit set for such a night out,” said Praveena, “you can go on as long as you want.”

Till you actually step out to gaze at lit up streets and shops, bump into people at unexpected hours, walk on the streets embraced by darkness, stare at the mysterious silhouettes of buildings or the surviving sections of forts and monuments that look like illustrations from the pages of a novel, smile at the stars and the moon in the sky, fall in love with the cacophony of sound at the midnight market or the silence by another roadside, you will never know or feel the difference between Madurai in the day time and at night.

My mind is still intrigued by the sight of the city by night giving me one more reason to love Madurai. As much as Alba and Thomas who left saying, “this is what we wanted to experience, the real sense of an old city.” The quest must continue.

(City 3Sixty is a monthly column that captures the different moods of the city. It appears last Thursday of every month).