From road-side eateries to theme-based restaurants, the city has seen a remarkable shift in eating culture, writes T. Saravanan

That Madurai is a foodie’s paradise and the food capital of Tamil Nadu is a known fact. None can dispute the appeal of the super soft idlis, the crispy dosas and the yummy parottas the town is famous for. Street-side cuisine is integral to Madurai life. This is a place where people are known to devour fresh and traditional food round-the-year and round-the-clock.

However, in recent times pizzas and pasta have begun to delight the locals. Fine dining has caught on. And eating out at theme-based festivals and restaurants is gradually becoming a part of the lifestyle.

“Concept restaurants have taken over the eating out culture in Madurai and are set to grow in future,” declares Immanuel Devavaram of Chopstix Multi-cuisine restaurant. “Food is not just about the taste anymore. Factors like ambience of the restaurant, presentation of the platter and the conduct of the service providers also matter to any gourmand.”

In the olden days, a restaurant visit was only out of necessity and people preferred the homely taste even outside. “It’s no more the case. The younger generation gets exposed to various cuisines when they move out of the city for opportunities. And when they come back, they want something quirky and modern,” points out K.L. Kandha Krishnan, a government employee

It all started with Chinese food items like chowmein, noodles, chopsuey and fried rice infiltrating the food market. Being sold from push carts by the roadsides, it connected with the local palates immediately and became a sought after food in no time. In fact, till a few years ago, only those exclusively catering to Chettinad cuisine were dubbed as concept restaurants.

“Eating out has become an indulgence of sorts. It’s an experience and not just about gulping down food,” says S. Ramesh of KhoKho restaurant. “Due to the impact of other cusinies, the demand for traditional recipes has gone down.” In fact there is a fear that the local authentic food would be lost in the clutter of multiple cuisines. As it is people have forgotten several ancestral cuisines. “That is why we started this joint specialising in traditional Tamil preparations.”

The concept-based restaurants try to cash in on this new found enthusiasm. “ I term it as a successful business if a customer visits my restaurant twice a month,” says Immanuel Devavaram. “One has to keep doing innovations to retain the customer base.” He is planning to open a restaurant with the concept of live kitchen, where people can select their choice and also see how the food is cooked. “Only then customers will be convinced that fresh food is being served to them,” he adds.

While there are restaurants offering Italian, American, Mediterranean and continental cuisines, some choose to offer the same old recipes in a different package. Like, M. Muthu Pandian, who has started an exclusive joint for dosas called ‘Dosai Kadai’.

The restaurant offers over 90 exciting varieties of dosas from the earthy home-made simple ones to the most funky chocolate dosas for kids and fruit dosas with pomegranate, apple, pineapple and honey.

“I am trying to pull back people from pizzas, ” says Muthu Pandian.

While everybody loves to experiment, when it comes to comfort food, nothing can take away the humble traditional options.