The famous snack is not the same as it used to be in the 1920s when it first got its brand value

Mention Tirunelveli or Panruti, memories of ‘halwa’ and ‘cashew’ pop out immediately. Manapparai has a similar distinction, thanks to its unique “murukku”. This is a common snack made anywhere but the Manapparai variety has a long tradition that originated in the railway station in the 1920s.

It was Mani Iyer who introduced “Manapparai murukku” to train passengers through his vegetarian refreshment stall at the railway station, recalls Duraisamy, who started his ‘murukku business’ in 1955. What Mani Iyer offered then is not the same variety on offer now. The ‘murukku’ of the early 20th century used to draw passengers out of the compartments. As years rolled by, it was sold in khaki paper bags that could be easily identified. Today, when you enter Manapparai from the four-lane bypass you are swarmed by ‘murukku’ sellers. Like the Tirunelveli halwa, ‘Manapparai murukku’ is now available anywhere.

‘Murukku’ business is a cottage affair in Manapparai with a portion of one-room houses functioning as the ‘factory.’ “Mani Iyer used to mix butter with rice flour and fry the ‘murukku’ in coconut oil. But this practice is no more in vogue and butter is used only for special orders,” says Mr. Duraisamy.

“Nowadays, we do not pound rice to make flour as we get Ponni rice flour from Madurai in bulk. Refined or palm oil is used in the place of groundnut oil,” says ‘Murukku’ D. Manohar of Muthan Street, who has taken over the 50-year-old business from his father.

Although different varieties of ‘murukku’ are sold everywhere with the Manapparai tag, the business is unorganised. Tips are handed over by the father to his sons and daughters, who strive to sustain the distinct family stamp on the product. It is believed that the groundwater of Manapparai lends the unique taste to its ‘murukku.’ But the open well that supplied water to Murukku Manohar remains dry in his backyard. The right mix of ingredients — rice flour, sesame seeds, tymol seeds (omam), cumin seeds (seeragam), and asafoetida (perungayam) — enhances the taste and makes the Manapparai variety likable. The ‘murukku’ is deep fried twice to get the golden hue. It is easy to differentiate the good from the bad by the colour.

Cottage industry

The ‘murukku’ is sold out of homes, although some ‘brands’ have counters at the bus stand. “Our product has travelled to the U.S., Dubai, Malaysia, and Singapore. Our customers spread word about quality of the ‘murukku’ all over the world. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and M. Karunanidhi have tasted my ‘murukku,’” says a proud Duraisamy.

In the last few years, many families have started to make ‘murukku’ and people come all the way from villages around Usilampatti in Madurai district to sell the snack here. Manapparai and murukku are inseparable and the tradition of the last century lingers on. But the taste has transformed under the compulsion of rising prices and absence of able hands.

In place of ‘butter murukku’ that used to perform an ice cream act in the mouth, today’s varieties present a hard test to your teeth.

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