“Master, oru tea!”: This command forms the background score at RMS Sweets Marimuthu Tea Stall, located at Gopalpatti. The small-town, 47 kilometres from Madurai, is popular for tamarind, fragrant senthooram mangoes, and a unique, fluffy sweet treat — paal buns.
We elbow our way into the crowded shop one evening — past a gaggle of schoolboys ordering vadas , farmers biting into murukku and khaki-clad bus drivers sipping tea — and arrive at the glass counter, where the buns await.
The shop, which has been around for almost three decades, has been making paal buns for 24 years now. It is among the town’s most popular haunts for the delicacy. “Maida, curd, cooking soda, and sugar,” lists M Shubash, the owner, explaining how the snack is made. “We knead the dough at around 10 am and let it ferment for half-an-hour. Then, we roll small sections, fry them in hot oil, and drop them into sugar syrup.”
Every tea shop at Gopalpatti, which has around 3,000 houses, boasts a hefty aluminium tray bearing the golden buns, each the size of a big lemon. Unlike at tea shops in other parts of Tamil Nadu where vadas and bajjis dominate, in this small town, most customers order paal buns first, following them with something spicy, before washing it all down with hot tea. The snack tastes like a squishy badhusha — soft and mildly sweet as you make your way into the centre.
R Raj Mohan, a driver at a local Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation bus, tells us that he has picked up the buns for several friends over the years. “The moment anyone hears I travel the Gopalpatti route, they ask for paal buns,” he smiles. Though they have been popular with the locals for over four decades, it is the tourists and travellers who made them popular.
“Gopalpatti is the only small-town in the vicinity for villagers nearby who want to shop for clothes or jewellery,” says Shubash. “Pilgrims who travel by foot to Palani from Madurai and Karaikudi too pass by,” he adds. Gradually, the snack travelled from the small tea shops of Gopalpatti.
Eventually visitors from Madurai and even Ramnad, who would not otherwise stop at the town, began to made it a pitstop. Strangely, despite its fan following, the snack is not sold at bigger bakeries. “It is a tea shop thing,” says K Gowtham, who works at RMS Sweets. “We make five plates a day, each consisting 20 buns costing ₹4 each; we are sold out by 2 pm,” he adds. Across the road is another tea shop doing brisk business: As hot ulundhuvadas are fried, their tray of paal buns, priced ₹5 apiece, are selling out fast.
A few blocks down the road, is Thamodharan Tea Stall. It is here that we trace the history of this snack. Between handing customers paal buns, K Narayanan, who runs the place describes how they have been making these buns for 40 years. “It all began in Alanganallur,” says Narayanan, pausing to drop coins into a drawer. He adds, “They make something similar at tea shops there. Many years ago, a ‘master’ from the town, arrived at Gopalpatti. He introduced it here and gradually, it caught the fancy of locals and tourists alike.”
N Suppuraja, the oldest employee at RMS Sweets knows the story well. He has been at the shop from the time it was started. “It didn’t move well the first day we put it up for sale,” says the toothless 75-year-old. But before he knew it, paal buns were disappearing off their trays. “It is called ‘paal’ bun of all things,” he chuckles. “But there is not a drop of milk in it.”