Tamil Nadu

A speciality that has become synonymous with Thiruvaiyaru

Watch | How is the Ashoka Halwa made?

Thiruvaiyaru, the land of five rivers in Thanjavur district, runs deeply in the cultural consciousness of Tamil Nadu. It houses the temple of Aiyarappar, a foremost Saivite centre. It was on the streets of Thiruvaiyaru, saint composer Thiyagaraja did ‘unchaviruthi’, singing his keerthanas in praise of Lord Rama. His memorial remains a gathering point for Carnatic musicians to conduct his aradhana.

But an advertisement in the town says, ‘Thiruvaiyaru endraale Ashoka’ (Thiruvaiyaru is synonymous with Ashoka, a unique native halwa).

A cook making Ashoka Halwa in Thiruvaiyaru. | Photo Credit: M. SRINATH

“Our shop is the favourite destination for musicians who come here to participate in the Thiyagaraja Aradhana. Whether they sing or not, they first buy Ashoka halwa and pack it in their bags to be shared with their families,” said M. Selvam, supervisor of kitchen at the famed Andavar Halwa Kadai. “Even the Chief Ministers of the past and the present are our customers,” he claimed.

After all music and good food are inseparable and it is explained by the prominent place accorded to canteens during the December Music Festival in Chennai.

The Google map showing the location Thiruvaiyaru.

The Google map showing the location Thiruvaiyaru.

Ashoka is the “invention” of Ramaiyer, who ran a hotel in Thiruvaiyaru. “He prepared rava dosa like a thin sheet of glass. The sambar he served to accompany the rava dosa was another wonder. I have never tasted such tasty sambar. It would be washed down with a cup of filter coffee. I had seen addicts to his coffee and they would plead for a cup of coffee on holidays,” recalled Rama Kausalya, former principal of the Government Music College in Thiruvaiyaru.

Though no one knows why Ramaiyer had chosen to call it Ashoka, there is a suggestion that he would have considered it a king of halwas. His stall today sells other halwas.

Nine ingredients go into the making of Ashoka, which is cooked in ghee, according to Mr. Selvam, who feels it is the water of the Cauvery that gives the product its unique taste. So long as he was alive, Ramaiyer himself prepared Ashoka and standardised the formula for its preparation.

“First, the ghee is boiled to cook maida. Cooked paasi paiyru (green gram with its husk removed) and sugar will be added to it. We will add another round of ghee before mixing the colour powder. It is the colour that differentiates Ashoka from other halwas. When it reaches the required consistency, cashews, badam, cardamom, nutmeg, patchai karpooram, and karkandu are sprinkled and mixed,” he explains.

The finished product looks as if it was preserved in ghee. There is so much ghee that it will ooze out through three or four wrappings.

“In the old days, advocates and doctors from Thanjavur would come in bullock carts here to eat halwa. Ramaiyer would offer them a handful of mixture (snack) as an antidote to the sweet that lingers in the tongue before the filter coffee is served. Of course, his rava dosas would always be on the list of customers,” Mr. Selvam reminisces.

A visitor to the kitchen, where Ashoka is prepared, would be transported to a period when cooking gas was not known. It is a kitchen of clay ovens. Tonnes of casuarina wood, including tree roots, are kept inside the kitchen and cooks, sweating profusely in the heat, could be seen making Ashoka and wheat halwa continuously.

“At a time we make around 15 kg by using one oven. The idea is to ensure that the customers always get it fresh. We have not switched over to gas. It is the old way of cooking that makes the difference,” says Mr. Selvam.

When he became too old to run his hotel, Ramaiyer handed over it to G. Ganesamurthy, who ran a shop adjacent to his hotel, and he carries on the legacy. Ramaiyer, hanging from a photo frame, watches customers vying with one another to buy a sweet whose name has become inseparable from the ancient Thiruvaiyaru.

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Printable version | Apr 29, 2022 10:29:38 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/a-speciality-that-has-become-synonymous-with-thiruvaiyaru/article65363205.ece