Tuesday, September 13, 2011

வணக்கம் தூத்துக்குடி - Vannakam Thoothukudi

It was time to say வணக்கம் தூத்துக்குடி - Vannakam Thoothukudi or "Hello Thoothukudi" yesterday.
Thoothukudi is a port town located nearly 590 kilometers south west of Chennai. On reaching the town, did it dawn on me that officially the much known Tuticorin is actually Thoothukudi, much like Calcutta is Kolkata, or Bombay is Mumbai!
Tuticorin, as I had read in history school books was an important trading port for the early Europeans venturing into India. The port was an important centre of trade with South East Asia in the medieval ages, before the Portuguese colonists usurped it from the Pandyan kingdom in the 1500s. Next came in the Dutch in the 1600s and finally it was the British who took control in the 1800s. The colonial influences can been today also in few churches sprinkled across the city. The town became the hotbed of Indian nationalists like the noted Tamil poet, Subramaniya Bharathi, who kept the beacon of independence alive in the area.
The sea around Thoothukudi have an enchanting, lovely bluish-green tinge. Though the coastal belt has the usual coconut palm plantations, as one goes a few kilometers inland, the stark aridness is noticeable. Since agriculture had never been of prominence in the area, trading, fishing and pearl harvesting assumed significance.
Today the city is centered around the modern Tuticorin port, which is a major centre for import of coal, wood and other commodities.
My first meal in Thoothukudi was an unforgettable experience. We North Indians have stereotyped the land beyond the Vindhyas as "Madras", every South Indian as a "Madrasi" and a South Indian meal as dosa (தோசை), vadai (வடை), idli (இட்லி) and sambhar (சாம்பார். While travelling across South India it does come as a revelation that the cuisine is much beyond, much richer that than the stereotypes.
We stopped by at a roadside restuarant, nestled in a oasis of coconut palms and greens. As expected, the buffet had an array of local delicacies. Now the South is a place where I take to vegetarianism by choice, simply because the wide array of vegetarian cuisine has a certain allure that no other cuisine does.
I started off with tamarind rice (Puliyodarai - புளியோடரை), a classic Tamil speciality, that has the killing ability to turn a chapatti-eater like me into a rice-eater. The sourness of the tamarind complemenrted the mild spiciness to give a unique flavour to the dish. Next on the menu was a spicy yam dish - yam slices were crispy fried or sauteed with spices, curry leaves and whole red chillies. String beans with coconut and mustard seeds, a classic Tamil dish is unique - lightly fried, the string beans retain their natural colour and crunchiness, but gets a distinct taste from the cocunut and mustard. Obviously, endless bowls of sambhar and rasam (ரசம்) were downed, before I could take no more. That was then the ideal time for curd rice (Thayir sadam - தயிர் சாதம்), in true Tamil style - obviously it has to be "when in Tamil Nadu, do as the Tams do!" Here the curd rice came with a traditional novelty - crispy whoile red chillies - red chillies are soaked in buttermilk, sun dried and then deep fried. The spiciness of these chillies is unique and goes very well the blandness of the curd rice! That was the grand finale to the lunch. Desset had to be skipped!
After work, we were taken on a guided tour of the port by a portly, quintessential Tamil, a local shipping agent, in his car. The guy was playing the latest bhangra hits on full blast in his car. Surely he could not understand a thing, but was swinging to the beats as he drove through the quays. He admitted he did not understand a bit, but enjoyed the music a lot. So isn't this living proof that with each passing generation, India is increasingly getting homogenised, with North Indians freaking out on South Indian food and South Indians gyrating to bhangra beats and adopting salwar kameezes as a dress of convenience?

Today, it was time to head back. We left Thoothukudi early in the morning for Madurai to catch a flight back to Chennai and onward to my base. The highway from Thoothukudi to Madurai is an impressive 4-lane highway which was smoother than any other Indian road I had experienced before, thanks to Mr. Vajpayee's highway development initiative.

A few kilometers before Madurai, we stopped by at a road side eatery for breakfast. Madurai (மதுரை) is quite unlike Thoothukudi. It's lush green. The eatery was surrounded by coconut trees on three sides. It was barely 7AM and the bright sunrays filtered through coconut leaves into the eatery, giving it quite a magical feel.

The eatery was small and there was nothing fancy about it at all, but it was splotlessly clean and smelt fresh! That is distinctive in the South - hygiene is paramount, unlike many other parts of the country. Eating out at the smallest of outlets would not make you sick - I can guarantee that.

We ordered breakfast - pongal (பொங்கல்), vadai and filter coffee. Pongal is a simple breakfast dish made of rice and moong dal, with porridge-like consistency, lightly salted with a hint of spices, served with steaming hot sambhar. The pongal was heavenly with the spicy sambhar. Next came the vadai, which was crisp on the outside, and soft on the inside - the insides quickly dissolved in my mouth - that's what defines a good vadai.

It was time to head to the Madurai airport. I first visited Madurai in Jaunary 2007. At that time, the terminal was a tiny little building - barely 4,000 square feet or so. Now there was a spankingly fresh chrome and glass terminal that stood in front - traffic had surely increased multifold to justify this. The interiors were smart, a couple of aerobridges were getting commissioned. I was told Madurai is soon going to get international traffic with flights to Singapore and Dubai! Wow! It would be so much more convenient and cheaper for people to fly in and out, bypassing hubs like Bombay and Chennai!

Chennai, the transit halt for the next four hours, was bustling with activity. But my agenda was clear. A visit or even tranit through Chennai isn't complete without a pilgrimage to Sri Krishna Sweets to pick up a box of Mysore Pak. Luckily for me, Sri Krishna Sweets has an outlet at Chennai airport. The sweet which originated in the royal kitchens of the Mysore, is a melt in the mouth, gold-hued sweet is power-packed to make you go crazy and crave for more.

For Neeti and me, Mysore Pak is best enjoyed with ginger tea after dinner. This is one sweet that has the capability to tempt Neeti into binging! We have really acted crazy to get Mysore Pak at times. This January we passed by Mysore city on the way from Coorg to Bangalore and we spent a couple of hours searching for Mysore Pak. The search made us criss-cross Mysore a couple of times like crazed maniacs!

And with the Mysore Paks bought, it was time to head back home!

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