At 10 every morning, the chimes of Madurai Meenakshi Temple begin, for puja. Devotees make a beeline for darshan. Opposite the lofty West Tower there is another queue forming, in front of a small dingy sweet shop.
With a nondescript exterior, the shop bears a board that announces ‘Nagapattanam Halwa Kadai’ in bold letters, beneath which in small type is the keyword ‘Estd. 1901’.
Flashing a toothless smile, 80-year-old Balasubramanian, who has been working at the shop for 40 years, places a large circular tray, loaded with steaming halwa inside a glass case, at the entrance. Trays of boondhi, mixture, pepper sev and onion pakodas are neatly arranged in a row over the next few minutes.
There is a short-lived jostle and the queue gets shorter as happy people leave with their packets of sweets. However, Ramani Iyer, a spectacled man in his 60s continues to wait. “I am waiting for a special item. I could smell the aroma of it arriving,” he says, building up the suspense.
At 10.30 am sharp, a silver tray of flavoursome potato masala is brought out. Fiery red in colour with traces of glistening oil on top, the dish looks inviting. Balasubramanian scoops out small portions of the masala with a ladle, swiftly folds them in dried mandharai leaves, secured with pieces of newspaper and jute string to make little pottalams.
Ramani eagerly buys half-a-dozen of the pottalams for ₹10 each. “I grew up here and remember buying the packets for 50 paise. My lunch used to be incomplete without a daily dose of the potato masala. The enticing flavour and unique spicy taste are matchless,” says the 50-year-old businessman, who is currently living in Mumbai. “Though I moved out of Madurai long ago, the masala and halwa from this century-old shop is one among the many things I fondly cherish about this temple town. On every visit here, I continue to relive the taste.”
For decades, it has been a ritual for many locals and tourists alike, to stop by at the 118-year-old Nagapattanam Halwa Shop and pack some halwa to take home, after devouring a 100-gram portion of the blobby-gooey, sugary delicacy, neatly served in a delicate mandharai leaf, for just ₹20.
“Apart from the antiquity of the brand, it is the consistency and quality that have earned us loyal customers over the years,” beams VA Venkatraman, the fourth generation to run the shop, which was started by his great grandfather Viswanatha Iyer in 1901. He learnt the art of making the halwa from a person in Nagapattinam and hence the name.
Made from wheat milk, sugar and pure ghee, the halwa was the lone star item for decades, until the potato masala was introduced 50 years ago. “My grandfather, Venkatraman, and father Anantha Narayanan experimented with newer items on the menu. Onion pakoda and the spicy potato masala that stood apart from the usual poori bhaji style potato that was otherwise common those days, caught the attention of customers,” says Venkatraman. “With a liberal dose of green chillies, coriander and chilli powder, the masala can set your tongue on fire. It is hot and spicy. The speciality is we fry the potato with finely-chopped shallots instead of big onions. The idea was to provide a side-dish for curd rice and pazhaya sadham, commonly eaten for brunch by labourers. Later, it became sought-after by all people.”
Venkatraman adds, “Till date, we have not changed the recipe, method or quantity. We continue to make sweets on a charcoal stove so heat is distributed even and slow, helping us maintain the taste and texture.” Every day, the shop dishes out a batch of 15 kilos of halwa and around two kilos of potato masala.
“Both items move fast. The mandharai leaf keeps the masala fresh for a whole day and the halwa comes with a shelf life of 15 days. Our customers even pack the halwa for friends and relatives abroad.”
The halwa shop has enjoyed the patronage of celebrities of yore like MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, MS Subbulakshmi, ML Vasanthakumari (who performed a kutcheri for the 60th anniversary celebration of the shop), Vyjayanthi Mala and Manorama among others.
“My father Anantha Narayanan was active in politics too and our shop was also visited by bigwigs like Jawaharlal Nehru, Kamarajar and Mahatma Gandhi,” beams Venkatraman.