Tiffin in Madurai

This is my contribution to the Ecotone group blogging topic, Food and Place. (It's a great topic -- why not go there and add a contribution of your own?)

I was in college. I had come to Madurai, in the heart of Tamil Nadu, during a summer vacation. I was studying Tamil privately for two months. I didn’t have much money, so I stayed in a very cheap hotel near the Meenakshi temple, called Alankar Lodge. You could open your door and shout down the hall for one of the thambis (‘little brothers’) – small boys whom the hotel employed - and they would run out to the street and bring back coffee or Fanta or biscuits for you. Several other American students were also staying there, along with Indian travellers.

Everything that I saw or tasted or heard or smelled was absolutely new to me. I was excited, frightened, enchanted. Some days I couldn’t eat at all, I was so full of all these feelings. But I did discover a little hole-in-the-wall nearby. A blackboard was propped outside the door, with the day’s offerings chalked in Tamil. Just inside the door a man stood behind a small counter with a compartmented cash box, which he would padlock at the end of the day. There were a few dinky tables. There was a door leading to a tiny kitchen, from which emerged conversation and clattering. The walls were grimy with smoke; or perhaps it was just grime. A man with a big belly, wearing a dhoti tucked up to knee level, would saunter around to ask what you wanted. In a very short time he would bang down a metal plate with your food on it; and afterwards, a smaller plate with a paper chit, with the amount due written by hand.

At that time, my favourite food was upma, probably because I wasn't yet able to eat spicy food. It is a bland concoction, like cream of wheat with some onions and green chillies added. I would order upma and coffee, served very sweet, milky and strong, in a little steel tumbler which was set in a smaller steel cup. The coffee was made frothy by pouring it from one container to another, with as much air in between as possible. I liked to eat my upma with butter melting into it. The butter arrived in a dollop on a square of banana leaf. It was white butter, un-dyed, unsalted, and usually slightly rancid. It had to be ordered separately.

So I came to this place for the first time, after reading on the chalkboard outside that upma was being served. I sat down, and the man with the big belly came over to me, and I summoned up my Tamil and said, “Please give me upma with vennir” -- upma with butter. That man looked at me expressionlessly, and then said, “Vennai butter, vennir hot water.” My face turned much redder than it does these days, and I said, “Yes, please give me butter.” He went off to tell the story in the kitchen, and I ate my buttered upma and drank my coffee.

It was delicious upma, and one of the best language lessons I ever had. I’ll never forget the difference between vennir and vennai, or his deadpan expression and croaking voice; and I smile whenever I look at upma.

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