'Only ladies entry. Gents NOT allowed' read the board outside almost every house on the streets of Kilakarai, a municipal town in Ramanathapuram district. The Muslim-dominated town showed no signs of life on a sleepy afternoon during Ramzan. The only semblance of activity was at Raaviyath, a tiny sweet shop on the main road. A motley group of people crowded at the counter asking for nudhal, selling at Rs.180 a kg
I caught hold of a school student who said he knew a paati who prepared nudhal. Prancing, he led me down narrow streets and even narrower lanes when finally we stopped by a board highlighting the stern message. The boy disappeared behind the maze of houses. Even before I reached out for the door bell, Hameeda peeped out of a small window. 'I was told you make nudhal here?' I blurted out a wrong question. 'Who told you?' she retorted. 'Who else is with you? Do you have a camera?' 'Only a pen and paper,' I stammered.
She called out to her mother Hadija Beevi, who was hidden behind a black curtain. The lane was so narrow that I kissed the wall with half a twist and lifted the curtain to find Hadija Beevi holding a big ladle and vigorously stirring with both hands the contents of a kadai. The smoke from the firewood chulha and the heat in that little space made her sweat profusely. She flashed a toothless smile and gestured me to wait as she finished making the nudhal to be sent to Ramanathapuram’s oldest bakery, the Master Bakery, where it would sell for Rs.240 a kg.
She felt comfortable that I was not carrying a camera. She said she was the sixth generation in her family into this business. She learnt from her mother the art of making 'tasty nudhal,' a halwa kind of sweet that is made with palm jaggery (karuppatti), coconut milk, rice powder, ghee, cashew and cardamom. At 77, Hadija Beevi still makes 40 kg of nudhal daily for the four branches of Master Bakery in Ramanathapuram itself.
It’s a long preparation, she says. But it does not tire her. She is so used to the rigours of grating 50 coconuts, straining its milk and manually stirring the ingredients over heat for hours. 'It is like a daily exercise and keeps me fit,' she smiles.
The mixing of the ingredients and stirring it to the right consistency takes not less than four to five hours for preparing 30 to 40 kg of nudhal, also pronounced and spelt tudhal, thothal, nodhal. It is usually prepared a day before it is sold.
The delicious gooey chocolate-coloured dish is a mix of Bombay Karachi halwa and the Tirunelveli halwa. It is not as hard as the former and not as slippery as the latter. In some shops, the nudhal tasted super soft. Somewhere else, it was chewy. But everywhere after the first bite, it melted in the mouth.
'It is the palm jaggery which lends nudhal a distinct taste,' said Fathima, another lady. Curious, I asked her about the 'No Entry' board on every door. 'Most of our men folk work in the Gulf. The women and children are alone here. Safety is a big concern,' she said.
Nudhal is mostly prepared by Muslim women and customers are also essentially from the same community. 'Its preparation is a good time pass for us. We also make some money,' said Fathima, whose nudhal tasted like extra-sweetened chakkara pongal, with a predominant flavour of palm jaggery and cardamom. The preparation was gooey and sticky.
Luckily, I tasted the nudhal at Hadija’s too because by the time I reached one of the shops of Master Bakery in Ramanathapuram, the day’s stock was over. The bakery does brisk business during the Ramzan month.
Hadija kept the nudhal in four buckets and it glistened in the afternoon sun. I took a dollop of it. Slightly hot, it dissolved in my mouth instantly. Many of her friends shared the same story of how they all learnt to make nudhal from their mothers and heard them talk of their ancestors getting the recipe from Ceylon, where it was a popular sweet more than 200 years ago.
Most of these women make 20 to 40 kg of nudhal every day which they described as 'energy food'. Infants are fed small bites of nudhal daily for nourishment.
In Ramanathapuram town the search for nudhal ends in two reputed bakeries (Master and Aishwarya). There are half a dozen more small and medium-sized bakeries which get their supplies from Kilakarai.
Aishwarya Bakery on Salai Street makes nudhal by a mechanised process and is the only place that lets you inside the kitchen. The shop’s manager, Venkatachalam, welcomed me into his comfortable third floor office above his shop teeming with customers. The employees were busy packing, weighing and serving. A piece of nudhal cut like a slice of cake appeared on a banana leaf. I indulged myself to the gelatinous treat.
Here the nudhal was most expensive at Rs.250 a kg. 'Customers of all ages eat nudhal here, and during all occasions and festivals. Ramzan is a big plus point for us,' said Venkatachalam. By the look of it, he can tell if the nudhal has come out well. 'The machine’s temperature control and the speed at which it rotates to condense the content to the right proportion and texture are crucial,' he said and assured that nudhal bought from his shop stayed good for three weeks. The shop with three branches in Ramanathapuram town sells 50 kg of nudhal daily.
'Nothing goes waste as we can carry over the sales to the next day,' he informed, 'and many of our customers are from Malaysia and Singapore who buy in bulk.' Venkatachalam also shared the secret of his sales, 'We use pure ghee and mineral water in our preparation and that sets the taste apart.'
HOW IT’S MADE
Ingredients (For one kg): Coconut 18, Palm sugar 250 gm, Jaggery 100 gm, Ghee 100 gm, Rice flour 500 gm
Method: Grate the coconut and extract the milk. Make a syrup with palm sugar and jaggery. Or else use palm jaggery and plain sugar. Strain it for impurities. Boil the coconut milk and add the rice flour. Pour the sweet syrup and keep stirring while adding ghee and cardamom powder. Keep on medium heat and stir till the mixture condenses and reaches the desired consistency. Sprinkle crushed cashew. Keep aside to cool.