Jigarthanda in Madurai
Some people have called it a heart attack in a glass. They are terribly unkind. I prefer to think of it as heaven in a glass. How else would you describe a concoction of almond resin, sarsaparilla syrup, cold milk, sugar, finely chopped dried fruit and nuts, topped with a generous scoop of ice cream?
One summer morning in the temple town of Madurai in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, I headed out with a friend. The plan was to have a street-side breakfast of idlis (steamed rice and lentil cakes), accompanied by a piquant chutney of coconut and chili, and chase it down with jigarthanda. After all, I couldn’t really visit Madurai and not have the “heart cooler” (the literal meaning of jigarthanda). Nobody can.
While jigarthanda is today considered a local Madurai beverage, it has an interesting history. Thanks to its name, which is a combination of two Hindi words (the language of the state is Tamil, not Hindi), it’s thought that Mughal rulers brought it to India several centuries ago, and that it slowly made its way down to Madurai.
In this swelteringly hot city, it is so strongly associated with cooling properties that it has come to be known as ‘jil jil jigarthanda’ in the more popular outlets (‘jil’ being a local corruption of the word ‘chill’).
While jigarthanda is popular in these parts, it’s a little more under-the-radar than its famous north Indian cousin, falooda, which food historians claim started life in Mughal emperor Jehangir’s court.
My plate of idlis was delightful. But then came the jigarthanda. The man behind the counter filled up the glasses with practiced ease. Somewhere between vanilla and light chocolatey in color, thick and inviting, the jigarthanda beckoned to me.
I took a tentative sip, and my world immediately turned into a happier place. This was an explosion of tastes and textures: the sweetness of the syrup and ice cream, the crunchiness of the nuts and the chewiness of the jelly-like almond resin. My friend and I drank it in almost one gulp. Then we looked at each other. Another one?
By the time I gestured to the shop assistant, he had already prepared two more glasses for us. A second round seemed to be par for the course here. This time, I sipped slowly, savoring the flavors, feeling like a kid in a candy store. I knew I was going to have to skip lunch that day, but who was complaining?