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Eat, pray, love
The Tirupati laddoo is a logistical mind-boggler : 1. 25 lakh are made every day, using 5, 000 kilos of besan, 10, 000 kilos of sugar, 600 kilos of cashewnuts, 150 kilos of cardamom, 300 litres of ghee, 20 kilos of oil, 400 kilos of sugar candy, and about 500 kilos of raisins and almonds. A small crane is deployed to move ingredients into mixing vessels. One of the country's best known temple foods or prasadam, it was granted a Geographical Indication patent last year.
Not all prasadam is as extravagant however. At the Avudayar temple near Aranthangi in Tamil Nadu, the presiding deity has traditionally been appeased with no more than an offering of steaming hot rice. While it takes the faith of the devout to find flavour in a handful of plain steamed rice or the saltless puliyodarai served at the Oppiliappan temple near Kumbakonam, the temples of the south prepare and serve unique foods that please even the most discerning gourmet.
Take the panchamirtam, which Pazhani, a temple dedicated to Karthikeya in a Tamil town of the same name, is justly famous for. An ancient form of fruit preserve, Pazhani panchamirtam is made with small bananas from Virupachi in the Pazhani hills - no other kind will do - kandasari sugar from Kangeyam, dates, raisins, sugar candy, cardamom and ghee. The bananas are first crushed to a pulp and then blended with the other ingredients. The result is a rich, treacle brown preserve that's very sweet and nourishing. Pazhani is synonymous with panchamirtam to the extent that if you order a sappadu (a set meal) in most restaurants in town, it comes accompanied by a dollop of the stuff. It is said that in earlier times, the bananas were pulverised by foot, not unlike grapestomping in French vineyards. But Angu Babu, a local journalist and student of the temple's history, dismisses the story. "That's a fanciful myth, " he says. "Sugarcane stalks were used to reduce the bananas to a pulp and stir the ingredients several years ago. But now the entire process, including the canning, is mechanised. " In fact, the temple is so modern that it sells gift packs of panchamirtam. Guided tours of the panchamirtam kitchen on the temple premises can also be arranged. Another prasadam that keeps as well as the panchamirtam and is sold in cans is the aravana prasadam at Sabarimala's Aiyappa temple. This payasam of rice, jaggery and coconut is much in demand and between mid-November and mid-January, the period dedicated to Lord Aiyappa, some 1. 2 lakh cans are sold every day. These can only be bought at the temple counters. But to beat the rush, the temple administration has tied up with various banks that sell tokens for aravana prasadam.
Similar to the aravana prasadam is the hayagreeva maddi of the Krishna temple in Udupi. The delicious, thick payasam of channa daal, jaggery and coconut has a tale attached to it. Chef Venkatesh Bhat, a native of Udupi who runs Bangalore restaurant Bon South and restaurant chains South Indies and Dakshina Dhin, says that the wandering saint Vadiraja Theertha arrived in the hamlet of Matti some 500 years ago to hear the villagers bemoan the fact that nothing grew on their land. He gave them a bundle of seeds and the people showed their gratitude by offering him channa daal and jaggery. "These, it is believed, were eaten by lord Krishna who took the shape of hayagreeva or horse, " Bhat explains. From then on the hayagreeva maddi is the preferred prasadam in the Udupi temple. Meanwhile, the seeds that the Theertha gifted the villagers grew into brinjal plants. The uniquely pale green variety of brinjals they produced is found even today.
While temples tend to offer sweet prasadam, the Azhagar Kovil temple near Madurai is an exception. It makes a delicious savoury dosa. From the smokedarkened madappalli or temple kitchen of this Vishnu temple emerge golden brown discs that are thicker than regular dosas and made of unhulled urad daal spiked with lots of pepper. Spicy and crisp, these are some of the best dosas you can sink your teeth into.
The nearby Madurai Meenakshi temple, abode of Vishnu's sister, is not to be left behind when it comes to its culinary offerings. Here, the prasadam stalls sell laddoo, pepper vadai, chakkara pongal, thenkuzhal, a sort of chakli, and a delightful appam, made of sweet cardamom and batter-fried in ghee. When you pray to the fish-eyed goddess, your soul is nourished - along with your belly.
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