Every year in January ,the citizens of Coimbatore come together in support of the Kovai Vizha. These week long activities this year, included a heritage food trail. It was organised by the Coimbatore chapter of Young Indians along with Mr. Rajesh Govindarajulu , a person who is famous for his knowledge on the many interesting details about our city’s past …pertaining to food , culture , industry and the various communities that made Coimbatore what it is today.
Sadly ,being the start of the year , we could not accomodate all of the Vizha activities into our respective schedules…while I was really disappointed at the time , looking back now , I’m glad in a way that I missed it (sorry YI ) because I would’ve never ended up going with the fun bunch that finally did this food trail together….with Rajesh playing “follow the leader” of course !
Now, the area he chose was a very busy part of town that most of us hardly venture into , The Town Hall area. The din of traffic , the overcrowded streets , the overenthusiastic two wheelers are all a bit much to take in unless absolutely necessary. Which is probably why , a food walk there sounded all the more interesting ! A whatsapp message from Divya clearly stated the co-ordinates where we were to meet , complete with a reminder what we may need to bring along on our walk. She does think of everything ! A water bottle each , wet wipes , small change , a shopping bag was among the list of carry ons. Comfortable clothing and shoes were a part of the suggestions.
At 4.40 my sister -in-law and I reached the pavement near the Koniamman temple. No sooner did the group come together , all other thoughts of happenings at home and work just evaporated and the excitement was apparent on each of our faces ! I must mention here that Rajesh wasn’t the only ‘guy’ in our group…it was great to have another foodie gentleman accompany us whose wit is on par with his love for food !
We began to attract glances straightaway. We could tell they found us rather entertaining. Who could blame them ? We were obviously not foreigners and yet we were displaying ‘tourist like’ behaviour…yes the regulars all seemed mighty amused !
After admiring the old ‘Manikkondu’ clock tower, we crossed the road to hit our first food stop. Rows of large glass bottles with different vegetables pickled in brine was what first caught my eye. The Durghalal pickle shop is one of the oldest in the region and I was amazed to learn that at one point , they actually sourced their produce from farms that existed in that area. Sadly , there isn’t a bit of land free now that could house even a tiny shrub ! The mixed vegetable pickle in brine is a childhood favourite and is on my current must-buy list. Being the first shop , we didn’t want to walk around lugging bottles…
No sooner did I step back from the pickle store , I heard the words ‘ghee biscuit’ which was followed up by echoes…clearly the excitement was building !!! I will never forget the moment I set foot on the step of Balaji Bakery …my eyes settled on something that I’ve been trying to locate for the past year ( I had even tried convincing our favourite childhood baker to revive them) So , you can understand why that would cause me to let out an excited “cream horns!!!” yelp ,that made startled friends quickly move out of my path as I went forward with eyes on nothing else but my newly discovered treasure.
The find was more special because just recently one of our old time bakers had explained to me the whole time-consuming process of making these and said that not many were interested in churning out these ‘old world’ treats. And here ,in the vintage part of town was a bakery that sold them every day for Rs.25/ each. Who would’ve guessed ?! The buttercream filling is sweet while the crispy puff pastry shell is not. Let me tell you how it is to be eaten. It must not be eaten like an icecream cone ,No ! This one has to be pulled apart segment by segment, peered inside to check the thickness of the filling which may either be licked or bitten into with the pastry… no other refined way of eating it I’m afraid 😉 Just go for it !
One of the others spied their own ‘little girl favourite’ ,the butter bean cake. It’s shaped like a butter bean ,sandwiched with a butter cream and coated with a pale green icing on top of which is piped a big B . She bought some on the way back and happily feasted on it the next day. The counter also held many more cakes from the 70s and 80s …japanese cake , apple cake and jam roll. The jam roll was what we all bought for a tasting. The sponge was light as air and the jam exceeded our expectations by not being too sweet ! another must buy. Yum Yum and yum again ! One of the glass shelves on the wall had a paper pasted announcing the sunday special. I couldn’t help but smile.
With all these happy memories to keep us company , we tagged along mindful of the traffic ,admiring the beautiful strands of flowers in koodais which annoyed the flower seller that we were just taking pictures instead of buying the flowers enroute to the famous Shobha corner. At that point Rajesh pointed out the minarets adorning the sky line and spoke about the ittar trade that flourished back then in these parts…wouldn’t we love to get our hands on some of that now ! While crossing the road to reach Vysial street , I quickly took a picture of a popcorn seller who couldn’t stop looking at our group !
As we entered Vysial street , there was an announcer on the street with a hand-held mike attatched to a big speaker , a couple of us wished we could snatch that away to hand over to Rajesh so that we could all hear everything that he was saying.
He possesses such a wealth of knowledge regarding the city that is truly remarkable. As we made haste , we couldn’t help admiring naturally distressed doorways that we would love to own and intricate wrought iron stairways that led to everywhere and yet nowhere in particular ! As we pondered on at various things that caught our eye we reached the Vasavi Kannika Parameshwari Sweet Shop which was like an open space ,in which a corner was occupied by a couple dishing out a variety of sweets and savouries. The cucumber mysurpa was a first time experience. Interesting but most of us preferred the hot tiny bondas that were served with a spicy chutney. The ‘settu billas’ (little spicy flour rounds with an onion stuffing) and masala pori (puffed rice) with onion and beetroot were equally popular.
Right next to this eatery ,was Coimbatore’s oldest Jain temple. It was heartening to note that the workmanship of the facade had not fallen prey to vandalism and it existed quietly as a testament to what life on that very street must’ve been like all those years ago. We also stopped to admire the ancestral home that belonged to Rajesh’s family which currently houses the offices of a bank. Listening to him reminiscing of his days spent there as a young boy was quite an experience !
He took us to a clearing across the street and we were amazed that he had organised for an authentic Chettiar meal to be catered for us walkers to taste ! Even the generous tiifin carrier deserved to be photographed on it’s own ! Most of the items were unfamiliar. Given that we are exposed to so much about world cuisine ,it was a reminder of how much many of us are largely unaware of local foods that are community specific ! Everyone in the group thoroughly enjoyed the feast of the different vegetarian ‘tiffins’ (snacks) made of rice but all so different from the other. We were treated to pulusu pindhi , muddha kuduma,pappu rotta , sweet and sour cut mango pickle , salad and chutney. We also met by chance a lady who had cooked for his family for many years who tried describing one of the processes to make these delicacies. Divya ,in her own thoughtful way had brought along spoons and forks along with a garbage bag to carry it all back. We were only too happy to do the needful, a big thank you to her again !
After all that pampering , it was time to move on. Dusk was setting in and we were eager to find the much talked about pickle and murukku place where Rajesh was sure most of us will fill our upto-now-empty-shopping bags. a quick stop at another old temple and we found ourselves inside a lane which we had not known existed. The pathway got narrower and we all unanimously marveled at how clean these quaint tiny back alleys were.
We had to pass a bright blue petty shop to get to our destination. What arrested our attention and movement was this sweet elderly couple who seemed to be winding down for the day. The small lady , charmed us all with her toothless smiles ! That neighbourhood will always remind me of ‘Adorable Krishnaveni’ who posed obediently for our many cameras ! She said it was nice to see so many of us because the place was usually much too quiet for her liking …and here we thought that we had invaded on their solitude.
It was time to bid her goodbye and go through the narrow blue again distressed wooden doorway and squeeze into the small shop that was full of savouries , sweets , pickles and podis (spice powders) We managed to send the women managing the place into a tizzy by shouting out our orders for this pickle , that murukku and this sweet ! Rajesh to the rescue…we each picked up our orders ,very happily to take back home to show our respective families. One of the foodies made another discovery that elicited a delighted laugh…she may have discovered the ‘secret store’ frequented by one of her staff that had never been revealed to her in the past ! Haah !
The chinna kelakkai pickle that I bought here is just delicious. Refreshing with it’s lime juices and not very strong red chilli powder,it is the perfect summer time accompaniment for a helping of cold curd (yoghurt) rice.
Sadly , we had to rush off at this point ,leaving the others to trek back to the bakery along with an added filter kaapi indulgence…that’s kept on stand-by for the next time around.
This walk is most definitely part 1 of many more such walks to other parts of the city. Rajesh , we’re ready to take on heritage food walk part 2 whenever you are !