A tiny shop in a street corner, with strings of small packets, and lines of jars filled with colourful candies: my mind instantly goes to Honeydukes candy shop in the wizarding world of Harry Potter.
Tamil Nadu has a rich tradition of candies, which were made without chemical preservatives and contributed in their own ways to better health. Searching for them is a tough task today, since branded chocolates have become the go-to candy treats for kids. These candies used to be common in those tiny petty shops found in rural nooks and crannies across Tamil Nadu. A few of them are making inroads into the big city, through retail stores, even now.
Kamarkattu, made of jaggery and coconut, is famous for being tough on the teeth. Often, dry ginger and cardamom is also added to it, to enhance the flavour. People place the dark brown candy between their jaws and wait till eternity for it to be chewable. “It helps in secreting saliva, thereby aiding digestion. That is why in olden days, we used to eat it after the last meal of the day,” says Srinivasan, the proprietor of Thirumayilai Varukadalai Nilayam, Mylapore.
Old-timers still swear that the kamarkattu available in shops these days comes nowhere close to the ones they grew up with.
“Long back, we had jaggery, coconut scrapings and sesame seeds that were added to kamarkattu. Even the best ones now are only 75% as tasty as the ones we ate growing up,” adds Srinivasan.
Elandhavadai is another item that is slowly coming back to the market. More than candy, this resembles a thick pancake made of jaggery and Indian dates or jujube. It is tangy, sweet, salty and sour at the same time. Remember the Tamil arusuvai concept? Elandhavadai is a great example for packing all six tastes into a single piece. Jujube fruit is also known for its antioxidants.
“Of course, it is about memory. The frozen one I got in the supermarket is in no way comparable to the gooey packets for 25 paise that we shared with our friends decades ago,” reminisces 29-year-old engineer Bharathi Srinivasan.
Another candy slowly raising its head again is the thaen mittai (honey candy). Generally made of sugarcane syrup, it gives today’s preservative-laden, plastic-wrapped toffees a run for their money.
“People are curious when they see the bright, rose-coloured balls lined up on our shelves. It is purely out of nostalgia that they buy these candies,” says Saravanan, the proprietor of Ganapathy Butter and Ghee, Mylapore.
That being said, kadalai mittai never vanished from the market. Although new forms like chikki are finding their places on retail shelves, the classic Kovilpatti kadalai mittai is perennially loved. Often found in big glass jars in almost all tea shops across the State, this candy provides protein and iron and still has its own crop of loyal followers.
I remember the call of ‘Inji morappa’ from vendors in the buses. Bars of this yellow, ginger-based candy stacked on a big metal plate balanced on the vendor’s head is a common sight in semi-urban and rural Tamil Nadu. Inji morappa is made of dry ginger, sugar, and cumin seeds and helps with indigestion, acidity, sore throat and rudimentary food poisoning.
“Nowadays, liquid glucose is being added to these items, to increase shelf-life. The customers expect these traditional candies to be preservative-free and specifically ask for products without liquid glucose or artificial preservatives,” adds Saravanan.
“If stores across Tamil Nadu take these traditional candies up with attractive packaging and display, millennials will definitely pick them up with enthusiasm,” he opines.