During a casual conversation with my colleagues, I made the blasphemous confession that I didn’t know what ‘Jigarthanda’ is. This invited stern looks, and passionate explanations about the milk-based drink that is a favourite among many, especially residents of Madurai, Tamil Nadu.
For the uninitiated, Jigarthanda is a cold beverage like falooda, although the taste of the two drinks is completely different. It literally translates to ‘cool heart’ and is the signature drink of the city. It is generally served at roadside stalls as a refreshment during the summer.
As I went down a rabbit hole to find out more about this full-bodied drink, I discovered the story of P S Sheik Meeran, the founder of Madurai’s iconic ‘Famous Jigarthanda’ shop, which was started in 1977.
Meeran’s ancestors, originally from Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Myanmar (formerly Burma), were farmers. His grandfather was the one who first experimented with a drink comprising milk, basundi (condensed milk) and edible almond gum and accidentally came up with a version of Jigarthanda, albeit a hot one.
“Our family would prepare the drink for children at home, so from very early on, my father knew the preparation method. The only difference was that back then, we didn’t add ice cream, which makes the drink cold. When he moved to Madurai for better growth opportunities, he discovered the present-day version of the drink and started the eatery. He included his own secret ingredients and fine-tuned the recipe to perfection. Till today, we religiously follow the same method, which has made our eatery a must-visit for tourists and a favourite among locals,” S Peer Mohammed, the current managing director, tells The Better India.
Mohammed takes us through the journey of Famous Jigarthanda, provides a sneak peek into the process, and reveals why their drink remains a favourite despite stiff competition.
From a pushcart to franchise
During Meeran’s growing years in Arampannai village near Tirunelveli, the family lived hand to mouth. Farming alone was not enough to meet their needs, so Meeran left his studies and moved to a bigger city with better opportunities in the late 1970s.
After doing various odd jobs, he purchased a pushcart to sell ice creams. Thanks to his family’s culinary skills vis-a-vis the hot jigarthanda, he was able to leave a mark on his customers and soon came to be fondly known as ‘bhai’. However, he still lacked the avenues to expand his business, given that by now, he had his own family to feed.
By the mid 1980s, Meeran had five children. “All seven of us lived in a small hut. My dad and brothers would sleep outside on the streets as there was no space inside. We have seen several hardships — we’d watch our father toil for hours to sell the ice cream, and on some days, would consume the leftover dessert for meals,” says Mohammed.
Life took a turn when, in 1988, Meeran decided to diversify and sell Jigarthanda at night. He saw the drink was available everywhere, so he kept the price per glass lower than others, at Rs 3. He also added more basundi for a better taste to the drink.
This simple yet smart idea worked, and Meeran set up his first shop on the busy street of East Marret in 1993.
Fast forward to 2021, the venture has 200 franchises across Tamil Nadu with a daily average of 300-500 customers per shop. At its main store in Madurai, 1,000 glasses of Jigarthanda are served every day.
While Mohammed took over the Anna Nagar branch, his brother S Zinda Madhar is in charge of the shop on East Marret Street. The third brother S Shahul Hameed takes care of the godown. The youngest, Amanullah, is in-charge of out-station orders. They regularly cater their famous drink for weddings and other such social gatherings in Erode, Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi, Chennai and Bangalore.
What makes Famous Jigarthanda so popular?
Jigarthanda is to food fanatics what the city’s famous Meenakshi temple is to devotees. A simple online search will reaffirm your faith that it is included under the list of must-visit places in the city. Tourists from all over the world, including celebrities and movie stars, have tasted this chilled drink.
The place sells two types of Jigarthanda — ‘ordinary’ and ‘special’. The main ingredients that go into the making of the drink are milk, almond pisin, basundi, ice cubes, ice cream and sherbet.
The special variety has more khoya (condensed milk) than the ordinary one, “We prepare our own sherbet. Following proper hygiene and ensuring quality during the preparation is a must, and that is the secret of our success. We only use raw milk and sugar to preserve the essence. We start preparing the drink two days in advance,” says Mohammad.
Roshini Muthukumar, a resident of Chennai, perfectly sums up the essence of Jigarthanda and the countless memories the drink holds for people. “My maternal grandparents are based in Madurai, and whenever I visit them, I drink Jigarthanda from Famous Jigarthanda. Their drink is very different compared to other shops. It is richer in consistency and taste because they add a lot of milk cream (aadai), and add a scoop of ice cream on top. But, it is never too sweet,” she says.
Edited by Divya Sethu