The city’s culinary tradition is a foodie’s delight
It is a city known more for soaring temples and temperatures than for veechu parottas and vadai curries. But Chennai—or Madras, as some prefer—has a rich culinary tradition that reflects its storied past, and one that is uniquely its own. From provincial Raj headquarters to modern metropolis, the transition hasn’t always been smooth. But even as its stately institutions dissolve quickly into the 21st-century bustle of traffic jams and shopping malls, many of Chennai’s food habits and eateries have stood the test of time. This is a story about some such places, where a combination of deep nostalgia and high quality ensures the continuation of the city’s culinary heritage.
The day begins quite abruptly here in Chennai. Sunrise is upon you even before you have time to blink, and the demands of the day follow quickly. Perhaps this is why the early morning cup of coffee arouses such strong passions here. The Brahmin populations of Madras (the Iyers and Iyengars), in particular, have made this brew their own, so much so that many families genteelly guard their secret formulations for the best cup of kaapi. Freshly roasted and ground coffee beans with chicory makes for a heady, frothy concoction when coupled with thickened milk and a day’s quota of sugar in a ‘tumbler and davarah’ set.
Ratna Cafe (255 Triplicane High Rd) in Triplicane, a historical Brahmin settlement, has made morning kaapi its business since 1948, serving it piping hot to go with a selection of typical ‘tiffin’ items such as podi dosai, uthappam and pongal. Patrons come from various corners of the city to have breakfast here simply because this is a link to the past.
But if breakfast is truly your meal, and classic South Indian vegetarian tiffin fare your weakness, then you’re in much bigger trouble if you find yourself at the turnoff to the throbbing temple complex in Mylapore. Here, amid a web of lanes and bylanes that circumscribe the famous Kapaleeswarar and Karpagambal shrines, are an array of small eateries and snack stalls that dish out some truly salient Brahmin fare. Mylai Karpagambal Mess (20 East Mada St, Mylapore), est. 1951, is one such place, small and unassuming, and easily missed if you aren’t looking hard enough. But it is a window to another world and another time, when Madras still held sway. The vendhiya dosai (made with fenugreek seeds) with vadai curry (crushed vadas in kurma form) are a must-try.
Not far from the temple complex, on another nondescript bylane off Kutchery Road, stands an even more singular establishment. Rayar’s Mess (31 Arundale St, Mylapore) was established more than 70 years ago by Srinivasa Rao and has been run by his family at the same address ever since. From this home-like setting with a menu that has changed little, Rayar’s Mess succeeds where so many have come and perished. Idli, vadai, pongal and dosai may not sound profoundly exciting, but as soon as you’ve picked your food up off the banana leaf, you’ll know you’re in for something special. These staples take on an almost heavenly form here—and it’s appropriately close enough to the temple for inspiration.
Eating off a banana leaf can be a particular sensory delight and, while it isn’t peculiar to Chennai, it remains more a way of life here than in any other Indian big city. What goes onto the leaf can vary tremendously though. The typical vegetarian ‘yellai saapadu’ (leaf meals) lunch comprises a generous helping of rice, eaten consecutively with sambar, rasam and thayir (curd). The drama, however, comes from the assortment of sides, which range from kootu (dal gravy), to poriyal (vegetable with coconut) and varuval (fried vegetable), thokku (relish), oorugai (pickle) and pachadi (chutney), each adding a splash of colour and flavour to the yellai.
A first-time visitor to Chennai can easily be thrown by the countless signages reading ‘Pure Veg’ that glare down at you from restaurant fronts. But look past these to discover that there are tastes in this city that are far more seductive. And the temptations are many at Nair’s Mess (22 Mohammed Abdullah Sahib, 2nd St, near Chepauk Stadium), which serves an assortment of Tamil-meets-Malayali dishes with great enthusiasm and generous amounts of coconut oil. Fish fry, prawn fry, liver fry and omelette are compelling complements to a simple rice and sambar presentation on a banana leaf. The omelette is an impossibly bright sunflower yellow and is still dripping with coconut oil as it is flipped onto your yellai—but it is delicious and you will be back for more!
For a rather more authentic taste of Kerala, Kalpaka (144 T.T.K. Rd, near Music Academy, Royapettah) has Syrian beef fry and appams with egg roast that are sure to give satisfaction. Ask for the karimeen fry; it may not show on the menu and it may not always be available but, as any good Malayali will tell you, it truly is ‘the’ thing.
The banana leaf extends its folds to other regional tastes in Chennai: Andhra flavours, too, abound. The scramble for seats at an ‘Andhra mess’ during lunch hours is a recurring phenomenon every weekday as scores of office-goers seek out their favourite meals service. ‘Get there early’ is as useful a piece of advice as you can get if you’re keen to do justice to steaming hot rice mixed with pappulu podi (spicy powdered dal) and neyyi (ghee). Pappu koora (dal with vegetables), gojju (tomato-based gravy), gongura pickle and beergaya pachadi (ridge gourd chutney) will rocket down your throat laced with fiery Guntur chillies.
If you’re not so keen on the hustle of the ‘mess’ experience, however, and less than excited about the vegetarian side of the menu card, then I’d recommend the Rayalseema-style kodi vepudu (chicken fry) and the Pinakini fish fry (named for the Pinakini Express that runs between Madras and Vijayawada) to go with your meal at Amaravathi (1 Cathedral Rd, Gopalapuram). It’s several decades old now but remains the most feted of the city’s Andhra restaurants.
The cost is considerably higher but you will find no better meal for your money than at the South Indian speciality restaurant Dakshin, an icon at what is now the Crowne Plaza but for most Chennaiites remains the Adyar Park Hotel (132 T.T.K. Rd, Alwarpet). Since 1989, Chef Praveen Anand’s labour of love has brought distinctive recipes from the four Southern states together in a spectacular presentation. Kai pidi chops (mutton), yerra avarakkai masala (prawns with broad beans), padpe upkari (greens with coconut), nandu puttu (shredded crab) and veinchina mamsam (semi-dry mutton) bring flavours from all corners of the South to your banana leaf. Sign off with the elaneer payasam (tender coconut pudding) or vathalappam (steamed coconut custard with jaggery) and Dakshin’s own tribute to filter kaapi.
A curiosity in Chennai’s culinary narrative here is the ‘military mess’ or ‘Hindu military hotel’. In the more influential Brahmin (veg) and Muslim (non-veg) environs that dominated the region in the early 20th century, this kind of establishment catered to Hindu preferences for meats like chicken, fish and mutton. Why ‘military’? One explanation is that they sprung up (during British times) in service of floating military personnel in the cantonment areas of Madras and Bangalore. Not for the faint of heart and certainly not for those accustomed to pairing a cold beer with their meals, the culinary tradition here is to pack it all in at one serious sitting. Traditionally, each hotel specialised in its own home-wrought recipes, passed down from one generation to the next. And while menus at many of these messes still commonly read brain fry and boti masala, or pepper paya and sura puttu (scrambled shark meat), the search for new clientele has forced some of them to drop the military hotel tag for prefixes such as ‘Chettinadu restaurant’.
Among the pioneering military hotels in Madras, Velu Military Hotel was begun in 1952 and has now morphed into Velu Family Restaurant (62 Valluvar Kottam High Rd, Nungambakkam). Its food remains a throwback to the military hotels of the past. The chicken or fish meals allow for a nice sampling of the general flavours but if you’re keen to try something unique, order the naatu kozhi (country chicken) biriyani, the mutton kolaurundai (meatballs) or the spicy crab masala as well.
As in any large city, the influences are many and here in Chennai, too, the arrival of migrants brought in varied flavours to the city’s foodscape. Biriyani is a common one-dish option across the country, but here in Chennai it is near-ubiquitous. There has been such a proliferation of so many styles of biriyani that it is sometimes hard to tell one from another. The GI for the closest to home-grown biriyani must go to the popular Arcot Muslim-style biriyani from Ambur, but many rate the biriyani of neighbouring Vaniyambadi just as highly.
A more recent import is the pulao-style biriyani from Dindigul, better known these days as ‘Thalappakatti’ (a reference to the turban of its originator, Nagasamy Naidu of Dindigul), made using the short-grained seeraga samba rice. Another biriyani worth a mention also has a migrant provenance—the ‘Rawther’ Muslims from Palakkad take great pride in their distinctive biriyani. And now having made this city their home, Chennai Rawther Biriyani (92 Pantheon Rd, Egmore) lays fair claim to the tag of best biriyani in the city! Over the past decade, the sons of Kuppusamy Mudaliar of Erode have delivered on banana leaves a biriyani variant of their own. Under the brand Junior Kuppanna (4 Kannaiya St, North Usman Rd, T. Nagar; also at Anna Nagar East, Velachery and Virugambakkam), this eatery represents the food of the Mudaliar community of Kongunadu and offers some distinctive items such as thalai curry (head meat curry) and mutton pallipalayam (semi-dry mutton).
The parotta is another curiosity in Chennai’s culinary vernacular. The ‘barotta’, as it is pronounced here, can morph quickly from the flaky pastry-like standard, which goes well with ‘salna’ or kurma, into a meal in itself. When chopped up and added to spicy gravy and scrambled eggs (or scrambled anything, really) at a roadside spectacle, the kothu parotta comes to life. Grand Fast Food (97/3 W-Block, 3rd Main Rd, Anna Nagar East) serves up the genuine street version, while the recently launched Courtallam Border Rahmath Kadai (67 G.N. Chetty Rd, T. Nagar) delivers the famous ‘Senkottai border’ variant to your table. Tastier because only country chickens are used here, the gravies and the ‘shredded pepper chicken’ have a rustic flavoursomeness. Also served here is another Chennai favourite, the veechu parotta, which packs a stuffing of the gamey meat within crisply fried folds of dough.
Perhaps nothing says more about a city than its outdoor food habits, and nowhere is quite as outdoorsy as Marina Beach. It is hot and humid here most of the year round, but people come in droves anyway, to soak in the sultry seaside scenery and round it all off with a plate of ‘sooda’ sundal or bajjis. Strings of long, juicy bajji milagus (chillies) serve as window displays for shore-side vendors with just a portable stove and a hot kadhai spluttering as you wait for your plateful of batter-fried goodies. The pursuit of happiness isn’t pricey here—a plate of thenga manga pattani sundal (boiled peas salad with coconut and raw mango pieces) will not set you back by much more than a few rupees but will deliver a burst of delight with every bite.
Street food is generally a good indicator of a city’s’ gastronomic health. All of the many sandwich shops outside Alsa Mall in Egmore or along Ritchie Street in Chintadripet sell a variety of veg and non-veg options throughout the day. Royal Sandwich Shop (159/160 T.T.K. Rd, Alwarpet) has made a reputation for itself by slapping bhujia, spinach, pasta, khakra, vadai curry, Maggi, peanut butter, brownies, honey—and almost anything else you can imagine—between slices of bread, or panini, or foccacia, or pita, and grilling them to a crisp.
Not all is savoury in Chennai, so to speak. If your sweet tooth is complaining of neglect, then just head towards the nearest Grand Sweets and Snacks (24, 2nd Main Rd, Gandhinagar, Adyar; also at T. Nagar and Chetput) and ask for your fix of poli or jhangri or jilebi to go. Alternatively, cool down at The Fruit Shop on Greams Road (11 Greams Rd, near Apollo Hospital, Thousand Lights; also at Besant Nagar, Gopalapuram, Anna Nagar and Kodambakkam) or any of its branches, which while not on Greams Road, still carry the same name. Your pick of milkshake, yogurt shake and fresh juices in a variety of combos, or even a fruit salad, is the perfect counterfoil for the steamy heat outdoors.
Chennai has such a wealth of foods and flavours that much remains unwritten in this narrative. Many other treats, such as the badam milk at Kakkada Ramprasad on Mint St or idiyappams on Pichu Pillai St, the atho (Burmese fried noodles) stalls near Parry’s Corner or the fish fry stalls on Elliot’s Beach are just as much city classics. There is much adventure to be had in tracking down the tastes of Chennai beyond the obvious, so if you can smell something cooking along any of the alleyways that keep this vibrant city ticking, simply follow your nose and make your own classics.