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Chennai

Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu and one of the most important ports on the east coast, was my destination this time as I flew out of Mumbai on a new client assignment. A new profile and the first extended experience in a state where I didn’t understand the vernacular had me on edge – the only solace being that I was traveling with a colleague who was my senior. People warned us about everything from scoundrels aka auto drivers to the language barrier to the food to the climate.

The last one was immediately evident as soon as we stepped out from the aircraft onto the tarmac. It was Mumbai, but somehow ten times worse. Both cities have near 100% humidity throughout the year but the relative closeness of Chennai to the equator in comparison to Mumbai means that the heat is a killer. We landed in Chennai at 11 in the night in November and the night air was still warm. The language barrier was the next one on our list of “scary thing” which we encountered, trying to explain the address and directions of our guest house to the taxi driver in the middle of the night. A few calls to the guest house caretaker later, though, and we had landed up bag and baggage on the doorsteps of the guest house. The next morning, however, brought with it the third “fear factor” in the form of the auto drivers. Fortunately, thanks to the cosmopolitanism of the city, most of them understand English and many even understand and speak a broken smattering of Hindi mixed with a liberal dose of English and Tamil. One auto driver, in fact, after a 15 minute bargaining session in English, Hindi and Tamil, was quick to ask me “Tamil teri ma?” (“Do you understand Tamil?”) Anyway, haggling and fighting our way to an astonishingly still ridiculous fare, we finally reached our client’s office. Lunch, however, quickly put us face to face with the fourth member on our aforementioned list – food.

Now, those of you who know me, or have read enough on this blog, would know that for me all food is good food. And I was sure of that as I ordered the Tamil Nadu meals in the restaurant we had gone to for lunch. Our chaperone from the client, however, though otherwise and practically forced us to change our order to “Mini meals” saying, and I quote, “You will not be able to finish the full meals.” Falser words were probably not uttered in the history of man as we were served with precisely two tablespoons each of Puliyogare, curd rice and pineapple flavoured sooji halwa accompanied with ten pieces of potato wafers and some sambhar, the quantity of which had me thinking it was some kind of dipping sauce until I tasted it. My colleague and I proceeded to summarily dispatch the food as our chaperone was still busy figuring out if the tamarind rice should be mixed with the sambhar or whether he should eat the curd rice first. We probably burnt more calories walking from the office to the restaurant and back than we had consumed in between. For dinner, we were able to evade the chaperone and went for something that was called North Indian meals in the same restaurant. The main cast of puris was well supported by an assortment of veggies – all in two teaspoonfull portions and in limited quantity. Moreover, the North Indian thali, expectedly, had a strong South Indian flavour. And as if Day 1 had not thrown up enough challenges at us, my colleague coolly announced he would be travelling back the day after due to his engagement before patching in a “good night” to mark the end of the unilateral conversation. Hell yeah, I was going to have a good night!

Over the next few days we settled into a new city and a new client environment. We were ordering lunch a la carte but were both apprehensive of going for the full deal yet. Guess our chaperone from the first day had really given us the fright. In due course of time, my colleague left for his hometown and one day I finally summoned up the courage to walk in to the restaurant and say “oru Tamil Nadu Meals” (“one Tamil Nadu Meals” in Tamil). The captain gave me a wide toothy grin that seemed as much happiness as spite before disappearing into the kitchen. A few minutes later a waiter appeared from the same doors carrying a tray that obviously carried some family’s food order. Hardly did I know how badly I was mistaken until he made a beeline to my table, thus proceeding to plonk down a platter (how else do you describe a plate 15 inches across?) and a pot in front of me. The plate was shaped like a banana leaf and they had placed an actual banana leaf cut to the exact shape and size in the plate. On the banana leaf were two puris which were each worth two bites, tiny bowls of sambhar, rasam, cabbage poriyal, a paneer dish, curd, buttermilk and pineapple flavoured sooji halwa. A typical rice papaddam was precariously balanced atop all the food. And the pot on the side contained plain white rice. For me it was tantamount to shouting “Let the games begin!” Except for the sweet, the food was unlimited so you could ask for as many seconds (and thirds and fourths) as you wanted. After going through the other edibles, i settled down with the rice and sambhar. The captain materialised from thin air armed with a pot of ghee which he doled out generously into the rice. And just as I was about to let the sambhar meet the rice, he had in the wink of an eye, picked a small pot (which had been on the table all along but I had missed it thanks to the mountain of food in front of me) and spooned out a good amount of some weird yellow powder into the rice and ghee mixture. I had only heard of this from my South Indian friends and here it was in front of me. And the taste of it was heaven! I did ask the captain the name of the powder but I could only catch the end podi (a generic term for powder in Tamil). The rest of the name was impossible to understand for me (a non-Tamil speaker) leave alone pronounce it. By the taste of it though, the powder felt like channa daal that had been roasted and then ground together with salt, garlic and hing, that ubiquitous spice that is never missing from any Indian masala box worth its salt. It carried a hint of fenugreek and chillis but just a hint. If there are any of my South Indian friends reading this, I would really be indebted to you if you could tell me what that powder is called. Lunch over and I regretted having wasted the previous 4 days eating random stuff (and those ghastly Mini meals, an ignominy to the name Meals). A huge lunch meant that dinner had to be sufficiently lighter to compensate and I quickly moved to the traditional tiffin items. Now, traditionally, idli, dosa and vadas were called tiffin items and served in homes for breakfast but the pressures of cosmopolitanism meant that the tiffin items are now sold at almost all times of the day. The food scene in Chennai is chiefly vegetarian (though there are many non-veg restaurants called Military Hotels). It is dominated by chain restaurants serving typical South Indian fare from 6 A.M. right up till 11 P.M. The three biggest chains in Chennai are Adyar Anand Bhavan, Sangeetha and Saravanna Bhavan. I had been having my food regularly at a local Sangeetha outlet and so planned to check out the other two as soon as possible. And although I love non-vegetarian food, at this time I was on a temporary abstinence, so the vegan scene suited me well. Anyway, I did get my chance to eat at the other two mentioned restaurants soon. First, I found an Adyar Anand Bhavan near the client’s office. In a bid to modernise, they have fashioned themselves as A2B. The food, however, is disappointing to say the least. For one, they have NO South Indian tiffin items. The main features of the menu belong to the Chinese and chat sections. The chats have strong hing flavours and it seems the Chinese food had a fight with some curry leaves… which it eventually lost and the curry leaves set up camp on the spot. After a rebound relationship with the tried and trusted Sangeetha Bhavan, I ventured out again, this time to the Saravanna Bhavan. Thankfully, this was a much better experience. If any of my readers ever go to any Saravanna Bhavan, they must try the Ghee Roast Dosa. The Ghee Roast Dosa is something sold across Chennai but the one at Saravanna’s is just that much better. Basically the Ghee Roast Dosa is our old faithful dosa that is cooked in ghee. My first taste of this dosa brought to mind what my grandmother has always told me: A little ghee can change the taste of any dish. The ghee really works with that roasted rice flavour and enhances it to a degree that is not conceivable at least in a dosa.

Now, since dinner was more or less a a la carte affair, i was able to try out many typical (and non-typical) South Indian foods. The idlis and vadas are of the soft, melt-in-the-mouth variety. A regional style is to dunk the idli or vada into a steaming bowl of sambhar and allowing the food item to soak up all that liquid goodness before digging in. A spin-off to the plain dosa called Podi dosa was another one. This dosa is again made like a normal dosa but slightly crisper and then smeared with a spicy mix called Mulaga Podi. This is a typical South Indian preparation that involves slow roasting Urad Dal (sometimes mixed with Chana Dal) with whole red chillies, hing and curry leaves in a pan and then grinding all these dry ingredients into a coarse sand like powder (podi). The mixture is stored as is and mixed with salt and vegetable oil (or ghee sometimes) at the time of eating. I also had my first experience of Pongal (or ven pongal specifying the savoury variety as opposed to the sweet one) in this place. For those of you who have never had Pongal, think of it as an Indianised risotto. The rice is boiled and spiced with its starch in place giving the dish a consistency that closely resembles semi-solid daal khichdi we are all used to albeit with a more delicate flavour and the rice in a more mish-mash state. It is a popular breakfast item in South India and is often served with a single vada and a brilliant chutney made using onions and red chillies. The tangy, spicy nature of the onion chutney contrasts very well with the milder taste of the pongal. Another food I was able to eat was kotu parota. Now, strictly speaking, this dish should be attributed to our Kerala cousins but in fact it is a variant of their popular Malabar parota where the ingenuous Tamil people have given it a twist that is all their own. Essentially the parota is heated on a hot plate, chopped into square inch pieces and tossed with finely chopped tomatoes, onions, green chillies and crushed ginger and garlic. This is typically the veg iteration. The non-veg one goes a step further where a single egg and shredded pieces of boneless meat (chicken usually, but fish, prawns, lamb, pork, beef or whatever you may imagine, somebody is probably cooking it) are also added to the mixture. The dish is usually lightly seasoned with salt, pepper, red chilli powder, black mustard seeds and curry leaves. It is a textural delight – the soft chewy parota, the fluffy eggs and the cooked meat with that slightly spicy kick make a very good combination that is easy on the palate and still a wonderful experience. I also tried the kerala parota cooked chinese chilli stir fry style as well as plain kerala parota with coconut milk (beautiful flavour, very light and sweet) and with avial, which is a dish of mixed veggies cooked in coconut milk and curds.

Any meal in South India is incomplete without the quintessential filter coffee and I had monstrous quantities of the sweet brew while in Chennai. The serving style for coffee is very peculiar to this region. The coffee is called filter coffee because hot steaming water is filtered drop by drop through coarsely ground roasted coffee beans. As the water percolates through, the coffee steeps in the water thus making the filtrate a thick coffee extract. For preparing a serving, sugar is spooned into an empty steel glass about 3 inches tall and 2 inches across at the top. Then a small quantity of the coffee extract is poured into the glass before the glass is filled to the brim with steaming hot milk. The glass is then placed in a shallow steel bowl about an inch high and 3 inches across. There is a way to drink this coffee too. Go straight for the glass and the best thing you will have are burnt finger tips; the worst case being a burnt mouth and some bitter milk ingested. The procedure is to pour out the contents into bowl, swirled a couple of times and then poured back into the glass. This is repeated till all the sugar is dissolved or till the coffee is at the desirable temperature. At the end of the ritual, the coffee is enjoyed out of the glass. Usually people don’t share the coffee as it is sold in small portions owing to the frequency of consumption. I assure you that it is an unforgettable experience and could give any of the offerings at your local CCD a run for their money.

During a three week stay at Chennai, I had my first exposure to South India. Its people, its culture and its food. I believe that the best way to know a culture is to share their food. And if Tamil Nadu’s food is a benchmark to go by, this is a very misunderstood culture. Even to this day most North Indians associate South Indian food with idli and dosa. Most have not even heard of the variety of the food down south leave alone experience it. In fact, to all the people who attempted to forewarn me about the food in Chennai, I am proud to tell all of them that they could not have been more wrong. I had a good stay in Chennai. And I totally enjoyed the food. To all of my readers who may still have apprehensions, I have only one thing to say: Just go ahead and try it, you won’t regret it.

So, till next time, when I come back with a post on Kolkata, I take your leave. Please do leave your comments, feedback and suggestions in the comments section beneath. Also, a disclaimer for all my South Indian friends. The information and ingredients for the food items mentioned here are as told to me by people around (other patrons, the waiter, etc.) when I was eating it so while I have taken care to verify most of it, it may be incorrect. You all are welcome to correct me and I would be more than happy to incorporate the same here.

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  1. Nisha iyer
    31 July 2011 at 16:03 IST

    HEy Sks.
    Brilliant post shud say..Could visualise ur entire experience ..
    Well that podi must be parupu podi (which is a mixture off al those that u said)which we generally use with ghee.or oil with rice..
    Few corrections:-Its Oru (one)Tamil nadu meals not Urr TN meals(Urr-is village)
    And it kuttu paratha not kottu paratha(kuttu means the entire paratha must be in pieces)
    Glad u enjoyed the entire South trip..
    🙂
    Enjoy
    CHeers

    • 1 August 2011 at 18:51 IST

      Thanks Nisha. Esp. for the name of that podi 🙂
      As for some spellings, i know the literal translation into english may be a bit off but i think i had the pronounciation down correct since I did manage to get myself “One Tamil Nadu meals” everyday at lunch for three weeks 😉

  2. 1 August 2011 at 17:56 IST

    Great!
    When we visited the South Indian states as a family for vacations you and your sister were petrified of MEALS. And when Papa and me wanted to eat local food, both of you settled for Idli- vada-dosa only, and that too when North Indian food was not available.
    I am sure all the waiters and captains at Sangeetha are missing you.
    By the way, did you do anything else besides eating in Chennai.

    • 1 August 2011 at 18:56 IST

      Yes I remember that trip. Somehow, obviously, I didn’t have as much fun eating the food that time around!
      Why should the captains and waiters at Sangeetha miss me? Everybody there eats that way 😉 in fact a second serving of rice and sambhar is a norm
      And reading the blog, what do you think I did besides eating in Chennai? I think, unconciously, I wanted to prove to myself and to my readers that Chennai food is actually very good and nothing to be feared but savoured.
      I hope you will enjoy the upcoming Kolkata and Bangalore posts 🙂

      • Vivek
        11 August 2011 at 19:21 IST

        Er, I would side with your mom here – the captains /waiters at Sangeetha /other places would be missing you.

        And, here are two incidents that I can quote :
        For my IMA testing when I went to the “Rejection Center” nee “illahbaad /Allahbad /Prayag”; I had a great time in the canteen! So much so that on the second day at the lunch, after I had eaten 7 rotis, as they had mutton on the menu – and we all were limited to 1 bowl of mutton, the server said that he would be brining in one more hot/fresh roti from the kitchen specially for me – reluctantly I gave in – I mean how could you say no to food .. “all food is good food” .. right?
        And, he returned with another bowl of mutton along with the 8th roti .. now that I had more mutton, of course I had to show “respect” to the dish – so I asked another roti ..  ..

        A few years later, at one of my work location, we had the priviledge to eat at the Manager’s canteen – a buffet where they were served 5-star quality food. After my stay of 6-8 months, I moved on, but then returned when my colleague resigned to take over from him. On my first day back, it was deja-vu – they too had mutton on menu. While putting food in my plate, and placing a bowl of mutton curry in my plate, I asked the well-being of the server who was standing behind the counter and asked him if he remembers me.

        His response shook me – and I didn’t realize how “special” I was .. okay .. I’m ..  ..
        With a great grin and as if my actions give him a great joy – he had said, “how can we forget you – you are the only person who takes two servings of mutton”.
        Then I realized, that the fact that I took another helping of the food that they prepare is an acknowledgement of their culinary skills.
        – – – –

        After reading your posting, I’m happy that you enjoy food – and more than that, that you could also figure out the ingredients!
        Alas, at my end, since past so many years, I’ve taken up to eating home-cooked food – believe me – given a choice, I would eat home cooked “Khichdi” any day over any food at any restaurant.
        Though would any time welcome DBG – “Daal-Bhaat with Ghee” (arhar daal).
        Yoghurt is optional, and “achaar” is really not needed, unless of course it is “laal-mirch ka achaar”.
        Oh, another favourite meal – along with DBG, “pakoras”. And, somehow, I enjoy it more when I have them at the lunch, than at any other time.

  3. Haripriya
    3 August 2011 at 13:19 IST

    Hey Siddharth,That’s really heart warming to read that somebody enjoyed their stay @ Chennai, and ventured out to taste different dishes! You should next time try out “Mulagaa Bhajji”-in that hot, humid condition . Also, one more tiffin item is “Idiyappam”-rice noodles-plain with “kurma”-it wud be heaven. Even “Aapam” with “kurma” is good. Go to Grand sweets in Adyar or Krishna Sweets to taste the sweets and savories of the South! If u r there in Chennai during Summer holidays-call me -I’l take u to more places!!Take ur mom along next time-she knows more!!

    • 3 August 2011 at 15:29 IST

      Thanks for the comment Ma’am.
      I seem to now remember that I infact did have both appam and idiyappam with the kurma and coconut milk both. 3 weeks of eating out and almost 8 months since meant I missed mentioning these two. And yes they were very good 🙂

  4. Abhinav Sharma
    3 August 2011 at 16:50 IST

    good one, brought back memories of my visits to Chennai, both business and touristy 🙂

    btw- that masala I think is called Gunpowder (am guessing)..

    • 3 August 2011 at 17:00 IST

      Thanks for the comment, Abhinav. Gunpowder is what Mulagga podi is referred to as popularly especially outside South India. I hope you did try all the local fare in your visits to Chennai. I feel very sad that people misunderstand and pass up such beautiful fare, instead searching for “chenna baature” which has the requisite sprig of curry leaves, a healthy sprinkling of hing and guest appearances by beetroot!

  5. 5 August 2011 at 09:49 IST

    That one warmed the cockles of my heart. Remember I had ranted about how south indian food began and ended with idli dosas simply because they wouldn’t venture beyond them? well, I can’t blame them because the versions you get in the north are as bad as the north indian dishes you get in the south. But when you are in a place, you must taste the cuisine of the place to enjoy it fully. btw, did you complete your work in between all the meals you were busy devouring?

    • 5 August 2011 at 10:02 IST

      What’s with you and Maa alleging that all I did was eat??? For the record, I would reach office at 10 AM, lunch between 1.30 and 2.00 and leave office at 8.30 for dinner and then back to the guest house. So I still did more work than eat 😛
      On a more serious note though, that’s what I wrote in my post towards the end “I believe that the best way to know a culture is to share their food”. Gives a pretty good insight into the people and their customs. Subtle things as you mentioned in one of your posts as to why South Indians eat more rice while North Indians more wheat (the heating produced by the respective foods). The key is to appreciate each others culture. You may not like the taste of everything but its wrong to diss it because what you call “rubbish” is actually food for someone. And this applies equally to both North and South Indians who somehow love to take potshots at each others culture!

    • 5 August 2011 at 10:06 IST

      Oh and btw! i was really wondering when you would post a comment on this post. Was pretty sure you would 🙂

      • 7 August 2011 at 17:35 IST

        I have been away for some time from blogging and commenting. so the delay. Your mom keeps me company through her wonderful and sometimes funny sms forwards.

        • Pratibha Singh
          9 August 2011 at 17:28 IST

          I came back here to check your comments. Like Siddharth, even I was eagerly waiting fur your comments.

  6. Haripriya
    5 August 2011 at 12:14 IST

    I like this punch line -“The key is to appreciate each others culture. “.True Indian!!!Proud of u-credit to ur mom!

    • 5 August 2011 at 13:30 IST

      Thanks Ma’am. And yes, all due credit to Maa and Papa for bringing us up in an open-minded manner 🙂

  7. abhishekparab
    25 September 2011 at 19:30 IST

    I too was apprehensive of going to Chennai for a PhD — that is really a long 5 year plan.. and I did spend an year there! I remember the first time I ate tiffin at a local udipi restaurant, each table had a bucket (yes, a bucket) of sambhar, how I cringed of the thought of spending so much time there.. But yes, Saravana bhavan, a few other hangouts for non-veg food and a couple of coffee shacks made the places a heaven.

    • 25 September 2011 at 20:22 IST

      Many people I know have preconceived notions about the food available down South, which I find grossly misrepresentative. Hopefully, this will change over time as the food stuffs keep spreading across the country.
      Its great that you liked the coffee… it truly is great even at the smallest shacks… 🙂
      and i have seen the “buckets” of sambhar that you talk of.
      i did not try the non-veg in chennai though i would have liked to try out some of the older “military hotels”

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