As we begin our choppy descent through the monsoon clouds that cover Chennai in October, it helps that the disconcertingly close St Thomas Mount is topped by a church. It keeps the Hail Marys flowing as we land at Anna Airport. I’m relieved to be on the ground in my favourite city, looking back at Parangi Malai, the ‘foreigner’s hillock’, with gratitude. Many centuries after St Thomas prayed on this hill, more foreigners would come and stitch together these few coastal villages into the premier city of South India. It’s always good to be back here. Unlike some other metros, Chennai hasn’t opted to erase layers of its history, the name change notwithstanding. Madras and Chennai have for long co-existed. Here statues of Edward VII, Victoria and Munro have not had to make way for Kamaraj, Annadurai and Periyar. They stand together, the past as accessible as the present. In Chennai, change is never for its own sake, and that is refreshing.
What also makes Chennai the greatest for me is that no other city can match the sheer variety of regional speciality cuisines from all four South Indian states that Chennai offers — Kongunad, Chettinad, Arcot, Andhra, Hyderabadi, Mappila, Udupi, Travancore, Syrian... The list is endless.
The place where Chennai’s Pallava, Nawabi, British and political histories — and a variety of Tamilian cuisines — come together is Triplicane. You get a grand view of these layers of history in rapid succession if you drive past the Indo-Saracenic Presidency College on the Marina, and turn left onto Wallajah Road. To your left looms the Nawab Wallajah of Arcot’s British-designed Chepauk Palace, home to a princely family that still receives a British-decreed pension. Turn left onto Triplicane High Road and continue to its intersection with Pycrofts Road, a crossing commanded by Triplicane Ratna Café. Have the traditional plate of idlis and a vada doused in sambhar in one of Chennai’s oldest tiffin places, today a chain with outlets all over Chennai. From Ratna Café, you can walk back down the high road or the maze of streets leading westward from it towards the Wallajah Big Mosque. Every second shop here offers huge containers of biryani from across Tamil Nadu. Most of the signs advertise Chettinad biryani, but don’t go by the signs, for even Nagercoil and Arcot biryanis are called Chettinad here. I had a lovely plate of a mildly flavoured, most un-Chettinad biryani at Amreen Biryani Stall on the High Road, just across from the Thalappakattu chain, which has brought the more spicy and justly famous Dindigul biryani to Madras.
From the café, you could also walk east along narrow lanes to the great tank of the 8th-century Pallava-era Parthasarathy temple, the centre of the beginnings of political activity against the British. Triplicane remains, till date, a favoured hangout for political types. Its age-old Nair Mess, on Mohammad Abdullah Street, is always full of CPM cadre gorging on biryani and coconut oil omelettes, or the lovely veg thali, before stumbling out to say prayers at the tiny temple outside.
You will also find lots of good Kerala Mappila biryani in Triplicane, but one of the most popular places to try this is Hotel Crescent, not far east beyond that other great mosque of Chennai in Thousand Lights. Crescent (309 Valluvar Kottam High Road, Nungambakkam; 28257038, 42137227) offers fabulous Kozhikodan seafood and meals. The Malabar parottas are huge, the ‘short gravies’ spicy, the nethili and karimeen fry perfectly crisp. Ask for the special milkless Sulemani mint tea here. It’s not on the menu. You can eat here as late as 2am, a rarity in Chennai.
Quite a few among Chennai’s newer restaurants are speciality regional South Indian. Perhaps the best among them is Ente Keralam (1 Kasturi Estate, 1st Street, Poes Garden; 42328585, reserve ahead). Munch on complimentary plain and jaggery-coated banana chips before the perfectly soft, coconut-covered fried squid starter arrives. Follow this with a karimeen pollichathu, lightly coated with masala and roasted in a banana leaf. Then come the big guns — the country chicken curry, Syrian beef fry and beef cutlets. Eat all this with a pappadum-accompanied Mappila biryani, or appams. And you should still have room for mango and tender coconut ice cream.
Another day, try the varieties of Kerala food in Adyar. The drive down Besant Avenue that runs through the Theosophical Society, never fails to awe. The society appears as a silent, enchanted forest in the midst of the city. Within its casuarina-filled grounds, Madame Blavatsky founded the Universal Brotherhood, Annie Besant trained India’s first scouts and guides, children still attend The School founded by J. Krishnamurti and, at the venerable Kalakshetra, still learn the Bharatanatyam that Rukmini Devi Arundale brought out of temple courtyards and into polite Madras society. One always feels their aura continuing to cast a somewhat authoritarian spell of calm over this locality, stretching from the Adyar river to Besant Nagar. An aura that is broken only on Elliots Beach, which you can irreverently call Bessie while quaffing fat fried prawns by the dozen. The bajjis and sundals of the sanitised Marina are not a patch on the fish on Elliots Beach.
I am most intrigued by Hotel Runs, a Kerala hotel in Adyar. I ask the waiter, why this unique name? Probably because it’s been running since 1964, he suggests. I’m not convinced. He returns with a more plausible, not to say reassuring, reason. Kunhahamed first set up a tea stall in this busy corner of Adyar. As he rushed about serving tea, coffee and buns, an ear ever open to his customers, he would hear them remark at how fast he would run around to keep their cups filled. So when he earned enough to open a hotel, Kunhahamed chose the name Runs. It’s a good reason. Runs (13 Sardar Patel Road, Adyar; 24413689, 24425844) is a very popular place. The special biryani chicken boneless (Rs 70) comes studded with huge pieces of chicken and sliced egg. Have it with the superb mutton pepper roast (Rs 70), fried with chunks of garlic, chillies and curry leaves and black with pepper. I am a dedicated fan of overfried Kerala mutton.
A short distance from Runs, you will find a memorable Kerala-style meal that prides undercooking. The all-veg Cholayil Sanjeevanam’s Rajakeeyam thali (Rs 135) is a masterpiece of taste, texture, flavour and variety. The food at Cholayil (15 Indira Nagar, 1st Main Road, Adyar; 65718423; also at Mugappair, 26243249 and Nungambakkam, 64508427) is made as per principles of naturopathy and ayurveda — every item on the thali has to be eaten in a particular order. The first thing you eat is simple ripe banana slices dusted with a generous amount of fresh coconut. Then you imbibe a set of five drinks such as date juice and buttermilk. The next four items are all uncooked vegetables — cucumbers and carrots, banana stem and cabbage, lightly dressed with lime juice or grated coconut. Then comes a row of semi-cooked veggies — ash gourd olan, yellow pumpkin with pineapple, snake gourd curry, banana flowers. Cooked vegetables include fried ladyfinger, keerai poriyal and amla avial. By the time the rice course comes, you are quite full, and that’s the aim of the meal — to eat a greater amount of whole vegetables and fruit. The red rice comes with the lightest dal, sambhar, mor kozhambu, rasam and buttermilk. The end is signalled by a superb red rice payasam and a drop of honey. Despite such a huge meal, one walks away from the table feeling light.
Not too far from Adyar is Chennai’s Gurgaon — Velachery. Every big restaurant chain in the city has to have a branch here. Driving down its arterial 100 Feet Bypass Road, lined with glitzy malls, you will spot a Vasantha Bhavan, a Murugan Idly Kadai and a Triplicane Ratna Café. But you aren’t driving all this way to find what you get back home. You come here for a homegrown Velachery joint which is one of the most nondescript but fabulous Kerala restaurants in the city. Palani Yadav’s A Kalavara (8/1 Maheshwari Nagar, 100 Feet Bypass Road, Velachery; 42022647-48) makes kappa with a spicy Kottayam-style fish curry. Ah, boiled tapioca. The mere sight of it salvages the worst of evenings. When eaten just before bedtime, it affords lovely dreams. A Kalavara has a very large menu of incredibly good Kerala food, everything from Malabar-style pomfret to Kottayam-style beef ularthiyathu.
The next morning, my drive towards Purasawalkam is painfully slow, for today Capt Vijaykant of the DMDK party is addressing a meeting on the city’s Island Grounds. Anna Salai and Poonamallee High Road are bedecked with larger-than-life photos of the Kollywood actor-turned-politician’s ever smiling visage. I fear I will never forget it. But Purasawalkam promises distraction, and delivers. Shri Krishna Sweets here is more than a century old. Set in a carefully restored old Coimbatore-style home, its Rasam Restaurant (25/E Raja Annamalai Street; 43560101) offers the home-cooking of its founders, who hail from West Tamil Nadu’s Kongunad region. A region which stretches across Erode, Salem, Dharapuram, Palani, Mettur, Karur and Kangayam; its biggest city is Coimbatore. In Kongunad kitchens, which liberally use coconut and gingelly oil and every known edible leaf, cooks have created such ingenious dishes as the Kongu mushroom biryani and onion payasam. The latter sounds unbelievable, and I didn’t believe it till I tasted it. It’s fabulous. The tiny onion pieces add a texture just like rice, and the faint taste of this ordinarily noxious vegetable is extraordinarily good with sweet milk. Try this and the special Kongunad thali. It has 22 items — parottas, biryanis, peratal, kootu, varuval, poriyal — that will give you a complete picture of this regional cuisine.
Andhra Pradesh is umbilically linked to Madras, which was acquired by the British from the Nayaks of southern Andhra. The abode of Venkateshwara in Tirumala marks the legendary northern extent of the Tamil empire. The temple of Parthasarathy in Triplicane was created when a Pallava king wished to have a seaside darshan of the lord of Tirumala. And Andhra Pradesh, India’s first state to be created on linguistic grounds, was born after a fast-unto-death in Mylapore.
After Kerala, it is Andhra food that is most widely represented in Madras, the best of it in scores of messes. In Anna Nagar, I found a brilliant Andhra menu, with a huge bias towards the cuisine of its owner’s ancestors, in the new restaurant Zameendar (AL Block 112 and 113, 4th Avenue, Shanthi Colony, Anna Nagar; 45500555/222). Set up by the owners of Savera Hotel, descendants of the former zamindars of Gudur in Nellore district, the best things to order here are coastal Nellore biryani, kodi roast, royallu iguru and Nellore chepala pulusu. The biryani was studded with chunks of mutton, the chepala, made with fleshy vanjaram (seer) and huge pieces of green mango, was tart and sour, the kodi and igguru spicy enough to make your nose run.
Of the four southern states, perhaps the one whose cuisine is least represented in Madras is Karnataka, despite the dozens of Udupi hotels across town. A majority of them serve the generic tiffin of the South and call it Udupi, just as these days every second place calls its food Chettinad. Despite this, you will find in Madras the best Udupi home food that you won’t find even in Udupi, outside somebody’s home. Ram Bhat’s Matsya Udipi Home, an old Egmore institution (1 Halls Road, Egmore; 28191900), is widely loved for its special blend of coffee, which you can get till as late as 2am. Come here for the Udipi Home thali. You start with rasam vada and a plate of guliappas, akin to the paniyaram, with tiny, delicious Mangalore bondas. Then comes the big thali with kara uppu puli, paalak and neer dosas. The latter is an exquisite combination with the sweetened coconut in one of the bowls. Start with this before moving to the sambhar, kadubu idli, fruit pachadi, bisi beli bath, chittranam, kara kozambhu and curd rice. All of these are made from extended family recipes. The T. Nagar branch BR Matsya (Thanikachalam Road; 42127007) offers a limited version of the Udupi home thali for lunch alone.
Another place to go for Karnataka food is the last stop I made in Chennai. Malgudi (Savera Hotel, 46 Radhakrishnan Salai; 28114700) has been serving food from all four southern states for over a decade. In one unforgettable meal I ate a pomfret bezule of Karnataka, the kodi mirpakai vepudu of Andhra, Kerala mutton stew and Tamil yerra varuval. And I couldn’t but wonder at how these four states, using pretty much the same ingredients, cooked up a multitude of cuisines that are so distinct, each one of them equally soul-satisfying. Who can’t love Madras, where all them coexist?
Mylapore is home to many bhavans that are temples of Tamilian and Chettinad tiffin. Adyar Ananda Bhavan and Saravana Bhavan tower over the Kapali Temple tank, their neon light shimmering across its surface by night. But it is places like KPGM Mess and Kaiyendi Bhavan you should opt for to get a taste of real tiffin without the spin.
-- Sridhar's Sevai, Nataraj Agency, North Mada Street (9444402749): My colleague Latha told me about a lady who makes Lord Vinayak's favourite steamed modakam and four kinds of fresh sevai — lemon, coconut, puliogara and tomato — every afternoon from 3pm till the food runs out (8pm). I found Mrs Sridhar at the Nataraj Agency, which sells great Coorg coffee. The sevai is justly famous. You can also get adais-to-order from Mrs Sridhar.
-- Namma Veedu Vasantha Bhavan, 41 South Mada Street, Mylapore (24957666): Loved for its wheat, kal, elan and ragi dosas. When I went to Vasantha Bhavan they were steaming kuzhi appams and paniyarams right at the entrance. The appams are steamed balls of banana and jaggery and ghee. Soft, warm and delicious. The kuzhi paniyaram is to be savoured with three kinds of chutney and hot sambhar.
-- Another big Chennai tiffin chain, Murugan Idly Kadai began decades ago in a small shop, walking distance from Ratna Café in Triplicane. The idlis are the softest I’ve ever had, served on banana leaf with five excellent chutneys. I ate at one of its two shops close to Panagal Park in T. Nagar.
-- Sangeetha Desi Destination, 1st Main Road (fronts Sardar Patel Marg), Gandhi Nagar, Adyar (24426554): Excellent Chettinad tiffin here, among regular South Indian tiffin and a few North Indian snacks. The menu includes kal dosa, thavala vada (all the following are Rs 22 a plate), the unique carrot, keerai, cauliflower, beans and cabbage Chettinadu vegetable vadais, onion, potato, cauliflower and banana bajjis and, of course, kuzhi paniyaram. I had a superb ragi dosa with gingery tomato and coconut chutneys. Sangeetha also has a good array of tea-time sweets such as paniyarams, seeyams and puttus, and kozhukattai. Come only after 3pm for the Chettinad items. The Gud Bud ice cream here is the most over-the-top concoction you'll find outside its home, Karnataka.
-- Kalpaka, 144 T.T.K. Road (28112348): This tiny eatery, behind the Music Academy across the road from the Amaravathi Complex, makes the flakiest and largest Malabar parotta (Rs 12) I've ever eaten, and a deliciously spicy Kottayam Syrian beef curry and prawn fry (Rs 40). You can’t miss it.
-- Thattukada, Food Court, Phase III, Spencer's Mall: This is just a small stall in the cavernous Food Court, but stop and try everything on the limited menu. It's part of the same group that runs Ente Keralam in Poes Garden, and its Kerala curries with parotta cannot be missed.
-- Tharavad, E-32 2nd Avenue, Besant Nagar (24919171, 24461222): I had heard much about this restaurant a few years ago. But when I finally had a meal there and peeled back the banana leaf on the karimeen pollichathu (Rs 200), only to be hit by the smell of raw masala, how I wished that the fish was still swimming in Vembanad Lake and that the chefs knew that kallumakaya (Rs 120) is already a little salted by the sea. Why eat here when Ponnusamy's Mess is such a short walk away?
-- Coconut Lagoon, 1 Cathedral Road, Gopalapuram (42020428): Part of the Amaravathi Complex, Coconut Lagoon offers the cuisine of the western coast from Goa, Mangalore and Kerala. But stick to the Kerala offerings. They do justice to the karimeen here, which comes in a well-roasted pollichathu (Rs 150). The stuffed crab (Rs 175) was not stuffed but delicious, nonetheless, with idiappams (Rs 40) and pathiri (Rs 40). And the oran (dal) payasam (Rs 50) was a good change from the rice-based payasam available everywhere else.
-- Palakkaran, 27 Bazullah Road, T. Nagar (42555528): A brand-new restaurant located in a quiet area of T. Nagar. Here the stuffed crab roast is what it says it is, and I spent an enjoyable time taking it apart. I finished with kappa (Rs 35) topped with a Syrian beef roast (Rs 70), which was, like all kappa, very excellent.
-- Amaravathi, 1 Cathedral Road, Gopalapuram (42020428): Perhaps Chennai's most popular address for Andhra food, Amaravathi's menu comes in Tamil, Telugu and English, and it is an extensive picture of coastal Andhra food. The mutton gongura (Rs 130), mutton chukka veupudu (Rs 140), drumstick mutton curry (Rs 130) are good places to start. This is the only place I've seen the delectable Bommidayala pulusu (Rs 135), made from a fish found only in the Godavari delta, on a menu outside Andhra Pradesh. They also do Hyderabadi biryani.
-- Kalinga, 22, 100 Feet Bypass Road, Velachery (22591272-73): Though it attached 'Andhra cuisine’ to its name, Kalinga's menu, surprisingly, is nowhere near as extensive as those its sister concerns Malgudi and Zameendar offer. There are just a few Andhra dishes on the menu, but what they do offer makes a very good Andhra meal. I had a spicy Koramenu pulusu made with veral (butter fish, Rs 130) and the signature gongura mutton (Rs 130) and guthi vankaya (Rs 90), which went very well with a platter of Chettama idlis and a serving of curry leaf rice (Rs 65). The prawn 65 (Rs 125) was not the best.
-- Welcome Hotel (26433626, 26421534): For real Udupi tiffin, you can do no better than Welcome Hotel in Purasawalkam. I had a perfect podi dosai here, crispy with generous amounts of milagapodi, served with that sambhar that only boys who learned to cook in the Sri Krishna Temple kitchen in Udupi know how to make. It's such a relief to walk into an Udupi hotel and actually find bisi bele bath, medu vada, birinji kurma and the cross-Karnataka favourite, cauliflower masala and diamond masala dosas.
Capt Vijaykanth's parade kept me from making my date with Dakshin at the ITC Park Sheraton on T.T.K. Salai (24994101). Run by the respected chef Praveen Anand, who can also make a mean onion payasam and Nagercoil biryani, many ardent Madras foodies give him high marks for his variety of rural dishes from all the four states. They particularly mentioned the mutton stew with idiappams, meen curry and banana dosas. I’ll be back to see for myself this Christmas.