Living for any length of time in Hyderabad turns you into a bit of a biryani snob. Biryanis from other lands don’t cut it, you fancy your ability to tell the basmati from the ordinary, and have a tendency to monopolise biryani conversations. So it’s perhaps strange that after moving to Chennai, it took over a year of sniggering at unorthodox spellings (biriyani? briyani?) and scoffing at the thought of a non-dum cooking process before I began exploring the Chennai biryani scene.
And what a scene it is. The first noticeable thing is the sheer variety. There are, of course, biryanis from all over Tamil Nadu. But further afield, you will find the neighbours well represented in the form of Malabar biryanis in Kerala hotels (Crescent in Nungambakkam; 044-28257038 and Kalpaka in Alwarpet; 28112348), Andhra biryanis (New Andhra Meals Hotel in T. Nagar; 28154208 and Amaravathi on Cathedral Road and elsewhere; 28116416) and even Hyderabadi biryanis (Four Seasons in Anna Nagar; 26264441). The more enterprising folks have introduced biryanis (rice and meat dishes, anyway) from the Middle East (Sea Shells in Thousand Lights, T. Nagar and Anna Nagar; 28295866; Zaitoon in Adyar; 24527778; Samco in Alwarpet; 24341729) and Malaysia (Nasi Kandar Pelita in T. Nagar; 24335759), though the Lucknows and Kolkatas are woefully underrepresented.
The best known biryanis in Chennai, thanks to their ubiquitous yellow shopfront signage, are the thalappakatti biryanis. You find these eateries at practically every important intersection. Even if you can’t see one, you can hear the tok tok tok song that the dabba they use (to scoop it out of the huge metal vats they are cooked in) makes as it hits the sides. The quality varies tremendously, but they are quick, easy and cheap.
Within the thalappakatti genre itself, there are two main contenders vying for top spot. In the red corner is the Chennai Rawther Thalappakattu chain (multiple; 65324638) which stakes its claim to the top spot as the home-grown biryani of the city. Opposing them on the streets and the High Court and Supreme Court are the doyens of the Dindigul Thalapakatti chain (multiple; 26192323) who bring their secrets from the deep south, and accuse the Rawther chain of stealing their thunder.
While the thalappakattis and thalappakattus slog it out, other biryanis proliferate. The Buhari restaurants (multiple; 42028892) have been serving their biryani topped with a signature boiled egg for over half a century. Back in the day, the famished transiting through Madras Central would take care to nip out and wolf down a quick meal at the restaurant across the road.
The Anjappar (multiple; 64531140) and Karaikudi (multiple; 42071256) restaurants mirror the Dindigul and Rawther rivalry in the area of Chettinad food, although without the legal and copyright masala. Decidedly less high profile and easier on the palate in terms of fieriness are the underrated biryanis of Ambur. Ambur joints (T. Nagar; 9283490846) aren’t as numerous as their counterparts from the other geographies, but when you do find one, you tend to be a repeat customer.
The moral of the story here is that when it comes to biryanis, it pays to keep an open mind, especially in Chennai. Being wedded to notions of the ‘real’, the ‘authentic’ and the ‘pure’ only leads to deprivation and Saravana Bhavans.