It is not easy to define the cuisine of a place that has constantly been shaped by many external influences. Often misrepresented for being one dimensional, Chennai has a spread of dishes that is unique to its foodscape or is now an essential part of it. Even if many recipes have been blotted out, here are a few dishes that gives life to the culinary scene of Madras (or now, Chennai).
Among the popular options is Mulligatawny Soup. Being a seat of the British Empire, the city is dotted with British influence. In a bid to reinvent rasam, the British borrowed the Tamil word – milagu thani (pepper water) and did what they do best – anglicised it. This soup is a mix of traditional ingredients like grated coconut with a British twist of apple, carrot and chicken. You can still find an authentic version at clubs like Gymkhana and Madras Club.
Another recipe that would qualify is Sundal. Best sampled in the city’s Marina beach – it is boiled white channa tossed with mustard seeds, grated coconut, raw mango and curry leaves. A popular snack to chomp on, it is served in some of the most popular bars in the city.
Back in the 1960s, a large number of Tamil Indian migrants were forced to flee the military dictatorship of Burma. As a result, quite a few hole-in-the-wall establishments cropped up in the city. Known to serve delicious Burmese street food, it plates out the fiery Atho – fried noodles tossed with cabbage, onion and tamarind juice. These restaurants have added to the foodscape of the city and added a twist to Chennai’s palate.
Even if Chennai does not have its own version of biryani, the city has two world famous biryanis to dish out – the Ambur biryani and the Dindigul biryani. Known for the use of Seeraga Samba rice, a traditional Tamil Nadu variety, and the technique used in making these two variants is what makes it different from biryanis found elsewhere in India.
On Madras Day, as we visit its foodscape, it is not difficult to figure out that a lot of these dishes, although may not have originated in Chennai, are an essential part of Chennai that define the city’s palate and adds taste to its food scene.