Morning Raga and Biriyani Nights

Morning Raga and Biriyani Nights

On the Chennai food trail

It was known as the international headquarters of the idli-dosa. Marriages were made on a bride’s ability to serve a plate of light-as-air idli. “You must add a pinch of methi seed to make the batter rise,my dear,” an elderly aunt would whisper giving a not-so-subtle tweak to the bride’s cheek.

Once the alliance was fixed,the wedding preparations inevitably took place at one of the famous Udupi institutions,Just as inevitably,the main fare was Chennai’s most famous export,the idli-dosa.

Idli is a morning raga at Chennai. As Ram Bhat,the scion of one of the oldest surviving Udupi hotels at Chennai,who runs the popular “Mathsya” restaurant at Egmore,near the railway station,says,“My cook wakes up at 3 am. Has a bath and puja before he enters the kitchen. We still prepare everything fresh,every day.” Though they were the first to introduce north Indian food in the 1970s,items like puri bhaji and chana bhatura,their clients can dine in peace knowing that after 6 pm,the sambhar at Mathsya is served without the dreaded garlic-onion combo. “We call it a sattvic sambhar,” says Bhat.

Idlis still survive at the government subsidized canteens called “Amma Canteens” scattered across the city. They are served at Rs 1 an idli with hot sambhar and chutney. They are scooped up by hungry hordes on their way to work. For a little more,you can get a hearty dollop of pongal. Not only is there an enviable standard of cleanliness at the canteens,the scheme also employs local women as cooks who get paid Rs 130 a day.


“When I was at school,my mother would always pack dry idlis with a little podi (gunpowder) into my tiffin,” remembers a middle-aged Brahmin lady of her schooling at a convent. “ I would wait for my friends to open their tiffin boxes,just to get a whiff of the onion and puri-potatoes. For me that was the height of exotic food. Of course,we could not touch it then.” Then came temptation in the form of the Maggi noodle campaign that targeted the lunch boxes of school children. The north-south divide was finally breached by popular fast food chains such as Sangeetha and Saravana Bhavan that made a point of selling highly spiced north Indian items,alongside “Manchurian” dishes,like the famous Gopi Manchurian,or noodles with any number of permutations,with the traditional south Indian rice-based dishes,made heartier,tastier and crispier with the addition of garam masala. Even the bland curd-rice was given a makeover and studded with seedless grapes or pomegranate and scattered with raisins. “Heaven knows when they will make a Hawaiian curd-rice and serve it with pineapple!” exclaims an NRI customer.

The annual influx of the NRIs,mostly from North America,where the majority of upwardly mobile south Indians have fled only to return during the December season of dance and music have led to the popularity of traditional foods. The sabha caterers,or those who set up their stalls next to the most popular performance spaces,have also learnt to serve these nostalgia hunter-gatherers.

For a city that prided itself on putting its citizens to bed by 9 pm,it’s become a township of biryani nights. Besides the tug of history at Buharis,where Chicken 65 was invented,customers go to the numerous outlets of Thallapakkati Dindigul Biryani,for the spice-laden south Indian version of biryani.

The biryani brigade came into power with politics. “It was the common practice at political rallies to provide the crowds with a packet of biryani,” reveals a participant. No street corner worth its name is without its youthful biryani maker. The biryani is made on the spot from a makeshift gas-fired kitchen and hawked to hungry workers on night shifts who now make up the service and BPO sectors. “If no one protested the price rise of toor dal,it’s because they are buying chicken biryani,” said an entrepreneur trundling his fare from a hand-cart.

At the Taj Gateway’s trendy hotel on OMR,Chennai’s electronic highway,Chef K Natarajan has discovered a new passion. It’s called thanjavur virundhu. He’s gone back to his roots and unearthed old recipes that combine the best of the region’s largesse with the Maratha tradition brought by its erstwhile rulers. The late actor Sivaji Ganesan’s household provided some of the recipes,while a zesty lemon rasam,chilled with a knockout tot of vodka sealed the pact.

It’s new,it’s fresh,it’s where past and present collide: Viva Vodka Chennai.

by Geeta Doctor

Geeta Doctor is a Chennai-based writer