Madras Week: Exploring Chennai’s food with history

Chennai embraces food from across the State and world with equal enthusiasm, so not surprisingly, the flavours of this city change constantly. Hence, when we challenge Harish Rao (chef and food consultant), who exults in researching ancient recipes and discovering local gems, to curate a roving menu, we quickly realise it’s a tough route to define.

How do you taste a city in 380 minutes? After shifting through many contenders, we start the timer, and set out with steely determination and empty stomachs, all set to eat, pay and love every meal.

10 am, Anna Centenary Library, Kotturpuram (Minute 0)

An odd choice to begin a culinary tour? Be patient and take the lift from the cool, sprawling lobby to the sixth floor. Shelves here are tightly packed with an impressive array of food books, right from the classic Larousse Gastronomique to more contemporary titles from chefs like Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater and Heston Blumenthal. The selection includes paperbacks as well as hard-bound books giving precise instructions on everything from “Cooking the cowboy way” to eating foie gras.

Inaugurated in 2010, the library has around 5,50,000 books and is visited by nearly 2,500 people everyday. Harish says it is popular with city chefs for research when planning menus. One can sit here for hours and pore over research material in the hushed space between earnest civil service aspirants and researchers. But we have places to go, and things to eat.

11.15 am Roja Muthiah Research Library, Taramani (Minute 75)

Welcome to the Fort Knox of libraries. Behind the quiet reading room is a glass door that leads to a row of blue vaults. These hold within them a rare, old collection of books, journals and newsprint. Do note, the librarian here is even tougher than the vaults. She watches anxiously as each page is turned, and and firmly reprimands you if there is the slightest carelessness. But Harish is delighted. After half an hour of polite pleas, we have two classic Tamil recipe books in our hands, both frail with age: Nalavima Pakacastiram, published in 1884 and Periya Pakacastiram, from 1893.

Madras Week: Exploring Chennai’s food with history

Amma in the kitchen

12.20 pm, Shree Konar Vilas, Besant Nagar (Minute 140)

“We will try just a few of their specialities,” says Harish. Fifteen minutes later, the table is covered with food — creamy brain masala, fluffy mutton kari dosai and their special kudal (intestine) tava fry. There are also the crowd pleasers: mutton chukka, bun parotta, veechu parotta, and pepper chicken 65. And of course, a pot of fragrant mutton biryani.

“We are known for home-style Madurai food. The recipes are all by the owner’s mother, who still cooks in the central kitchen,” says the beaming manager. Harish is a fan of the restaurant, which opened as a cramped space in Purusaiwalkam in 2018. They recently launched this Besant Nagar branch.

Madras Week: Exploring Chennai’s food with history

No one can eat just one

1.45 pm, Sri Karpagambal Kabali Sweets Stall, Mylapore (Minute 225)

Count your blessings if you manage to find parking. Then, consider yourselves doubly lucky if you can snag some medu pakodas. A local favourite for 45 years, this stall begins frying the pakodas at noon and by 2.30 pm, it’s all sold out. Two or three batches of 200 pieces each are fried everyday. We position ourselves outside the stall as the cook starts mixing ingredients, elbow-deep in batter. A determined crowd of regulars gather. Some buy onion pakodas for the wait. An elderly couple helps themselves to a handful of garlic sev while waiting for their tea-time snack is under way. As soon as it is on a tray, three staffers begin counting pakodas (₹2.50) and dividing them into paper bags, before handing them into the outstretched hands of eager customers. Crisp on the outside and fluffy inside, these deftly made snacks are addictive.


Legacy biryani

2.15 pm, Khaja Bhai Biryani and Parotta Shop, Royapettah (Minute 255)

Madras Week: Exploring Chennai’s food with history

Gazette Begum Street is an unassuming narrow lane. Till you smell parottas. A part of the lane is occupied by four large degchis. Under them, there is a smouldering wooden fire. A chatty cook uses a ladle that’s as tall as himself, to sauté huge quantities of onions in preparation for the evening biryani. “These vessels can hold 20 kilograms of biryani,” says Khaja Mohideen, whose grandfather started this place in 1962. “In a day we make around 200 kilograms of biryani,” he says. On Sundays, however, the numbers increase. His team of cooks start work at 2 am and have the dish ready by 3.30 am for people waking up early to offer prayers. “By 6.30 am, it’s mostly over,” he adds. The speciality here is everything is cooked using firewood and coal, that is what gives the unique taste. They also make paya curry and mutton chops.

A mess-y affair

3.25 pm, Kasivinayaga Mess, Triplicane (Minute 325)

Madras Week: Exploring Chennai’s food with history

The staff eats first here. “My staff eats before my customers,” smiles K Vasudevan, who started this mess in 1973. “That way they can tell us if we need to improve any of the dishes.” After service, they eat again. Vasudevan does not allow parcels, because he wants to feed people in the neighbourhood, and feed them well. So not surprisingly, portions are generous and prices are low. The space is basic and can hold up to 40 people at a time, so there are inevitably customers lined up outside. Like a classroom, there are rows of small granite tables lining the powder blue room. The meal, priced at ₹75, has 10 items including poriyal, kootu, sambar, chutney and a very generous serving of white rice. “We calculate it as one kilogram of rice per eight people,” says Vasudevan. “Nearly 300 people lunch here and around 125 join us for dinner,” adds the 70-year-old. The food is simple and tasty, especially if you opt to pay ₹ 5 extra and top your hot rice with a generous dollop of ghee and dal powder.

This is the third of a five-part series through a 380-minute tour of heritage sites that celebrates 380 years of Madras

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