Chennai Food Guide: A City Tasting Tour
It’s in Chennai that I start to appreciate the Asian preference for not just the savoury breakfast, but also the spicy one of idlis (fermented rice and lentil cakes) served with chilli chutneys and tangy-spicy vegetable sambar gruel and upma, a semolina porridge with vegetables and spices.
Hugging the romantically named Coromandel Coast on the eastern fringe of India, Chennai is a city in flux. It’s changing rapidly with the booming software and call centre hubs, the construction of the estimated $2 billion metro (still in the works) and foreign investment, but still clings onto traditional culture and customs. It is, according to Sanjeeta Kumar, food blogger and stylist, who moved here almost 20 years ago, one of the more conservative places in India. Food customs are also, by implication, strictly adhered too.
Understanding the Plate
Within Tamil Nadu state, of which Chennai is the capital, you’ll find a variety of regional cuisines including Chettinad, Kongunadu, Tirunelveli and Nanjilnadu dishes. Executive chef of the Savera Group, A.K Mohana Krishnan explains that dairy and milk products are the backbone of the Tamil Nadu diet –milk, curd, ghee, paneer, butter and thickened condensed milk. Prominent elements of the daily meal involve rice, pulses, greens, the flavour bases such as onions, garlic, ginger and tomato and the masala component of chillies, pepper, cumin, fennel and fenugreek.
Most of the Brahmin caste families follow a strictly vegetarian diet. This, you discover, is no punishment. Arguably some of the best vegetarian food in the world is to be found here. It’s the combination of flavours – heat, tang, salt, with a tempering of curd for balance and the endless varieties of curried vegetables, as well as the thin, spicy soups that keep the palate excited. Flavoured rice (tamarind, carrot, cumin, for example) and substantial rice-based staples like idli and the famous South Indian dosa – paper-thin, paella-pan sized crêpes, as well as crisp and crunchy poppadoms fill out the meals. Chutneys of coconut, mango and lime pickles and relishes as they are all over India, are essential to a meal here. Coconut is a staple feature in South Indian cooking. This is the reason South Indian food must be prepared freshly everyday, and cannot be recycled or refrigerated. The coconut, Mr Krishnan says, separates and spoils. The coastal regions will use fish and seafood, others chicken, lamb and goat. One of the most famous dishes in the area is the peppery Chettinad chicken, the Madras lamb curry and banana-leaf thalis – rice or local unleavened flat breads served on the leaf with a variety of small bowls of curries and relishes. Homemade curd is also mixed with plain rice and eaten as a digestive at the end of meals.
Snacks are wildly popular in the South, some substantial enough for a meal. Many office workers will pop into a snack shop or “hotel” such as Sri Krishna Sweets for onion pakodas, savoury paniyaram (fried balls made of leftover idli batter) and ammini kozhukattai (tiny rice balls covered in fresh grated coconut, usually made with leftover rice flour dough) and mor kali – rice flour and buttermilk squares. I’m with Sanjeeta Kumar when I taste the cold version of thengai paal payasam, a fresh coconut and jaggery drink. Most of the sweets (called sweetmeats) in the shop are made of a reduced condensed milk or cashew nuts and not marzipan, as one person suggested when I posted a video of the stash. Some are elaborately decorated with edible silver leaf, and as can be expected, are extremely sweet. These little blocks pair well with the local Madras coffee, or a glass of coconut water.
“We South Indians can not survive without a cup of coffee,” says Mr Krishnan earlier, and Sanjeeta shows me how to cool the coffee or kaapi, pouring it from a great height repeatedly, creating a pleasant froth. “Hurry, you’ve got to drink it before it gets cold,” she says. The kaapi is made by mixing boiled milk with a decoction of the filter coffee. I’m surprised to find out that the coffee, unlike Yemeni or Arabic coffee, contains no spices. Sanjeeta wrinkles her nose at the suggestion. At the Georgetown market I meet a vendor in small shop who’s been in the family business for the last 60 years. Here he sells coffee beans that he will grind, even in small quantities for you. He is almost out of stock that evening, and scrapes together 200 grams of ground coffee beans for me to take home.
Do: A market visit with Storytrails