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Vol. XXXII No. 12, October 1-15, 2022

Toothsome Chennai – A returnee’s discovery of food trails in the city

-- by Chandramoulee Palani,

We were rooted and solemnly sworn Bengalurians until recently when we relocated to Chennai after a period of 14 years. The shift has been nothing short of a epiphany. I wonder if we locals are rather unappreciative of our city – it is a typical Chennai characteristic isn’t it, underplaying hard-won pride and focusing on the negatives. And so it goes that almost every non-Tamil family friend who has moved to the city with the greatest of reluctance (usually because their employers granted the Bangalore-based role to another) is suddenly all praises for Namma Chennai within a short span of a year or two, having discovered the many nuggets of delight the city has to offer. From the golden sands of the Marina and a rich historical heritage to our unique political culture, literary discourse, sports ethos, healthy environment and friendly communities, we have it all. While each of the above deserves its own header, Chennai’s delectable variety of cuisine is a grossly undervalued strength in particular. Our often surprising range of food is a gourmet’s delight and I have had many an adventure whilst exploring the city’s food trails since our move. 

The Anna Salai branch of Buhari Hotel. Picture courtesy: The Hindu.

It started with Buhari. I recalled that a cab driver had once mentioned it to be a famous biriyani joint in days long past; I hadn’t given it much thought then, and my fly-by visits were marked by patronizing well-advertised biryani stalls peppered across the city streets. I must digress here to say that Chennai is an undiscovered biriyani haven of sorts – democracy prevails here in gloriously edible form, with a biriyani variety suited for every palate and pocket. Buhari, however, was unknown to me until I decided to walk into the hotel at Mount Road. I discovered that it isn’t air-conditioned, but decided to press on with my plan. It is a practical, no-nonsense setup – the menu is short, the pricing a bit steep and the service strictly okay. But the food absolutely makes up for all of it. Buhari served us deliciously authentic Muslim fare – just the perfect mix of gravy, juicy chicken and a spice level that was just right. It reminded me of Artisto, a restaurant in Nehru Street, Pondicherry that I remember visiting as a child. We ended up parcelling mutton samosas and wheat parottas for dinner. I should mention that there was a moment when I looked across the road to bid a silent farewell to hotel Mathura, which closed during the pandemic.

Our next trip was to Anjappar in Nungambakkam. It offers an outstanding variety of authentic local cuisine, a heritage that seems to be disappearing under the influence of fast food joints that serve mass-produced fare. As with arts and language, I think it is the duty of every self-respecting Chennaiite to support local eateries that serve a variety of authentic delicacies, not just the increasingly bigger bucket biriyani shops. Coming back to Anjappar, I was at a loss to choose items from the menu – everything looked interesting! In the end, I settled on crab pepper fry, white rice, an omellete and seer fish fry. Understandably, there is a bit of a wait time as the items are prepared fresh on order. The silver lining is that the wait whetted our appetites and we fairly fell upon the dishes when they arrived. It left us with full stomachs and beaming smiles.

 Next, we came across ­Madurai Pandian at Avvai Shanmugam Salai, near the AIADMK office – rather well located, considering the busy locality and clientele around. It is a very basic affair. The hotel is extremely crowded, not for the faint-hearted – your banana leaf will be jostling with that of the person across, and it is quite likely that his prawn curry and your fish fry will be in danger of exchanging places. The goli soda pops add to the already noisy atmosphere! When we emerged after the meal, it was with hearty tummies. The hotel is rather good value for money.

Pandi Kadai at Forum Mall is understated in its lighting and presentation compared to its more high-lumen xenon-lit neighbours, but the menu is excitingly original – I rediscovered, to my delight, a whole variety of egg kalakki dishes! I also found out that Erode Amman Mess at the LB Road-Besant Nagar junction has an astoundingly long waiting queue – a phenomenon that I thought was reserved only for the Sangeetha at GN Chetty Road. Erode Amman Mess’ menu is so appetizing, that I would warn patrons to refrain from overexcitement – you will likely end up ordering too many dishes if you give in to the thrill. On the upside, every single one of them will be fantastic. The downside is that you’ll end up gorging yourself on them and struggle to get to your feet, much less be able to climb the stairs on the way out. 

Junior Kupanna, I find, is quite a senior statesman when it comes to mutton biriyani and other local delicacies. We visited the restaurant branch at Kodambakkam High Road, which serves all three meals. Among other pluses, the hotel setting is quite cozy – if you’re visiting them for dinner, make sure you get yourself a seat facing the roadside, for the window frames quite a nice city scene. Their superb breakfast menu is very unusual and highly refreshing to boot – we intend to explore breakfast at Junior Kupanna soon. Kumar Mess on Vadapalani 100 ft road was another pleasant discovery. The seafood and thali format made it feel homely and the crab omelette was a revelation.

I did notice that there are more Swiggy/Zomato delivery folks at these places than dine-in customers. While I am absolutely for the convenience of eating at home, I fear the joy of a dining out is becoming a forgotten art. I hope that this piece inspires at least some of you to visit these hotels in person – dare the traffic, struggle to find parking, delight your palate and tip the waiters. It is more exciting than the vanilla option of delivery – and you will see a new side to Chennai.

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