There’s something captivating about travelling through India’s coastal states. Life moves at a more languid pace- from Goa’s palm fringed beaches to Kerala’s peaceful backwaters- they’re a world away from the country’s megacities. The food is just as bewitching with each state boasting distinct regional flavours.
Chennai (formerly Madras) is the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu. It’s a bustling, friendly metropolis with a food scene to match- from endless tiffin snacks and fresh seafood on the beach to distinct cuisines like that of the Chettiars. If you love to eat, you’re going to want to visit and stay awhile. Here are a few of our favourite food experiences to hunt down…
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1. It’s all about tiffin…
When in the south you tiffin. Unlike other parts of India where tiffin refers to a packed lunch, in the south, tiffin is a light breakfast or a snack between meals. Rice and lentils are used to make tiffin like dosa, vada (lentil flour fritters) and idli (steamed savoury rice cakes). Commonly served on a banana leaf alongside sambar (a lentil based vegetable stew) and chutneys for dipping, this is one custom you’re guaranteed to adopt with alacrity.
Murugan Idli has restaurants all over Chennai and they’re a popular choice for tiffin, don’t miss their speciality- ghee podi idli- a steamed rice cake soaked in ghee and smeared with podi- a coarse spice powder made up of chilli, urad dal, chickpeas and sesame seeds. The podi is spicy, nutty and adds a slight textural crunch whilst the idli is fluffy and moist. Wash it all down with a frothy South Indian filter coffee or beat the heat with the local grape cola Bovonto.
Eat at: Murugan Idli, 17 restaurants all over Chennai.
2. Feast on Chettinad cuisine
When in Tamil Nadu, you must hunt down the cuisine of the Chettiars (a community from Chettinad in the central part of the state) known for its bold, vibrant and spicy flavours. The food is heady with the scent of freshly ground spices- pepper, clove and cumin and the curry gravies contain a depth of flavour enriched by coconut, tomato, garlic and ginger.
Amma Chettinadu Mess is a local, home-style restaurant serving up a vast array of Chettinad dishes- suck succulent crab meat out of giant claws smothered in peppery masala and devour melt in your mouth chicken which wallows in a tomato, mustard seed, curry leaf and onion gravy.
Take note from the locals and shower your rice with the various gravies you’re provided- pour, mix and scoop with your hand. And once you’ve eaten your fill, fold your banana leaf in half, towards you- folding it away from you is an indication you didn’t enjoy your meal- damn nigh impossible if you’re eating at this spot.
Eat at: Amma Chettinadu Mess, 1, Giri Rd, Near Bharathi Rajaa Hospital, Satyamurthy Nagar, T Nagar, Chennai, open daily 11:30am to 4:00pm and 6:30am to 11:00pm.
3. Tuck into fresh seafood on the beach
The lure of street food lies in the sounds, smells and opportunity to witness the drama of cooking as much as it is about the food. Sundari Akka’s stall right on Marina beach epitomises all that is exciting about street food in Chennai. People jostle for plates of rice splashed with ladles of tangy fish curry. Crowds gather around the pans filled with the day’s catch- each filet smeared with a thick homemade masala paste before being slipped into hot oil and fried until golden. Seafood rules here and Sundari Akka’s fish recipes have been feeding locals for over 18 years.
If you eat here you’ll need to know how to go about ordering your food. The crowds of people can be overwhelming but there is a process- sort of. Head to the cashier cart and pay for your dishes, you’ll be given tokens corresponding to each dish you order. Now make your way to the rice and curry cart, pick up your plate, hand over the corresponding token and then it’s off to grab your freshly fried seafood.
Basically you get served if your token is thrust the furthest in the face of the cook manning the frypan. Don’t be shy, your rice is getting cold so just do as the locals do and keep waving that token. Grab a stool or simply stand with your feet in the sand and shovel in the spice laced seafood and gravy soaked rice. It really doesn’t get much better than this.
Eat at: Sundari Akka Kadai, Marina Beach Road, Near Marina Swimming Pool, Marina Beach, Triplicane, Chennai. Open daily 12:30pm to 9:30pm.
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