Here are my top picks for the best local foods you can have in Chennai. The best place for flower-soft Idlies is Murugan Idly. They have branches in T Nagar and on the Besant Nagar Beach road. Spread over a banana leaf, they serve you fresh steaming hot idlies, a variety of chutneys and Sambaar. My pick in this place is always the Molaga Podi or Gun Powder with ghee or oil. They also serve Dosas, Pongal and other tiffins. You cannot leave Madras without a trip to Murugan Idly. This is a rule for every food lover!
Tucked away behind the Kapalishwara temple road East Mada street in Mylapore is this little room that could be easily missed if you were driving by. The Mayli Karpagambal Mess started by R Soundararajan opened in 1950. Since then it has changed much. In the mid 1980’s they did away with the lunch menu and began serving only ‘tiffins’. Their ‘degree coffee’ is yet another attraction. The walls are crammed with photo frames of images of gods and goddesses. The strong fragrance of Agarbatti fills the space at all hours of the day! The current owner Mr Prabhu takes care of it now. His wife Prema has revived some of their family recipes, which they sell. These make for great gifts for friends who love south Indian food. On the cash counter you’ll find little packets of Karivepuli Podi, Paruppu Podi, Milagai Podi, Vazhapoo Pickle and others. Their Badam Halwa, that comes in little yellow butter paper packets is a must-have!
The rains have subsided and businesses are back to normal. For health reasons, I personally wouldn’t consume non-vegetarian food. But if given a chance, with all the safety I would select two places within the wide variety of choices. The first one is Dindugul Thalapakatti Biryani. Everyone who I have told this about has asked me what is the big deal about this ‘Biryani’. To start off, it is not a Biryani in the traditional sense but a Pulao. Rice and meat are cooked separately with spices. Founded by Mr. Nagasamy Naidu in 1957 under the name Anandha Vilas Biriyani Hotel in Dindigul, it earned fame by word of mouth at time when advertising wasn’t what it is today. In fact, if a train passed by Dindigul junction, passengers would time their journeys in such a way that they got their share of the famous biryani at some point in the day. Mr Naidu always wore a turban called a Thalapa.
Nagasamy Naidu's family
Over the years this became synonymous with the brand and their unique cooking style. Soon he became famous as Thalappakatti Naidu. Unlike the traditional Dumm-cooked biryani of Hyderabad in Deccan, the Thalappakatti variety is cooked in a rather easy style. The rice, usually the Sona Masuri variety and smaller portions of meat are cooked separate, and mixed later. The spices, mostly cloves, cinnamon, big cardamom and black pepper are predominant in the taste here. They are ground coarsely and come into your mouth while eating to surprise your palette of a spicy burst. This Biryani is certainly not for the faint hearted. The spice levels can be high and so be prepared for that! My favourite joint is the Dindigul Thalappakatti Biryani joint opposite The Park hotel junction near the famous Gemini flyover. Don’t be surprised if you find it crowded at all hours of the day.
Wash down all these heavy foods with a tumbler of piping hot filter coffee. If you have a sore throat, try something called the ‘Chukku Coffee’. Made from dry ginger, black pepper and other spices, this is an excellent natural medication to keep you away from cold, cough and other air-borne infections.
What else can you have in Madras….err..Chennai? A lot, if you have enough time to spend. Take a tour around the famous Kapalishwara Temple in Mylapore or the Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane. There are several local heritage experts who conduct tours. Sign up for one of those walks. You will get to see a different glory of the city’s history and culture. Come to Madras. Spend your money here, if you have to. Help re-energize the local economy that way and contribute your own bit. Every penny adds to the larger relief work.
(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Images courtesy – Syed Pasha, Raghunathan