If you happen to stroll by the MGR Memorial stretch of Chennai's Marina beach on any given afternoon, the odds are high that you'll come across a food stall that is unusually crowded. Queues of auto-drivers, college kids, office-goers and tourists can be spotted snaking their way to the token counter to grab plates.
The hoarding of the bright green stall reads 'S Sundari Fish Kadai' - named after its founder and chef-de-cuisine - Sundari Shekhar, the woman whose food has become a legend of sorts in the city.
With over 11 non-veg items and meals served every day, S Sundari Fish Kadai or 'Sundari akka kadai' as it is fondly called, has consistently dished out mouth-watering and spicy seafood for the last 18 years.
On tasting the food here, it's not surprising that this nearly invisible shop among the hundreds that dot Marina's sands has gained a crazy cult following. Prawn, squid and three varieties of fish are caught fresh from the ocean and fried in spluttering oil before being laid out on plates. Three gloved and hatted waiters man big steel vessels full of mutton liver masala, mutton head fry, local fish curry, hot rice and sambar. Two separate counters under a blue tent serve fried fish and prawns. And at the centre of the organised chaos stands Sundari akka. A ball of energy clad in a purple saree, she keenly eyes the food being made in each corner of her shop while stirring the bubbling red fish curry that she has just prepared. She is also the sole keeper of the secret to her stall's success - her home-made masalas.
"I haven't even told my sons what masala goes into each dish," says the energetic 52-year-old with a chuckle
How it all began
Sundari akka always knew she had magic in her hands.
"Give me any ingredient and I can make a wonderful dish with it. It is a trait I learnt from my mother when we were growing up in Pondicherry. She would know these tricks to preserve food for longer and she would make the best non-vegetarian food I'd ever tasted. Appam, paaya, mutton leg curry, kurma.. the list goes on. So naturally, I grew up with a penchant for tasty food,"she says.
What she'd learnt from her mother, akka soon put to practice after getting married. She moved to Chennai and set up a tiffin stall selling bondas, chutney, vadai and other items near her house in Triplicane.
"I used to sell these items around town but I eventually grew tired of traveling with the food and decided to open a food stall by the beach," she says.
Thus was born the current stall, set up in 2000 with the help of her husband Shekhar and her two sons.
The stall sold non-vegetarian items with a focus on seafood - a culinary domain in which akka is a virtuoso. Seafood was also the most in demand as the stall was located right by the ocean and was also available in surplus.
As the years went by, the stall became popular among workers, auto-drivers and other locals living near the beach. Occasionally, visitors would even come by word of mouth.
This routine went on for 5 years until a setback befell the family when Shekhar, akka's husband, passed away from a heart attack in 2005.
"I was thinking of shutting the shop as I didn't know how to run it by myself. But I also needed the income to afford my children's education. This was when the locals and auto-drivers helped me run the shop and together we set off on this culinary journey with renewed vigour," she recounts.
What was initially a food hub for local patrons soon started gaining popularity. Visitors to the Marina stopped by Sundari akka's kadai to have a plate of the famed fiery prawns. Those from other parts of Chennai heard about her food and came all the way to experience it themselves.
18 years later, today the shop sees about 150 - 200 people on an average day. With 10 workers including cleaners, fryers and cutting boys (who cut tomatoes and onions) and servers, the kadai is a bustling commercial success. Meal preparations too begin well in advance, with akka visiting the Kasimedu fish market at dawn to pick up the lot for the day.
"Lunch time is hectic and that's when many people come. We start by 12:30 and wrap up by 3 or 4. After this, there's a lull until dinner time when the place starts getting packed again," Geeta, a cleaner at the kadai, tells TNM
The menu keeps changing every day. On the whole, the stall prepares a variety of sea fare depending on the day's catch. This includes Seer fish, Barracuda, Swordfish, Black Pomfret, Trevally and shark or sorra puttu. Occasionally, akka even prepares crab or nandu. Other permanent items on the list include two preparations of mutton, squid, prawns, fried fish and boiled eggs.
Each plate of basic meals with fish curry goes for Rs 100. For meals with just the fish gravy, the stall serves for Rs 50 and the sides are charged seperately.
"Making different masalas is not very hard. You just need to try out combinations. Sometimes I make shrimp with egg podi maas (spicy scrambled eggs). Sometimes when we catch tiny shrimp, I grate radish and fry it with curry leaves, turmeric and oil," she says, revealing some of her trade secrets.
Despite the roaring success of her business, Sundari akka's ambitions for her stall remain modest.
"I don't want to become a big restaurant owner. But I don't want anyone to tell me the quality of my food had gone down now that we have become popular. Consistency is something that I want to maintain always," she says.
Serving consistently yummy food to her patrons is something Sundari akka has mastered. However, what is her favourite dish from her culinary repertoire?
"I barely eat any seafood at all. I am trying to give it up," she says with a laugh, much to the shock of those around her.