I recently returned from a two-day long food-packed trip from Chennai. I know that I have just skimmed the surface, but would strongly recommend planning a food trip to the city based on what I ate. From very, very, very soft ghee-soaked idlis with podi to dosas, which are crisp outside and slightly soft inside to freshly fried Snapper and baby crabs on the Besant Nagar beach stalls to the Dindigul liver ghee roast, I can give you many reasons why you should go to Chennai to eat.
What excited me the most in a trip packed with great eats, was the last dish that I had before leaving the city. The delightful food discovery was pure serendipity!
We were to visit the much recommended Nair Mess for lunch from the very plush ITC Grand Chola, which hosted me. However, the traffic was in a mess as the election results had been just announced and everyone was dancing on the streets with a vigour that would put the bhangra dancers of Punjab to shame. So, we turned back and headed to a branch of the Chettinad restaurant chain, Ponnusamy, which is located close to the Grand Chola.
I couldn’t order the famous Chettinad rabbit and shark dishes (60 per cent of Chennai is non-vegetarian I am told) as we were late and those dishes were over. Apparently most of these restaurants don’t have refrigerators to keep food overnight as they believe in cooking fresh food for every service.
Since it was my last meal before leaving, I ordered everything on sight in the Chettinad section of the menu at Ponnusamy– mutton pepper fry, goat brain tossed with egg, country chicken masala, Surmai fry, porotha and Chettinad mutton masala.
Ajit Bangera, senior executive chef of the ITC Grand Chola, had joined me for lunch. He told me that the folks from the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu were originally vegetarian folks. They are a rich community Bangera told me, and their wealth was built on international trade for which they'd travel to the Far East and Burma. That’s apparently where they developed a taste for non-vegetarian food and how!
We absolutely loved every dish that we tried at Ponnusamy, which inspired me to order the crab masala recommended by our waiter. It turned out to be my favourite dish from a trip filled with great eats. The dish cost Rs. 260 unlike the Rs. 2,000 plus for crabs in Mumbai’s Mangalorean restaurants such as Trishna and Mahesh. That’s because they served a small crab and not a gigantic one. The owner of Sindhudurg, a Malvani (coastal Maharashtrian) restaurant in Mumbai, had once told me that he serves small crabs in his restaurant as that’s what people eat in their own houses in the region.
Egged on by Chef Ajit, I bit on the crab shell to break it open. The first taste to hit me was the scintillating peppery heat of the masala coating the crab shell. Then we plucked out the white crab meat, which was sweet and tasted very fresh and had the alluring aftertaste of the spices enrobing the lovely crab meat.
We were also joined by Chef Srinivas of ITC Grand Chola, and it so happened that the two five star hotel chefs and I couldn’t get enough of the Chettinad crab masala! I finished my meal with some rassam and rice as the two chefs suggested, and left Chennai with a very happy mood.
Amit Patnaik, a young Chennai-based food writer who contributes occasionally for India Food Network, had packed a bag of delightfully addictive Mysore Pak and murukku from Sri Krishna Sweets for me to take back to Mumbai. He also offered me a lot of tips on where to eat in Chennai.
Having tried the internationally famous ketchup Singapore Chilli Crab quite a few times in Singapore, I can proudly and unbiasedly say that the Chettinad crab masala of Ponnusamy tasted way better.
It’s time that we learn to market and celebrate our food and learn from the Singaporeans on how to do this. They have made the chilli crab, the chicken rice and the laksa famous across the world. We need to do that for Indian food too.
I am not a rabid nationalist asking for a boycott of international foods. I love my chicken rice, laksa and the Singaporean pepper and egg yolk crabs (which Singaporeans agree is better than the chilli crab) after all.
Yet, I would love it if we can cheer for Indian food more loudly.
Kalyan is a food and travel blogger, who is excited about Indian food and tries his best to bring it alive through his stories. He is happiest when he eats at small, family-run places. He blogs at <a href="http://www.finelychopped.net/"> Finely Chopped.</a>