This one is for all the Madrasis out there (not in the crude way Bollywood movies portray ALL South Indians as Madrasis) but in the true sense of the word: anyone who carries Madras in their being. When I was in school, we would visit my grandparents in the summers and my father and I would constantly crib about being in a city synonymous with water shortage and sweltering heat. My mother is a full-on Madras product and we used to make fun of her for actually liking the city — one that knows only three seasons, hot, hotter and hottest. But I guess karma is real and we ended up settling in Chennai when I started college.
Madras was quite a conservative city (it still is in comparison to other Indian metros) and that clearly reflected in the food scene of my childhood and college days. The beginnings of my foodie relationship with Madras dates to two decades ago when I joined college. Us 80s kids grew up eating out only on very very special occasions and mostly with family. Only after joining college was I introduced to the concept of eating out with friends. And it was nothing fancy either, a samosa from the college canteen or an occasional pastry from the nearby bakery is how it began. What followed were the days of our expeditions, Ms. G, her Scooty and me!
We were constant patrons of the British Council library, which to our benefit was located close to Spencer Plaza (one of the first big malls of Madras). We would typically go to the library straight from college, which meant that we would be famished. Since hungry tummies tend to find their ways to yummy food, ours found Bosotto Bros and Gayatri (a chat shop inside Spencer’s). As we moved to the second and third years of college and on to our post graduation, our library and restaurant choices graduated too. We started going to the American library inside the US Consulate. You have probably guessed it…yes, we found our next haunt nearby. This was ONLY out of necessity, you must understand. The Consulate did not allow private vehicles into their premises, so we had to park across the street at Woodlands Drive-in. They had the best Fresh Lime and Sambar Vada…I am sure Ms. G will agree 100%. It is a pity that the Drive-in no longer exists. Our expeditions (which were ALWAYS related to college work) took us around the city quite a bit and we happened to find many restaurants, some part of popular chains and others that were hole in wall gems. Like a sandwich place in Egmore which was run by a lady. She only served some three or four types of sandwiches and they were the best!
Over the past decade, the food scene in Madras has become so diverse that the ultra conservative city now serves up a plethora of international cuisines. But I am glad that it still caters to people like me who love the nostalgia of old-time Madras. Today, we get the traditional idly, dosa, and variety rices, but we also get Belgian waffles, nachos, falafel, and so much more. Even the names of the restaurants have kept up with the with the changing trends. The traditional Saravana Bhavans, Sangeethas and Adyar Ananda Bhavans now compete with Basil With a Twist, Kebabery, Focaccia and my favorite, The Lord of the Drinks (their menu looks exciting and I hope I can go there on my trip).
One place we did visit last year was Kappa Chakka Kandhari (Kerala cuisine). Where else would we mallus go, right? We went there as a mixed group of vegetarians and non vegetarians and everyone left with super full tummies. The party included my 90-year old grandmother who gave a menacing look at the big fried fish on a platter; but she did enjoy her food too. One place we did not go to was Agarwal Bhavan in Parrys. Mr. P starts talking about their kulfi every time we have kulfi here and has been promising to take me there forever now… Take the hint, Mr. P.
All this food talk has made me hungry now…please excuse me as I go make myself a cup of coffee!
I believe that regardless of how Madras is now Chennai and the food scene there has transformed, the city will hold on to its traditions. Mainly because there are many foodies like Mr. P, Ms.G, and I who might try new restaurants and cuisines but when it comes to Madras, we would rather settle for a plate of piping hot pongal, a side order of vada and some filter kaapi to wash it all down.
As I drift away into my foodie thoughts, I’ll leave you with SA Aravind’s hilarious set where he talks about Chennai’s very own Hard Rock Cafe. He concludes by saying,
“Tomorrow my mother and father will go to Hard Rock Cafe and sit there and order
‘Excuse me, can I have 3 mugs of Sambar, 1 Long Island Ice Chutney and 1 Iyer-ish Coffee please?'”