Chennai’s cuisine is a reflection of a rich tradition and intermingling of cultures. From the traditional vegetarian cuisine of the Brahmins and the spicy fare of Tanjore and Chettinad to the umami-rich Sahibu cuisine, the former princely state offers a smorgasbord of flavours and culinary offerings. Surely, for a multi-cultural city serving cuisines for all palates—call for a grand Rajasthani thali or uptown Italian fare—Chennai’s foodscape has always been dominated by locals and travellers seeking regional titbits. Plating an array of dishes from classic mess tiffins to coconut-flavoured curries from Nanjilnadu cuisine or scrumptious Deccan fare, this gastronomic hub holds the heart of the country’s south Indian bites.
When thinking of southern cooking, a memory of earthy spices, sweet coconut, tangy gravies and piquant chilli overwhelms the tastebuds. So if you’re scouring the food haunts of Chennai, skipping the classic idli sambar, dosa, thayir sadam (curd rice), vadais and bhajji, appams and idiyappam become conspicuous.
For some of the most scrumptious fare, a trip to iconic eateries would be a firm recommendation. On Triplicane High Court Road, Rathna Café holds a strong reputation for serving soft and fluffy idlis with piping hot tangy sambar. However, their filter coffee paired with breakfast delights like uttapam and podi dosai steal the show. The best idiyappam, a breakfast dish of rice noodles cooked in spiced coconut milk gravy, can be found at ID, Kozhiidi and Kaaraikudi.
Check out Murugan Idli Shop for their medley of dipping chutneys and flavour bomb powders that accompany soft idlis or order kuzhi paniyaram to break the day. If looking for a breakfast fix, polish a plate of spicy podi idlis and uttapam with onion chutney at Seena Bhai 1977 Dosa Centre on Kellys and N.S.C. Bose Road or dig into crispy appalam at the iconic Sangeetha Veg Restaurant.
A food hopping spree in Chennai would be incomplete without eating large thalis without breaking the bank at local messes. Acquaint yourself with tiffin items which are small bites, usually had as filler meals and prepare to devour grand platters to traverse Chennai’s culinary fabric. Even-toned steel chairs and tables dot the interior and quick service and large meals define the ethos of community eating. Prominent names include Mylai Karpagambal Mess which have been sitting close to the Kapaleeswarar Temple since 1953, Nair Mess and Kasivinayaga Mess in Triplicane and Senthilnathan Mess in Mylapore.
For a light meal, munch on a vendhiya dosai (flavoured with fenugreek seeds) with vadai curry. Or curb your afternoon hunger with yellai saapadu or banana leaf meals. Most vegetarian establishments will plate a flavourful and easy-on-the-eyes spread that serves generous portions of par-boiled broken rice with portions of kootu (lentil gravy), poriyal (vegetables with coconut), thokku and oorugai (pickle), varuval (a fried side dish), spicy sambar, rasam, thayir (spiced curd) and an array of chutneys or pachadi.
Chennai also houses a large number of restaurants and joints that serve decadent non-vegetarian fare. Triplicane’s Nair Mess is celebrated for fresh seafood and hearty preparations that cater to the palates of both locals and tourists without altering any flavours. Their vanjaram fish fry, a dry seared portion of king mackerel, is a must-try. Across the city, you’ll find a wide array of options starring tilapia or neyyi meen too. South Indian prawn curry with a rich tangerine gravy and strong umami notes is best served near Mahabalipuram at Moonrakers. Although low on the ambience, crabs, grilled fish and mixed grilled calamari compete to be one of the city’s finest seafood joints. Their proximity to the fishing hamlets allows easy-on-the-pocket meals.
City’s all-time favourite mutton biryani can be pinned to one legacy outlet—Dindugal Thalappakkatti. Creating almost a monopoly for their tender, juicy and flavorful bite of meat and rice, all their 40 joints across Tamil Nadu are on par with each other. H. Akbar Mess serves biryani in banana leaves, while Nammaa Kitchen offers a selection between chicken, prawn and Mughlai varietals. Also check out the iconic Buhari hotel for their aromatic mutton dum biryani, even though they rose to fame for inventing Chicken 65.
Sundal, a small beachy bite, is a quick street side appetiser made with boiled chickpeas tossed in quintessential Southern flavours: mustard seeds, raw mango, curry leaves and grated coconut. Find the best mix at bars and local shacks lining the Marina beach. Another popular street find is the Nethili fry, which are anchovies fried with a red coloured spice mix that is often swapped for the famed Chicken 65 masala in larger establishments. But the best street food crossover can be found in Northern Chennai. Head to the Burma Colony to sample Atho—fiery noodles that merge South Indian and Burmese flavours with cabbage, onions and tamarind juice.
To satiate your sweet tooth, do not miss Mysore Pak—a sweet that ironically finds a thriving market of buyers away from Karnataka. For the softer, melt-in-the-mouth version of ‘Mysurpa’, grab a box from Shri Krishna Sweets, or pick up the crumbly version from Grand Sweets—two well-known legacy sweet houses. Local haunts for payasam (milk pudding with grains or lentils and jaggery), kesari (semolina halwa), jangri (large jalebis) and sweet pongal (a festive sweet porridge), include Saravana Bhawan and Rayar’s Mess if you wish to polish off a savoury meal with sweets. Also grab a bite of Boli, a sweet served during festivals and weddings, at Venkatramana Boli Stall.
Muskaan Gupta travels with a camera that doesn't fret to capture touristy pictures and believes visiting local markets is the best way to unearth a city's gems and jewels. She is Junior Writer (Native Content) at National Geographic Traveller India.