I stand in the middle of the street flanked by two yellow-bellied autorickshaws. An irate cyclist nudges me, passing pedestrians gently push by. I ignore them as I am in the middle of a meal. The plate in my hand wobbles but I steady it, manoeuvring into a niche between a motorcycle and a handcart. Inhaling a pungent mixture of dust, exhaust, and incense, I close my eyes to avoid the overdose of visual stimuli. My fingers caress the rough brown circle of a keerai vadai in my hand. I bite into it. The crisp covering gives way to a moist, fudgy softness, the lashings of chutney add a piquant tang—and taste triumphs over all the other senses.
My husband and I are at one of many hole-in-the-wall eateries in the neighbourhood of Mylapore in Chennai. After gobbling up two pieces of keerai vadai we head to the window, where their purveyor sits behind blue steel bars, for another snack. The shop has no name, no signage. There are no chairs, no menu, and no waiters. It is known only as jannal kadai, which means “window shop” in Tamil. The jannal is a magical portal through which the customer passes money and the mama (a term usually used for an elderly Tamil gent) hands out the plate or parcel of a tasty snack—idli, dosa, upma, and pongal in the mornings, vadai and bajji in the evenings.
The mama here is a busy, surly man in a white vest and a lungi. He has no time to chat, but his son emerges from the house to have a word with me. He tells me his grandfather, Krishnamurthy Iyer, started the business. This house was given to him by the authorities of the nearby Kapaleeshwarar temple, where he was employed. The entire family is now involved in the food business. During the festivals at the temple, the crowds swell and they can hardly keep pace with the demand.
There is a daunting clump of people at the window. Burqa-clad college girls rub shoulders with an elderly Brahmin priest. Two bare-footed ladies in crushed saris converse in the loud Tamil patois of the street, while an NRI couple shakes their heads wonderingly and say “This is crazy” in American-accented English. The gentleman at the window nods his head at a group of three young men, bachelors in pursuit of their daily meal. Newspaper parcels of idlis and dosas, tied up in string, emerge from the window, and are swiftly intercepted and carried off. Bajji made with green bananas are being fried. Long pieces of raw banana are dipped into a batter made from gram flour. Bright orange chunks emerge from the vat of oil and are immediately transferred onto plates. The time from preparation to consumption is barely five minutes and they need to be eaten hot-hot.
These are only appetisers; our dinner is at Mami’s Mess, down the road. Chennai’s messes were founded to provide quick, home-cooked meals to hungry bachelors who came to the city for work. Mami’s Mess is one of the most popular in Mylapore. The mami (an elderly Brahmin lady, often the wife of a mama) who opened it died several years ago, but her garlanded portrait still greets visitors as they enter.
Here, you purchase a token at one counter, pick up your order at another, and stand at a third counter to eat. You might be standing next to a bus driver, a maid, the principal of the local school, or a rasika who has flown in for the Carnatic Music festival. You will likely ignore them all. The food, which is straight from a traditional Tamil kitchen, claims all your attention. The adai, a dosa made from rice and assorted lentils, tastes divine with the avial of mixed vegetables in coconut gravy. I spot some kozhakattais, which are a must on Ganesh Chaturthi in South India, and said to be one of the god’s favourite dishes. I recall my grandmother making the soft, white balls of rice flour paste and stuffing them with a sweet mixture of coconut and jaggery. The savoury ones here are stuffed with a mixture of white lentils and green chillies tempered with mustard seeds, then steamed. My taste buds take me back to the village house of my childhood, where food was cooked on a wood-fired stove in a smoky kitchen.
I come away with more than a full stomach. People who have little in common with each other, whose interactions are usually governed by strict social codes, stand together here as equals, all paying the same ₹20 for a plate of vadai, and taking equal pleasure in its consumption. For a few minutes, we are united by the common, unadulterated love of simple, tasty food.
Tiffin—the 4 p.m. snack between lunch and dinner—is serious business in Chennai. Staples include spinach vadais, steamed dumplings called kozhakattai, and raw banana fritters, most often accompanied by a tumbler of strong, frothy filter coffee.
Appeared in the May 2015 issue as “Whiff of Tradition”.
Mylai Karpagambal Mess serves meals at lunch and snacks like vadais and bajjis after. It’s known for its sweet, ghee-drenched polis, stuffed with coconut and jaggery, and a counter that sells packets of molagapodi (gun powder), karuveppilai podi (curry leaf powder), and banana flower pickle (20, East Mada Street, Mylapore).
Rathna Cafe serves all the usual suspects but has earned a reputation for its idlis and sambar (255, Triplicane High Road, Triplicane).
Rayar’s Mess is old, rundown, and serves meals on banana leaves. It’s famous for gulab jamun, jangri (thicker, sweeter jalebis), and tumblers of filter coffee (31, Arundale Street, Mylapore).
Murugan Idli Shop serves soft, fluffy idlis and a medley of chutneys and powders as accompaniments. Also has kuzhi paniyarams, a cousin of the idli made on a cast-iron pan (many outlets across Chennai).
Hotel Saravana Bhavan is a Chennai restaurant chain, known for its brisk service and large menu. There are 28 outlets in the city so you’re never too far from one of their mini tiffin thalis, which packs in a mini dosa, idlis, rava khichdi, and kesari (many outlets across Chennai).
Sangeetha Veg Restaurant is also a chain of restaurants known for Udupi and Chettinad cuisine. though they serve North Indian fare as well (many outlets across Chennai).