Question: What’s India’s fourth largest city?
You might guess the top three pretty quickly and then give up. I would have — that is, until I spent the better part of a week in India’s fourth largest city, Chennai. Formerly known as Madras, it is the capital of Tamil Nadu — the Southern state that is home to Tamil culture. Its population of 72 million is greater than that of the United Kingdom, France or Italy. The Tamil language has one of the world’s oldest literary traditions, as if Latin or Ancient Hebrew were more or less unchanged into modern times.
My wife and I took a ridiculously quick trip to Chennai last week to visit our daughter, who is spending the year teaching in a school there. We mostly stayed in town, with a quick overnight visit to the lovely seaside town of Pondicherry (now called Puducherry, the former French colony that is familiar to readers of the novel “Life of Pi.”)
I made no attempt to document our South Indian dining adventures in any kind of comprehensive way. But my kid loves to eat as much as I do, and she took us to some really appealing restaurants.
If you’ve eaten in any of the South Indian restaurants in Decatur, then you’re familiar with the cuisine of dosai, uthappam, idli and other savory vegetarian pastries served with sambar and chutneys. In fact, everyone kept recommending the ubiquitous local chain of Hotel Saravana Bhavan restaurants, which has a Lawrenceville Highway outpost.
We ended up at Murugan Idli Shop, a smaller local chain that serves its food on banana leaves. It is known for the great variety of chutneys and its unusually savory and light idli — those white, puffy cakes made of rice and lentil flour that can be bland elsewhere. I loved it, as well as the crunchy rava on its left. Later in the meal we got a serving of idli podi — a hill of well spiced lentil and chickpea flour. You make a well, add sesame oil and stir it up into a delicious thin paste to dip your idli into.
The man sitting next to us said that we fold the banana leaf to show we’re finished. You fold it toward yourself to show that you liked the meal and away from yourself to register a tacit complaint. Toward, baby, toward.
Two other kinds of South Indian restaurants seemed very popular. The cuisine of Chettinad — a southern region of Tamil Nadu famous for its meat dishes and biryanis — was ubiquitous. Also, Chennaites seem to love the cooking of neighboring Kerala, famous for its fish curries and varied diet. Our daughter took us to her favorite Keralite restaurant, which is the only place she eats beef in Chennai. At right are banana blossom croquettes with a beef chutney. We also ate an unbelievably delicious fish curry with a fresh green peppercorn gravy. It had a sour undertone I couldn’t quite place — almost like tamarind, but not. The waiter was so happy that I asked he ran into the kitchen and came back with a plate of kodampuli, a dried fruit that is essential to Kerala cuisine, sometimes called “Malabar tamarind.”
(Note to self: get to Cardamom Hill STAT.)
We finished the meal with small glasses of sulaimani chai — a spiced, strongly steeped and lightly sweetened tea prepared without milk, a digestion aid. Wonderful.
In Pondicherry, where there’s a large expat community and a lot of tourism, my kid and her friend were very excited to go out to an Italian restaurant, curiously called Umami Cafe. They made some banging lasagna.
We also had to visit the famous French bakery, Baker Street, opened by the wife a French consul, for European breads and sweets. I’ve never had a better palmier, with layers of perfectly puffed and sugar-saturated pastry cooked just to edge of caramel bitterness. It was almost like a jalebi, that Indian fried pastry.
On the way back from Pondicherry, we stopped in Mahabalipuram, a beachside town with a famous temple, stone carvings, resorts and a lively shopping scene.
While I had gotten used to seeing cows everywhere, it was nonetheless surprising to see so many of them splayed out in the sand, sunning themselves on the beach. It was like a Chick-fil-a commercial. The occasional monkey loped by, as well.
Our kid took us to a restaurant she likes, with a rooftop terrace and an open kitchen in the dining room.
We ordered a coconut vegetable curry, a spicy curry made with pointy (and bony) little barracuda just off the dock and delicious, manhole-cover-sized paratha breads that were kneaded, rolled and cooked just 10 feet away. As Tamil Nadu is a state with conservative liquor laws (you can only drink in establishments attached to a tourist hotel), we learned the code. You ask for “special tea.” It comes in a teapot, with teacups. It is ice cold, fizzy and a little hoppy. Just what you need with barracuda curry.
Our other meal of note was at the super-deluxe Leela Palace hotel, where we had our last big dinner. We ate in the Indian restaurant, Jamavar, which has a spectacular exhibition kitchen behind a glass wall. The gracious chef, Debdas Balaga, invited us back into the kitchen to peer into the tandoors and eat a loaf of naan fresh from the oven.
One side of the kitchen was devoted to South Indian dishes, and the other side to North Indian. The tandoor lamb (as moist, smoky and magical in texture as the best whole-hog barbecue) was a highlight of the meal, as was the Keralite dish of kingfish in a brighter-than-bright green mango sauce. The house special Jamavar dahl seemed to be equal parts lentils and butter. I tried, but failed, to stop eating it.
All through Chennai, I drank glass after glass of “lime soda salt,” the most thirst-quenching thing you can imagine in 90-degree weather. Yep, we missed the storm.
If you ever find yourself in Chennai, you’ve got to spend a day like we did on a Speed Trust tour. This group sets up slum women with auto rickshaws to take you around. (The name is an acronym for “slum people education and economic development.”)
The drivers greet you with gardenia garlands (which come in handy when you pass over open sewers) and then take you to the most important temples and sights in town, then to a prearranged lunch and finally a shopping expedition to Fabindia, a cooperative that sells all manner of clothes and home furnishings made by a hedge network of rural craft-based producers.
The connecting flight home involved a late night transfer in Mumbai. The international terminal seemed like it had metamorphosed in 5 days from grimy to opulent. When we asked someone at the ticket counter why the airport looked so different, she laughed. We were, in fact, in the new terminal on its second day of operation.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog