Would you call Chennai a biryani city?

Z. 
The Ambur biryani at Star


Chennai and biryani?

Come Eid and discussions on biryani can't be far behind can it?

I don't know about you but I for one didn't associate Chennai with biryani till recently.

Then something happened. This was when I did a Google hangout sometime back. The topic of the hangout was was ‘The battle of the Indian biryani’ during which we tried to identify India's best city for biryani. We had people from Hyderabad, Lucknow, Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata fighting for the biryanis in their city with a vociferous passion that would put the guests on the News Hour to shame.

Suddenly food blogger and writer, Amit Patnaik of the blog Yummyness, tuned in and made an impassioned plea for the biryanis in his adopted city of Chennai. He said that people apparently ate biryani even for breakfast in Chennai. This was quite an eye opener for the rest of us on the chat.

Biryani and Chennai? Who would have thought of it! The primary food association with Chennai, among outsiders, is often unfortunately limited to idli, dosa and vada. Unlike its southern cousin, Hyderabad, Chennai is possibly not a city associated with biryani by many. Correct me if I am wrong.

I did have a brush with one of Chennai's biryanis years back though. I had gone to Chennai on a work trip then and had visited my former boss' home for dinner. On the menu that night was biryani from a local Chennai joint. I had just moved to Mumbai from Kolkata then and found the masala heavy Mumbai biryani quite alien to the biryani I was used to. The biryani that I had in Chennai that night,  on the other hand, was drier and closer to what I had grown up on in Kolkata. 

That was a decade and a half back. I loved eating back then too but didn't obsess about food the way I do now. So I hadn't tried to get to know the biryanis of Chennai further in that trip. I don't even knew where the biryani I had eaten was called for. I ate happily. No questions asked. I was not a food blogger then.

As you probably know, I went to Chennai on a very short trip a few weeks back to get a taste of the city's food scene. Amit's spiel made me keen to try out some of the hallowed biryanis of Chennai and see how they compared with the biryanis that I've eaten so far in other parts of India.

Exploring the biryanis of Chennai

I did manage to try out some of the famous biryani joints of Chennai during the trip.  I went to the comparatively newer branches of some of the iconic biryani joints of Chennai. These were all located at a place called Velachery which made them easy to cover over a couple of lunches. This was close to the magnificent ITC Grand Chola Hotel in Chennai where I was staying and whose chefs took me around to the local restaurants. Most of their local restaurant picks coincided with the recommendations given to me separately by Amit Patnaik.

Thalappakkatti's Dindigul Biryani

I first tried the Dindigul biryani at a restaurant called Thalappakatti. The restaurant is so named as the founder apparently used to wear Thalapa, a cloth head gear, to hide his baldness. 


The Thalappakkati story on their menu card

They have quite an extensive menu here but the biryani is what makes the restaurant famous. The rice used is short grained, unlike the basmati used in biryanis in the north of India as well as in Hyderabad.  This rice is called seeraga samba rice thanks to its resemblance to whole cumin (jeera). The rice in the Thalakkapatti biryani looked sticky but when I took my first bite, I discovered that each grain of rice was separate from each other. 

The goat meat (mutton) in the biryani is shredded into small bits and interspersed through the rice. Not the chunks of mutton on the bone that one is used to in most other biryanis. The rice in the Dindigul biryani takes on the flavour of the meat. The aftertaste has a strong pepper heat which can make you jump up from your seat if your spice tolerance levels, like mine, are low. 

You have the biryani at Thalakkapatti with dalcha, a gravy made with mutton and vegetables, and a raita.


The Thalappakatti Biryani


The restaurant is air-conditioned. The staff friendly and competent and there were people who could speak to us in Hindi.


It's biryani on every table at Thalakkappati
and you use your hands to eat it

Ambur biryani at Star

The other popular biryani in Chennai is the Ambur biryani. 

We went to a branch of Star Biryani, which is famous for its Ambur biryani, at Chennai's Velachery suburb.

It had rained earlier in the morning and the entrance to the Ambur outlet at Velachery was flooded but we managed to get in thanks to some deft manoeuvring by the driver of our car. I was determined to try out the Ambur biryani and felt really thankful to the our intrepid driver. I was accompanied by Ajit Bangera, the senior executive chef of the ITC Grand Chola Hotel who was showing me around Chennai, and he was game to jump across the puddles with me.


The biryani obstacle course

There were three of us that afternoon and we went in and ordered one plate of biryani much to the bemusement of the staff at the Velachery Star branch. The staff had come to Chennai from Nepal to work and spoke Hindi. I am making this point on people speaking Hindi repeatedly as one of the impressions outsiders often have of Chennai is that locals speak in Tamil making it difficult for non-Tamils to navigate shops, restaurants etc. Given the huge migrant population, that's no longer an issue it seems.

They gave us banana leaves to have our food on at Star as they had at Thalappakatti earlier. I had once been given banana leaves to eat on in an Andhra restaurant called Nagarjuna in Bangalore too. 

The banana leaf plates took me back to wedding feasts in Calcutta in the 1980s where the food used to be served on banana leaves. I had just moved into Calcutta from the UK and Iran and found this rather amusing as a kid.

Our waiter at Star gave a banana leaf to each of us though we had ordered only one biryani between the three of us. My lunch mates told me that the local practice is to put a few drops of water from one's glass on the banana leaf and then wipe this with the palm of one’s hand before eating on it. I think they used to follow a similar practise with respect to eating on banana leaves in Bengal too.

The rice in the Ambur biryani at Star was short grained  just as it was in the Dindigul one from Thalappakatti. It was not the long grained basmati rice that one normally finds in other biryanis. The rice in the Star biryani was a bit moist compared to what I earlier ate at Thalapakatti. 

Ambur versus Dindigul

While the Dindigul biryani had a brownish tinge to it, the Ambur one was yellow and had pieces of tomato in it (which was not there in Dindigul). The mutton pieces were whole at Ambur and not cut into small pieces as in the Dindigul biryani. The mutton in the biryani was pretty juicy . There was a strong taste of garlic which took, some getting used to, in the Ambur biryani. 


The Ambur biryani at Star with the aubergine side dish


The biryani at Star. was served with a semi dry brinjal dish unlike the dalcha which was given at Thalapakatti. 

Incidentally, my steak at A La Pomponnete, a classic French restaurant in Paris, was served with a similar aubergine dish (sans the masala). Talk of cross country culinary connection!

The biryani at Star (Rs 170 for mutton), was slightly cheaper than the Thalappakatti one (Rs 205 for mutton), and was spelt as 'briyani' on the menu.


The Ambur menu card
Thalappakatti menu


Thalappakatti was founded by a gentleman named Nagaswamy Naidu in a place called Dindigul in 1957, according to their website. They then spread out to Chennai and now have a branch in Paris too! Biryani is a dish traditionally associated with the Muslim community which is why I found it interesting that one of Tamil Nadu and Chennai's most iconic joints was founded by a Hindu gentleman whose family still runs the business.

Star Biryani, on the other hand, was started by a Muslim family. According to their website, the founding owners used to first sell biryanis from bicycles on the streets at Ambur before opening a restaurant which has branched out since then and they apparently supply biryanis to trains stopping at the Ambur Station. According to this article in the Hindu, the Ambur biryanis a version of the Arcot biryani named after the region once ruled by the nawab of Arcot.

Chettinad biryani at Ponnusamy

Apart from the Dindigul and Ambur biryani, I also tried the Chettinad biryani when I went Ponnusamy for lunch the next afternoon. Here, the rice used was basmati unlike the short grained rice in the biryanis of the previous day. The biryani had a strong garam masala flavour, which as chef Bangera pointed out, was more reminiscent of the classic Muslim biryani of Hyderabad compared to the flavour palettes of the Ambur and Dindigul ones. The latter had rather distinct identities of their own different from biryanis that you will get in the rest of India.

The quality of mutton, or goat meat, was pretty good and the meat was succulent.

Chettinad biryani at Ponnusamy


Another iconic biryani in Chennai is the one at the Buhari Restaurant. It doesn't fall into any particular school of biryani I was told but is unique to the restaurant. I went to Buhari the day I went to Thalapakatti and Star. I didn't have the biryani there though as I wanted to try out the iconic south Indian dish, Chicken 65, which Buhari claims to have invented in the mid 1960s. You can read more about experience with the chicken 65 at Buhari here.

A reader named Hari, left a comment about a biryani made with bone marrow which you apparently get in a restaurant called Sangam near the original Buhari at Chennai's Mount Road.

Read his comment and you will realise why it makes me want to go back to Chennai:

"I recommend a unique dish called 'Mutton Nalli Biryani' @ Sangam Hotel, Mount road, two shops away from the original Buhari. This biryani is made with 'nalli' which are the juices from the bone marrow. This lends a very rich flavour to the rice but subtle enough not to overpower the meat or any other spices. Served with 2 large chunks of meat and topped with fried onions and cashews. Must try while in Chennai."...Hari


As I wrote earlier in the post, biryani is not something that people outside Chennai normally associate the city with with and yet there is such a strong biryani culture in the city. 
This goes to show that we often know so little about worlds outside our own. And Chennai is in our own country!  Travelling is always a good way to expand our horizons and get to know about others. What is key is to have a hungry and open mind. 


So what do you think? Given the variety of biryanis available in Chennai and the popularity of its restaurants serving biryani, should one add Chennai to the list of iconic Indian biryani cities?

I think we should. What about you?

Here's wishing Eid Mubarak to those celebrating and happiness, peace and great biryani to all.

My stay in Chennai was courtesy the ITC Grand Chola Hotel.

PS Here's the link to the biryani Google hangout that I had conducted and that's Amit in the screen grab



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