Getting to the meat of Chennai

Lady at the pass at Ponnusamy
Dishing out country chicken curry

A recent study conducted by the Registrar General of India on eating habits in India had created quite a stir. One of the numbers questioned was the high percentage of non-vegetarianism (89 %) ascribed to Tamil Nadu which otherwise has the image of being an idli dosa eating vegetarian state to many  outside the state who are ignorant of the food culture of the state. (You can read about the study here.)

Well, let me tell you that if you love your meat and fish, then Chennai is the place to head to. That's what I found out during my recent, albeit short, trip to Chennai.

The home of the Chicken 65

This is after all the city that claims to have invented the chicken 65 which is so popular across South India. I used to think that the chicken 65 is an Andhra dish as one gets it quite easily across Hyderabad.

Turns out that there is a restaurant chain called Buhari in Chennai which claims to have invented the dish, Chicken 65, in 1965. 

We went to the air-conditioned branch at Velachery which was close to my hotel, the ITC Grand Chola, but far from Mount Road, the heart of old Chennai, where the original branch of the restaurant lies. Buhari was established in 1951 in Mount Road. 

Many of the classic Chennai restaurants have branched out across the city which allows one to try the food of these restaurants without having to travel across the city. I don’t know if one misses out a bit of the atmosphere by going to the newer branches in the suburbs though local food obervers, such as Amit Patnaik, told me that the dishes taste the same across branches and are usually made in central kitchens.

They have a special chicken 65 at Buhari which is boneless I was told but I went for the ‘original’ one.

Chicken 65 at Buhari

We were presented with a plate of bright red coloured chicken on the bone served with slices of lime and raw onion on the side. The chicken was freshly fried and pretty juicy. A couple of seconds after you began chewing on the meat, a searing surge of chilli heat came and walloped you at the base of your throat. I must admit that my tolerance levels for chillies is not very high and I found the dish rather spicy. 

You get food high on chillies in various parts of India including Rajasthan where the weather is hot. The belief is that spicy food makes you perspire and cools your body in the process and helps you handle the heat better.

Fresh fish on the beach

Amit Patnaik, my food blogger friend from Chennai, introduced me to a side of Chennai that I had not heard of.  Freshly fried seafood on the beach. One had heard of places in Kerala where you could get fresh catch to the stalls on the beach and get it fried. I had no idea that you could get something similar in Chennai too.

We went to Chennai's Besant Nagar beach where there are shacks that set up at dusk. Some sell bhajjis or vegetables (chilli peppers, cauliflower, potatoes) deep fried in a thick coat of gram flour batter. 

Located beside the bhajji stalls are a few stalls which display marinated seafood such as prawns, lobsters, baby crabs, kingflish slices, whole pomfrets. The stalls are run by men and when you place your order there are women who come and take the fish from inside and fry the fish on a flat wok with more spices.

I had a plate of fried prawns, baby crabs and a  medium sized red snapper. All of which cost Rs 180 (June 2016). 

You sit on plastic chairs kept on the sand in front of the stall while stray dogs come and snuggle up to you. Amit looked on amused as I did a Periscope live video, then shot a video on my phone for YouTube and Facebook and then a picture for Twitter and Instagram before eating. All part of the eating experience for me and this way I eat a bit less that I would otherwise!

Freshly fried prawns

The food was delicious and each dish tasted different. I was particularly blown over by the freshness and juiciness of the snapper. The cooking oil was not the best I think and gave me a bit of acidity but nothing that little fresh lime soda at dinner couldn’t fix. Possibly my most memorable eating experience of the Chennai trip.

Though they didn’t speak much Hindi, it was no problem placing our order at the stall. Seeing our interest in the food, the couple at the stall called us in to see the lady fry the fish on the flat tava with spices that she took out from plastic bottles. She tried to explain the masalas she was using. Unfortunately this was in Tamil so we left none the wiser but very touched by their earnestness.

Tales of offal

You can get your offal fix at Chennai too. Amit tells me that there are soup carts in Chennai where you can have Chettinadu style coagulated goat blood soup and other offal based dishes. 

I had an amazing liver ghee roast at the Velachery branch of Thalappakatti which is otherwise famous for its Dindigul biryani. 

Ghee roast is a slow cooked meat preparation popular across South India. If you are fond of goat liver, something Bengalis of my generation grew up on, then the liver ghee roast at Thalappakatti is just the dish for you. It is all about the taste of liver followed by a surge of pepper heat which hits you at the base of your throat.

That's the liver ghee roast in the centre

I even had some stir fried goats brain and a goat’s kidney dish at the branch of Ponnasamy restaurant which is near the ITC Grand Chola. We landed at this restaurant by chance. 

We were headed to the much recommended  Nair Hotel, for a non-vegetarian lunch, before I left Chennai later in the afternoon. However, the election results had just been declared that morning and the supporters of the winner, Jayalalitha’s AIADMK party, were dancing on the streets which would put the Bhangra dancers of Punjab to shame. We finally gave up hopes up reaching Mount Road, where Nair Hotel is located, and senior executive chef Bangera of ITC Grand Chola, who was showing me around, suggested we go to Ponnusamy.

Ponnusamy is a restaurant that serves Chettinad food. A cuisine that I had tried at Anjappar in Bangalore before but wanted to try at Chennai too, so you could say that things had worked out just fine. 

Chef Bangera told me that the Chettinad community of Tamil Nadu is quite an affluent one. That their diet was originally vegetarian led. Then they travelled the world for trade, including to Far East Asia and Burma, and that’s where they picked up their love for non-vegetarian food.

Chettinad restaurants are famous for serving rabbit meat and I wanted to try that at Ponnusamy. I had had a rabbit 65 in Anjappar in Bangalore earlier and had quite liked it. However, both rabbit as well as sharks dishes were over at Ponnusamy that afternoon as it was close to 3 pm and well after lunch time.

Learning from chefs Srinivas
And senior executive chef Ajit Bangera of ITC Grand Chola

Chef Srinivas from ITC Chola, who joined us for lunch, told me that a lot of classic Chennai restaurants such as Ponnusamy didn’t keep a refrigerator till recently. They apparently didn’t believe in keeping leftover food and preferred to start fresh every morning. A concept which reminded me of Puncham Puriwala, Mumbai’s oldest running restaurant. The fifth (could be eight) generation owner told me that they too had no kept a fridge in the restaurant till recently and would not store food or produce overnight. I met a Jain lady in Mumbai who told me that her community didn’t eat food kept overnight in the fridge for religious regions. Jains are strict vegetarians
Of course.

We ordered  everything on the menu at Ponnusamy. Scrunchy fried goat kidneys, goats brains stir fried with egg, a flavour packed and succulent country chicken curry, biryani and a stellar mutton pepper fry. Dishes you would never associate with Chennai unless you were a local. We had all purpose flour porotas to mop up the food with and rice and biryani too. I was told that you end your meal by mixing a bit of remaining rice with rassam, the spicy and tangy South Indian clear soup.

Our epic meal at Ponnusamy

I asked the chefs who were with me about what percentage of folks in Chennai eat non-vegetarian food and both Bangera and Srinivas estimated that the percentage of non-vegetarians would be at least 60 percent of those living in Chennai. This was before the report that I spoke of in the beginning had come out. 

From what I understand, it is only the Tamil Brahmin communities of Chennai which are fully vegetarian and they obviously don’t constitute the majority of the city’s population. This possibly could explain the astounding 89 per cent non-vegetarian population that the report claims Tamil Nadu has. Plus Chennai has a rising migrant population and that probably skews the balance further away. 

It's presumptuous to claim to know a city after 3 days and what I have said above is just a hypothesis. However, it does make you wonder if there is more to Chennai than idli dosa.

The branch of Ponnusamy that we had gone to was large, air-conditioned and clean. The seating was pretty functional and there was a sleepy feel to the place when we reached at around 3 pm. Interestingly, there was a sari clad lady at the pass and she would put together the dishes before they were sent. Plating was of course very basic. Most dishes were in the Rs 150 to 250 range (June 2016) and the portions were apt for one person.

The manager taking our order wasn’t too chatty but was passionate in his advocacy of the Chettinad pepper crabs. I had a flight to catch in a couple of hours. This was the last meal of the trip. So I told myself, what the hell, and ordered the crabs.

Chettinad peepar crab at Ponnusamy

This was probably one of the best decisions that I had ever taken in my life as the Chettinad pepper crab at Ponnusamy turned out to be the most memorable dish of a trip packed with wonderful eats.

They serve small crabs at Ponnusamy which possibly explained the price tag of Rs 260 (June 2016). The famous Mangalorean seafood restaurants of Mumbai such as Trishna and Mahesh normally try to entice you with giant crabs brought live to your table and the cost there comes to upwards of Rs 2,000 a plate there.

Mr Prabhakar Desai, who runs a Malvani (coastal Maharashtrian) restaurant named Sindhudurg in Mumbai, once told me that he serves small crabs in his restaurant because that’s how the folks in the Malvan region eat crabs at home. They consider small crabs to be easier on the pocket and more delicious too.

Getting back to the crab at Ponnusamy, the crab was served in the shell but broken into pieces (claws and body separate). Encouraged by the senior executive five star hotel chef in front of me, I followed Ajit Bangera’s lead and grasped a crab claw with my hands and proceeded to chew on the shell. The claw broke and exposed the white crab meat inside. The first taste to hit you was the peppery and heaty taste of the masala and this was then followed by the sweet, somnambulant taste of the silken crab meat. The heady masala and the fresh crab meat worked in tandem to give me the headiest taste experience of my trip of Chennai.

Here's a phone video of us at Ponnusamy 

So a restaurant that I hadn’t planned to go to, and a dish I hadn’t planned to order, turned out to the be the most wonderful dish of my Chennai trip. Tells you that sometimes you should just go ahead with the flow rather than planning things to much when a trip. Sometimes serendipity can lead to unforgettable discoveries.

My stay at Chennai was courtesy the ITC Grand Chola Hotel


Unknown said…
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.

Kalyan Karmakar said…
this sounds like right up my street Hari