My search for tiffin in Chennai

The chutneys and sambar served with breakfast at Woodland
Falling in love with the dosas in Kolkata

My first introduction to South Indian food happened soon after we moved into Indian and Calcutta when I was around 8 years old in the early 1980s. I was admitted to a school called Calcutta International School there.

There was a teacher named Mrs Handique at the International School who once told my mother that she should buy me a dosa from a restaurant called Rim Jhim (now shut) near the school. Mrs Handique recommended the dosa after my mother threw her hands up and said that I was a fussy eater and refused to eat any Indian dishes after we moved into India from abroad.

My mom got me a masala dosa from Rim Jhim one day at lunch. I remember perspiring a lot while eating it as I found the dosa very spicy but that was the day I fell in love with dosas. Later, when in college I would go to places such as New Friend’s and Indramahal at Calcutta’s New Market for dosas and Rana’s near the Jadavpore Police Station.

Dosa joints are a plenty in Mumbai too, including on the streets, and dosas continued to remain a favourite snack of mine after I moved into the city. 

When I went to Bangalore on work, I fell in love with the thick and crunchy dosas that they served at restaurants such as MTR and Malleswaram’s CTR.

I love medu vadas too, the other popular south Indian tiffin (snack) item but never really took to idlis. This changed after I had the Guntur idlis at a restaurant called Chutneys in Hyderabad.

The disservice to South Indian cuisine

To many of us in the rest of India idli, dosa and vada sum up South Indian food which is often ignorantly referred to as ‘Madrasi’ food. It is only after coming to Mumbai, and eating at the Mangalorean and Keralite restaurants here and then travelling to Hyderabad and Bangalore, that I realized that there is so much more to South Indian food than idli dosa and that there could be variations even in idlis and dosas!

Back in Chennai finally

The first things that I wanted to try out when I went to Chennai recently, after a gap of more than a decade, were tiffin items such as idli, dosa and vada.  I wanted to know if the dishes tasted different from what was served in the South Indian Udupi restaurants in Mumbai, which are run by Mangaloreans and not Tamils in any case.

Ironically, the person who had promised to help me navigate my way through Tamil tiffin was a Mangalorean! A chef named Ajit Bangera. Chef Bangera is a soft spoken, dignified, humble and very well experienced chef, who had worked abroad too, and is now the senior executive chef at the ITC Grand Chola.

Ajit Bangera, sr executive chef of ITC Grand Chola
At Woodlands

An enlightening breakfast at ITC Grand Chola 

I had reached Chennai at 11 pm the previous night and slept at 2.30 am and  was too tired to head out for breakfast, as was planned earlier, the next morning. Instead I requested the hotel to put together a classic South Indian meal for me at their café. I planned to do a Periscope video on Twitter and talk about a classic Tamil breakfast and chef Bangera offered to be my guide.

I find tools such as Periscope from Twitter and Facebook’s Facebook Live very enabling as I can whip out my phone and broadcast and share what is happening around me at a given point to literally the world at large. I love the interactivity of the medium.

I took the opportunity of tapping chef Bangera’s expertise to navigate my way through the vegetarian breakfast that I had requested for at the ITC Grand Chola. We met at the coffee shop called Cafe Mercara express whose chef is a Gujarati named Nikhil Merchant and who, like most immigrants I met in Chennai, loves his new home city of Chennai.

Breakfast at ITC Grand chola

Chef Bangera explained that the sambar served to me didn’t have vegetables or garlic as it was a ‘breakfast sambar’. The sambar served at lunch or dinner apparently has vegetables and garlic in them.

I noticed that the medu vada (often called just vada in Chennai) was served separately from the sambar. I have often seen Udupi joints in Mumbai dunk the vadas in a bowl of sambar before serving then. I prefer to have the vadas served separate from the sambar though. I asked chef Bangera about the correct way to have vadas. He said both are fine but that he felt that the practice of immersing the vada in sambar (vada sambar) started as a way to disguise vadas which were not freshly fried. A freshly fried vada is another South indian culinary delight that I got addicted to as a kid when my mother used to take me to Rim Jhim in Calcutta.

I then tried the idli at Grand Chola. I did this rather gingerly. I am not too fond of idlis. My primary exposure to idlis has been at the Udupi joints of Mumbai’s suburb of Bandra where I live. I find the idlis there big, pasty and rock hard and tasteless.

The idlis at the Grand Chola were served with a powder called podi and ghee (clarified butter) on the side. The chef advised me to add some ghee and podi on my plate, break a bit of idli and dab it into the podi and ghee mix and then eat it. Podi, chef Bangera explained, is a mix made with roasted dry lentils and chillies and could be of many different types.

The combination of the idli with ghee and podi was ephemeral, the initial taste is slightly buttery thanks to the ghee and then the spicy and heaty undercurrent of the podi hit you. The idli was so soft and pillowy and cherubic and won my heart over.

The secret behind the softness of the idlis at the ITC Grand Chola according to chef Bangera was the fact that the idli batter (made with rice and lentils) was hand whipped for 45 minutes! Apparently he had made the kitchen staff experiment till the idlis at the hotel reminded the chef of those made by his mother.

You can watch this phone video of our breakfast at ITC Grand Chola

Well, the idlis at this plus five star hotel café were phenomenal but what about the idlis available outside in Chennai?

Idlis in the evening at Murugan Idli Shop

I got my answer later in the evening when I met Amit Patnaik, an HR professional, food blogger and budding young food writer, based in Chennai. He had given me lot of tips on where to eat in Chennai and I made it a point to meet him despite my short stay in Chennai. 

Amit Patnaik with his beloved Jiagar Thanda

We had gone to the Besant Nagar beach together in the evening and on the way back he took me to a restaurant called Murugan Idli Shop to have something called jiggar thanda which tasted like an ice cream based sweet milk shake. I found it similar to the Mewad ice creams sold on the streets of Mumbai. Not my cup of tea.

The Murugan Idli Shop chain had originally started in Madurai and now has branches in Chennai and other cities including a few internationally.

I saw a big queue of people waiting to enter Murugan. They consisted of families of all ages. Amit, who had moved into Chennai from Delhi and loves his adopted city, pointed out that Chennai is one city where people usually come out with their parents and grandparents to eat together.

Family dining

We beat the queue and went in saying that we would parcel some idlis but seeing an empty table we sat down.

 Let me confess that I was the one who corrupted young Amit’s mind and made him break the queue. All the training in snaring a table in Candies back home on a busy Bandra Sunday evening came of use that evening at Murugan and I sincerely apologize to the well behaved and orderly Chennai’ites who had to wait longer for a table than they had to because of us.

We placed our orders of ‘podi idli’ as recommended by Amit. The place was packed with families eating away happily. Most tables had grandpas and grandmas too as well as young uns. Most dishes were under 20 Rupees each. The wait staff would come with trays full of idlis, vadas, uthapas, fresh from the kitchen and serve at the table as per the orders. It was past 8 pm and yet people were eating idlis.

Podi idli

The podi idli was soaked in ghee and smeared with podi. The flavours burst in your mouth, a far cry from the tasteless idlis I was subjected to in Bandra. Again very soft. Baby cheek soft. A mildly less chubby baby than the Grand Chola idli but still immensely cuddle-able. These idlis are apparently made in a Chettinad style. I would travel back to Chennai just for this.

Amit strongly recommended that I have breakfast at Mylapore and that it apparently has some lovely eateries to go to after a walk down Marina beach. Unfortunately I had only two mornings and maybe he lost me at 'you have to reach at 7am'!

Dosa diagnostics

And what about the dosas that I had in the trip?

The dosa that I had on the first morning at the ITC Grand Chola was very interesting. It was crisp outside and mildly soft inside. Not as thick as the Bangalore benne dosas but the dual texture was pleasant. Different again from the Bandra Udupi joint dosas which can make my jaw hurt at times thanks to their excessive crunchiness.

There was a potato bhaji (potatoes tempered with curry leaves, chillies, turmeric and dry udad lentils), or the masala, served separately from the dosa at ITC Grand chola. Chef Bangera said that some people often serve the bhaji separately, especially at home, unlike in restaurants where it is usually stuffed inside the dosa. I am talking of masala dosas here. Sada (plain) dosas don’t have potato bhaji masala of course.

Chef Bangera advised me to scoop a bit of the potato masala with a piece of the dosa (rice flour savoury pancake) and pop it into my mouth. I did so and it suddenly struck me that with one action of mine I had united north and south India. The way I tore the dosa and had it with the potato masala was exactly how someone in the north of India would have rotis (wholewheat flatbreads) and alu sabzi (a dry stir fried potato dish). 

Maybe the two ends of India were not as different as they are sometimes made out to be. Food unites us all!

Breakfast at Woodlands

The next day chef Bangera and I went to New Woodland, a restaurant in chennai  recommended by many for a South Indian vegetarian restaurant in the city. We reached around 10 am on a weekday. Way after the breakfast time for Tamilians. 

The place was full with diners but yet very serene and quiet. Like Murugan, this restaurant too is air-conditioned though looks a tad plusher than the Murugan Idli Shop. Woodlands is actually the name of a hotel which has three restaurants of which the vegetarian South Indian one, where we headed to, is called Krishna. However, everyone refers to it as Woodlands it seemed.

All quiet at Woodlands

We ordered everything on sight. Idlis, vada, upma, sada dosa, rava (semolina) dosas, plain uthapa and filter kaapi. The south of India loves their coffee or kaapi. Here the kaapi was served without the theatrics that it was juggled out with at the Grand Chola. The sugar was added to the kaapi before serving which made it a tad sweet.

Dosas, uthapa, idli, vada...all Woodlands

Our maître d was from Karnataka and he spoke in both English and Hindi and served us with a smile. I noticed that most of the restaurants that we went to over the two days in Chennai had wait staff from all over India including from the north of india. Most spoke Hindi and not knowing Tamil (the local language) was not a hindrance any more. Different from a decade back where it would be difficult to survive on the streets of Chennai without knowing Tamil.

The idlis at Woodlands were not as satisfying or soft as the ones at Murugan Idli Shop or the ITC Grand Chola and weren’t served with podi and ghee. 

I loved the dosas here though. Both the sada and rava sada. The dosas were crisp but didn’t have the soft underbelly of the Grand Chola dosa. The texture was not multi-dimensional but the dosas were thin, had a pleasant bite and were light and airy. Chef Bangera said that he would have preferred the rava (semolina) dosa to be more porous (more holes) but I found them to be way better than the rava dosas I have had in Mumbai which could often get pasty.

I found the Uthappa (thick savoury pancake) interesting too. It was served absolutely plain. I am used to having them with onion and tomato is Mumbai.

Woodlands, which is quite popular in Chennai, is actually an Udupi (Mangalorean) run place and not Tamil owned. Goes to show the hold thus community from Karnataka has on the space of restaurants serving vegetarian South Indian food.

I found the concept of people from Udupi selling dosas in Chennai is a figurative equivalent of a restaurant run by folks from Odisha dishing out kosha mangsho, a dish common to Odisha and Bengal, in Kolkata.

With my Food Sherpa chef Ajit Bangera

I asked chef Bangera about what is unique about the classic Tamil dosa. Should they be thin and crisp as they were at Woodland? Or should they be multi-textural (crisp and soft) as served in his hotel? Bothe places where I had dosas served dosas different from the thick and crispy benne dosas in Bangalore.

The chef explained that while the average restaurant in Chennai offered thin, crisp dosas, which were easier to make than the multi-textural ones, the dosas served at Tamil homes for lunch and dinner often tended to be on the softer side.

This reminded me of a time when I had gone for lunch at a Tamilian classmate's house in Kolkata when I was in school. His mother got us a series of soft dosas one after the other fresh from the flat tava.

I remembered this afternoon years later, when I stayed as a PG with a Punjabi family in Mumbai, and freshly made fulka rotis were served from the kitchen during dinner.

Once again, a similarity between the North and South of India.

Just as I have seen with the biryani or the samosa, dosas too can be of various types and can evoke equally strong passions and debates on authenticity and supremacy. We had once run a couple of stories in the India Food Network, on dosa joints in Bangalore and Chennai which were written by food blogger Nandita Iyer, a Tamilian who lives in Bangalore. Fights broke out among readers from both cities on which had better dosas after the articles!

Purists might cringe at the Shezwan and Pav Bhaji and Mexican dosas of Mumbai, and I  for one prefer simplicity over kitsch in dosas, but hey, whatever works.

I even have memories of eating a keema (minced meat) dosa at Oberoi Grand as a kid in Calcutta and during my honeymoon at the Holiday Inn Goa, had got them to add ham from the egg counter to my dosas!

The popularity of dosas have spread across the country and I was quite bemused to see how popular they are even in Delhi in the north. Go to any of the sweet shops such as Nathu’s and Evergreen or Haldiram’s in Delhi and you will often find outsiders like me ordering chhole bhatoore while the locals go for dosas!

As food writer Sourish Bhattacharya once told me, "we take our dosas very seriously in Delhi."

The pull of tradition

One thing that intrigued my after my two days of Tamil breakfast was whether I was falling into a traveller’s trap of romancing a world gone by when inwas in chennai. 

I know of enough Bengali households today, for example, which have toast and egg for breakfast instead of the traditional Bengali breakfast of luchi alur dom. I wondered if the average Tamil household still had the idli, dosa, upma, vada breakfasts that I was tripping on or whether bread, cornflakes, oats, muesli or ready to cook noodles have taken over the modern Tamil breakfast table as it has in many large cities across India.

Turns out that the traditional South Indian and Tamil tiffin breakfast still rules the roost in Chennai according to chef Bangera and that this includes houses of young western educated couples and nuclear families too.

Anecdotal evidence that the filter kaapi is still giving a stiff fight to the cappuccino in Chennai.

My stay at Chennai was courtesy the ITC Grand Chola Hotel


Anonymous said…
Excellent post. I am a Tamilian and lived in Chennai for 5 years. I highly recommend Balaji bhavan in Pondy bazaar, T.nagar. Amazing dosa and evening snacks like bajji.They have a unique offering called onion chapathi which is one side uttapam and the other side chapathi. A must visit place. Also serves excellent coffee.
Hiitsprad said…
An excellent post. I stayed in Chennai for over a month because of work and was totally in love with the food. Next time around, if time permits, do try the midday Thali at the Tanjavore Restaurant at the New Woodlands. Lip-smacking, homely tasty food. 😋
Nicole Braganza said…
As always, this post made me very hungry!