There's no fine china, chandeliers or carpets. But, when it comes to beach-side dining, Besant Nagar scores with its pared-down honesty

Overheard:

From the guffawing group of meticulously grungy boys: “He's a loser, yaar. Sits at home and watches ‘Desperate Housewives' on Saturday night.”

Two worried girls in skinny jeans: “I know I look the same, but the weighing scale says 63 kilos. I'm fat!” “Shut up. You're not fat.”

Quietly fierce daughter to calm mother: “His sister's always interfering.” “In-laws are like that. You have to be tolerant.”

Plunge into story after story on Besant Nagar beach. Designer wear and fine dining may be a great way to take a luxurious break from reality. But jostling crowds and democratic food offer a fascinating glimpse into other people's prosaic realities.

By evening, you can walk a straight line and still float in out of dozens of bubbles of drama, provided by gossiping families, cackling friends and whispering couples settled on the still warm sand. The aroma of freshly fried fish wraps itself around the scene, lit by ostentatious white light, buttery yellow bulbs and the steady flare of sparks from corn roasting carts punctuating the beach.

The greatest strength

There are distinct advantages to swapping fine china for wobbly paper plates, chandeliers for tubelights, and carpets for sand. Forget quiet romance, shooting stars and poetic moonlight. Let's be honest: Besant Nagar dining offers none of these. Yet, in this crush of crowds and cooks, there's a pared-down honesty. And, this is its greatest strength. Conversations are loud and candid, dissecting divorces, finances and friendships with practicality and glee. The food's fresh and sincere, carefully spiced and rapidly served with efficiency and cheer.

As the women in the family shake out faded sheets on the sand, the children are sent out to get the bhajjis, Chennai's favourite beach food. Molaga bhajjis are the most popular, made with big green chillies that double up as food and decoration.

In the stalls, strung with garlands of these, women with flashing nose-rings rapidly dip the slit chillies into a batter of chickpea flour, brightened with turmeric, laced with cumin and flavoured with asafoetida. They are then deep fried in sputtering oil till they come out crisp and golden with steamy interiors.

Beach vendors are artisans when it comes to displaying their wares. The carts piled with boiled peanuts are carefully decorated with painstakingly carved raw mango, artfully arranged emerald chillies and slices of ruby-red tomatoes. The fortune tellers squat besides appropriately dramatic lamplight, so they're all glittering earrings, dark shadows and mysteriously large eyes. The fish displays at the Fish-Squid-Omlette stalls are a sophisticated blend of colour and forms.

Sea-side delicacies

First come the trays of tiny squid, fragile crabs and plump prawns. They're set on top of the counter, glistening with wet salt and streaked with chilli powder. Then come trays of fish, stacked like jewel boxes. The supply, dependent on what fishermen catch in their steamer boats and catamarans every day, changes constantly. “We buy the fish every morning at 4 at Kasimedu market,” says Arivalagan, going on to consult his wife on what varieties are best right now.

Stationed behind an enormous kadaai, blackened with age and use, she shouts out the names of fish over the busy sputter of frying prawns. “Flying fish, red snapper, pomfret,” she recites, sliding the juicy prawns into a banana leaf covered plate, and handing it to Arivalagan.

Thick slices of seer fish, slathered in chilli powder, go in next, their peppery aromas winding around the stall, and the powder making everyone's eyes water. It tastes of freshness, covered with deliciously excess of brash spice. “Coriander, ginger, pepper, cumin, garlic,” says Arivalagan, counting them off on his fingers. “Everyone uses the same mix,” he grins, “But ours tastes better.”

Daddy’s girl

He points at the stall name, “Kanimozhi.” “So who's that named after?” we chuckle. “My daughter,” he replies in all earnestness, pointing out a 10-year-old in solemn pigtails and a big toothy grin. She jumps up and grabs a plate, professionally decorating it with lime wedges and coriander leaves before running up and handing it over to the waiting customers her father points out.

Of course, all the stalls claim their fish is the best. Just like all of them claim to be the first stall on the beach, established ten years ago.

As we walk towards the sea, we see more fish: mackerel, sardines, mussels, gleaming yellow in a marinade of turmeric and salt.

“No lobster,” shugs one stallowner. “We can get it, but people don't want to pay much here.” He adds with a grin: “They think we're just picking it out of the water. But, they happily give lots of money and eat it at restaurants!”

Forget the stodgy restaurant lobster. At Besant Nagar beach, a meal costs about Rs. 50. The drama is free.

Keywords: Besant Nagar