Thayir saadham gelato, pickle martini and kaappiccino…Shonali Muthalaly on how Chennai quietly nurtures tradition while creating a fascinating, fresh and funky foodscape

When did panneer soda become chic? Just as we are getting used to espressos, chai is becoming fashionable again, in all its syrupy glory. Goli sodas are finding their way onto tasting menus. Peanut chikki is selling on slick websites.

Another predictable ‘return to roots’ story? Not really. This isn’t about Chennai suddenly sitting up and recognising the glories of old Madras. That would be like saying we’ve rediscovering filter coffee. Which is ridiculous! We never forgot it in the first place. After all, even as we were learning to appreciate cinnamon-dusted lattes at brunch, we were also scurrying to Leo Coffee for freshly roasted and ground powder for breakfast the next morning.

Instead of looking back — because nostalgia is so predictable — let’s pause and take stock instead. Realise that the traditions we quietly nurtured are now creating a fascinating, fresh, funky foodscape. The city has become multi-cultural, yes. Authentic Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai restaurants are thriving. So are gourmet coffee shops, ice-cream bars and dessert studios. But when you take an auto through the back alleys of areas such as Triplicane, you’re still hit by the fabulous fragrance of roasting spices. And the streets are still punctuated by vendors offering boiled peanuts, chilli powder-dusted cucumbers and well-salted raw mangoes.

Chennai’s finding a way to absorb it all: the old and the new. A way to fit tradition into a new format.

You see this everywhere. Kaveri filter coffee now packages its thick, rich, dark decoction in a small re-sealable pack so you can make grandmother-quality filter coffee in under a minute. Saravana Bhavan offers ice-cream made of tender coconut. ReStore Organics flips around the ‘muesli breakfast trend’ with its ‘multigrain kanji mix’ made with red rice, millets, thinai, samai and samba wheat.

While Italian know-how now ensures that an espresso in this city is on a par with an espresso anywhere in Europe, the city is seeing the emergence of proudly Chennai-style coffee shops, proving that espresso and kaapi can thrive together. (We’re even seeing the emergence of the ‘kaappiccino’!)

There’s Zha Café, structured like an old folk tale. As you start off your meal with peanuts, pori urundai and chukku kaapi, they encourage you to play board games such as pallankuzhi and dhayam. Dessert is athirasam served on tooth picks with slices of honey-drizzled banana.

The Madras Café in Ispahani Centre offers a pop version of local favourites: Friedlis — hot, spicy, crisp idlis covered in a mix of grainy spices. Urulai Kuchi Chips topped with cheese. And to counter ‘donut holes’ they have vada holes — little fried buns, spongy inside and crisp outside, dusted with chilli powder.

The latest addition to this list is Namma Café at Isha Life in Mylapore, which already features a stylish and rooted menu at its Mahamudra restaurant next door. Fusing modernity and tradition, the coffee shop offers outdoor seating under mango and jackfruit trees, as well as WiFi. Created to be a cultural catalyst, it hosts city-centric discussions, fuelling them with local issues, Kumbakonam degree kaapi and kuzhi paniyarams.

Illusions at the Madras Pub celebrates old Madras in a new way. With their tagline, ‘Remember Madras? It’s back,’ they encourage patrons to live the ‘Madras-style life’ with a pithy blend of filter coffee motifs and psychedelic lighting. The message seems to be to ‘relax’, taking people to a time before smartphones ran their lives. The food, predictably enough, is funky-traditional. Water melon vadas, pineapple bhajjis and cocktails, ranging from The Pallavan Rider to Thousand Lights.

Meanwhile, restaurants such as the award-winning Dakshin (Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers) dutifully keep the home fires burning, researching local food by consulting home cooks, wedding caterers and libraries. With the rash of ‘Chettinad’ restaurants, which expand the Chennai food cliché from idli-dosa-pongal to idli-dosa-pongal-pepper chicken, it’s all too easy to forget the finer nuances and subtleties of the many cuisines that make this city unique. Chettinad food, for example, is as much about a delicate vengaya pacha molaga mandi (consisting of green chillies, whole garlic and butter beans) as it is about a pungent rabbit roast.

Twist in the cocktail

Cocktail party snacks are not exempt. At Willows, the Westin’s new sport bar, you’ll be served crisp, steamy, golden-brown chilli bajji with your pitcher of Cuba Libre. The Taj Fisherman’s Cove proudly dishes up thenga manga pattani sundal (tempered chickpeas salad with local spices, curry leaves, raw mango and freshly grated coconut) at Bay View restaurant. At Park Hyatt’s Dining Room, you can dig into vaazhakkaai varuval, crispy raw banana fritters.

Of course, there’s reinvention too. At ITC Grand Chola’s Café Mercara Express, the chefs have tinkered with classic American seafood chowder, and turned it into Chennai chowder with fresh seafood tempered with chopped onion, coriander, red chillies, coconut milk and lemon juice. Dessert includes Coriander, Chili and Pecan ice cream.

At The Park, try the ‘Dosa Parcel’ with wild mushrooms and sambar coulis. Or curd rice sushi — stuffed with more molagai, cucumber and pickle. If you’re feeling adventurous, try a ball of elaneer payasam mousse flash frozen in liquid nitrogen for dessert.

That’s not all. The Park even has thayir saadham gelato, which is curd rice run through a gelato machine to make it lighter, creamier and airy.

As it turns out, that old expression isn’t strictly true; sometimes, it is fun to reinvent the wheel.

Chennai cocktails

Illusions — The Madras Pub: Pickle Martini with vadumaanga pickle, vodka, lime and tomato juice

The Park: Madras Maharaja Martini Midori with gin, curry leaves, coriander, green chillies, cucumber, apple, lime juice and a pinch of turmeric to garnish

Taj Coromandel: Curry Leaves Mojito with eight curry leaves, a lemon wedge, sugar and citrus vodka

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