Chef Praveen Anand It's nice to hit the local markets
I'm constantly amazed by the diversity of food in this city. Communities are our identity. Each one is so distinct. Look at how different Tamil Muslim and Tamil Christian food is.
To understand how remarkable our food is, you need to understand that every cuisine here is created from the same set of ingredients. Each community has the ability to tweak a different taste from the same set of spices. The more you think about it, the more mind-boggling it gets.
We don't value what we have. That's our problem. Just think of spinach in the local market — red, green... and so many varieties of green. Even the kinds of rice — you can write stories on the rice you find. If you talk about root vegetables, besides the usual potato and yam, we have kurkankizhangu and pidikarnai — they have a different taste and great medicinal value.
Today, I consider it my duty to promote this diversity. Having travelled a little, having seen the world a little, I've realised we have so much to offer. When I go to someone's home, I invite them here for a meal. Then I say, “Please, can you teach my boys.” Elderly women, especially, when they see youngsters saying, “Aunty, aunty… please show me how…”, they just melt. One ‘aunty' came in and said she'll teach two dishes; she left the kitchen hours later after making 10 to 12. I document it all immediately.
In Puducherry, I met someone from the Reunion Island who was working on a book on Indian-French curries. It's high time we looked at how we have influenced the rest of the world. It will bring in food tourists, raise interest in our cooking and ingredients.
I love Arulanandam Mess in T. Nagar. They call it Chettinad food — though it's more Madurai-influenced, the omelettes at Nayar Mess fried in coconut oil, the Sheik Shake at The Fruit Shop, with dates. Matsya catered for my wedding last year — they served chiroti with badam milk, beans usli… and people loved it.
At Cappuccino, we have a locavore menu. Bruschetta with local greens. Crispy ladyfish and tamarind ketchup. Pounded jaggery and black pepper-rubbed, oven-roasted chicken served with Madras gravy. Eating local contributes in so many ways — your carbon footprint reduces, you support local farmers who will otherwise sell their land, and the food is tasty because it's in season.
What I love about Chennai are the friends I've made — all of us are linked by a love for food. People I have met in the restaurant. People who call just to tell me about interesting things they have eaten. People who challenge me and call me home to try their cooking. Some of them even bring tiffins here from home so I can try their food!
(As told to Shonali muthalaly)