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The highs and lows of Chennai’s street food

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COLOURS ON MY PLATE Chennai’s flamboyant street culture
COLOURS ON MY PLATE Chennai’s flamboyant street culture

SHONALI MUTHALALY

Chennai boasts a vibrant street food culture, but finding a good pav bhaji or chaat isn’t easy

We were at one of those posh beach house parties. A high tech DJ, a bartender who moved like quicksilver and a dance floor bouncing with coloured lights. The sea glinted alluringly under the midnight sky. And then, we sneaked out for a snack. At a tiny, grungy roadside shack we were handed thick, spongy dosas lavishly doused in chutney. We ate them with numerous tiny bowls of spicy sambar, and followed that with cups of sweet, milky tea.

In the days when popular nightclubs operated along the East Coast Road, partygoers would dance till morning and then drive home ravenous. So the bread-omelette man next to IIT became famous. After all, you couldn’t really ask irate parents for breakfast when you raced the milkman to your front door. The solution was to ordering piles of ‘bread-omelette’ — as warm as sunshine, delightfully fluffy and sandwiched between crusty bread toasted on the tava, all cleverly served on sheets of newspaper and serviceable plastic with bountiful dollops of overly bright sauce. Although cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata (with their luscious parathas, tantalizing vada pao and juicy putchkas) have more flamboyant street food cultures, Chennai isn’t really far behind. It’s just that the city’s most iconic food — idlies and dosas — are available both as street food and restaurant food, and usually both are equally good, which is why most people choose restaurants. Unless, of course, it’s 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning. But we also have bustling stalls, which localise the once Western sandwich, slathering it with spicy chutneys that bristle with coriander and green chillies, sprinkling crunchy mixture for texture and then toasting the brimming result till it’s crisp and golden brown. And vendors pushing carts piled high with boiled peanuts, served with crisp sev, chopped raw onions and handfuls of fresh coriander; or spears of cucumber dusted with salt and red chilly powder; or artfully sliced tangy raw mango.

Like most Indian cities, Chennai also attempts to create the most popular snacks of North India, plump pani puri, blistering jalebis soaked in sugar syrup and good old pav bhaji, lavishly soaked with butter and a mix of spicy vegetables. Unfortunately we don’t always get them right. Reader Shravan Subramanyam, who calls himself ‘The Lone Pav-Bhaji Crusader,’ says he’s “traversed the four corners of our fair city in search of the perfect Mumbai-roadside pav-bhaji, and despite the burgeoning multi-ethnic population and diverse range of street food, have found the said comestible elusive.”

He adds that, “While every standard issue Indian-Chinese-Tandoor restaurant worth its salt now boasts a chaat shop, and every chaat shop flaunts a noisy pav bhaji tava, there is something missing, and I have yet to find the real thing.”

If any of you have the answer, do tell us. It’s true that finding great chaat here is not easy. For some reason Chennai’s not been completely successful with importing North Indian street food. (On the flip side, I’ve never had a great dosa outside Chennai.)When it does manage to break into the idly-dosa circuit, it’s altered. Hence we have pooris served with chutney and potato. And ‘barotas.’ Perhaps our most successful street food is the chilli bajji. For two reasons. Fried in oversized kadais and served sizzling hot, it’s a complex, sophisticated mix of flavours and textures. More importantly, it’s served on the beach in the evenings. So you can sit on still warm sand and eat it slowly as the sun sets. Not even the fanciest champagne-studded beach hamper can beat that.

The Reluctant Gourmet is no food connoisseur. She lives in fear of snooty know-it-alls. So you won’t find much fancy terminology here. But if you simply enjoy food and dining, and all the drama built around both, this column could be your new best friend. shonali@thehindu.co.in

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