Relish the local flavour

Marina Beach is a popular destination for south Indian chaat.

Marina Beach is a popular destination for south Indian chaat.

Take a rough sample size of people, and ask them where they’ve had the best chaat in their lives: the responses might just leave you feeling a little hungry. But eight out of 10 times, the answer won’t be Chennai.

But it’s not that the city doesn’t have its share of ‘chaat items’ — a walk around Sowcarpet (Mint Street) will reveal various mithaiwalas whose wares should just about whet all appetites. Or a trip to Gangotree and Shree Mithai, the city’s popular chaat haunts should do the trick. Chennai has the best of both worlds — authentic chaat originating from north and east India and the city’s own unique take on snacks.

The next time you’re up and about in the city, feel free to skip the greasy Marina bajjis, the more-than-filling barottas and roadside pani puris from a pot. Instead, travel to T. Nagar for a south Indian bhelpuri experience. At the Madras BhelPuri Shop, there’s no tangy tamarind sauce, boiled potatoes or add-on curd option. What you get is a delightful crunchy salad hidden underneath a whopping serving of mixture, a smear of chilli paste topped with puffed rice, heaps of coriander and omapodi. The owner, Pondy Bazaar M. Lingam, who started the shop about 38 years ago, admits that he was fascinated by the bhelpuri sold on Mumbai’s streets and wanted to do something similar here. “So I learnt to make variations to the dish — fresh vegetables lend all the difference. It’s healthier than its Mumbai counterpart and tastier.”

But the genius of the bhelpuri is that it can be modified to suit the taste of the city it thrives in. In Mysore, for example, where it’s referred to as churumuri, it’s made by mixing puffed rice, grated carrots, onions, chillies, salt, masala, oil and a sprinkling of masala groundnuts. Or the jhaalmuri in Kolkata that has taken on a Continental flavour and has travelled to London thanks to Chef Angus Denoon, who sells it out of a cart called ‘Everybody Love Love Jhal Muri Express’.

In Chennai, Usman Road is perhaps the destination for masala pori, another variant of the bhelpuri. Keep your eyes peeled for tiny carts emitting steam from the top — those are boiled peanuts that accompany puffed rice, slices of raw mango, cucumber, grated carrots and tomatoes packaged cozily in a sheet of Tamil daily newsprint and pass for a truly plebian snack. You don’t have to settle for just masala pori on this stretch though, there’s a lot more to choose from: hot soup topped with masala cornflakes mixture (a snack that was quite popular about five years ago), chana dal bhelpuri, cashews roasted in a wonky iron kadai, kulfi and freshly-fried tapioca chips served in a plastic cover and shaken with chilli powder and salt.

Writer Geeta Doctor, however, remembers the origin of the chaat scene from the back streets of Sowcarpet. “My late Gujju sister-in-law made the best ones in the family and we followed her recipes, getting the green masala paste from Mumbai for the pani puris in little plastic sachets and freezing them. No real chaat enthusiast will endorse homemade chaats. Part of the thrill is eating them on the roadside, or beachfront, or a hand-cart and running the risk of being violently sick. The thrill is to be ill at the end of a chaat fest.”

Of course, it’s unfair not to include the beaches of Chennai in the list of unique Madras chaat. After all, countless vendors can vouch for the fact that they have interrupted many couples, families and friends with their shrill cries of “thenga manga pattani sundal” and their many attempts at coaxing men to treat their ‘lovers’ or children to a heaping of the light, tangy snack, which can easily lay claim to the taste of this city.

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Printable version | May 24, 2022 6:57:17 pm |