Pattappa’s kitchen diaries

Pattappa and his son Balaji at the Central Kitchen in Triplicane. PHOTO: K.V. SRINIVASAN  

It’s just a little past 11, and a couple is already waiting outside Pattappavin Thaligai, opposite Nageswara Rao Park. Minutes later, a family disembarks from an auto-rickshaw and rushes in, only to realise that the shutters are still down. They are soon joined by another family from Bangalore.

Behind the closed shutters, efficiency is quietly at work. A waiter lays out tumblers on every table and checks if the water jugs are full. Others line up near the buffet counter, ready to serve customers. That’s when the man who’s lent his name to the restaurant walks in from his fiefdom — the kitchen. L.V. Pattappa looks at the counters and instructs a boy to polish the surface some more. He then narrates the journey of a 14-year-old from Ladavaram in Arcot district who came to Chennai to assist at S.V. Thathachari’s house on Pandala Venugopal Street, Triplicane, and became a caterer who finds mention in popular culture — Sujatha’s novels, Crazy Mohan’s plays…

Just the week before, I’d partaken of a meal that 67-year-old Pattappa, a fifth-generation cook, catered for a lunch at a friend’s house.The menu was delicious but limited, the serving sizes small, the refills innumerable. Just the kind of meal Pattappa is known for. “Food must never be wasted. The mark of a good cook and serving staff is that the plantain leaf must be clean at the end of a meal. Eat as much as you want, but only what you need. The staff must be attentive, and keep serving small portions so that the guest never feels food has been dumped on the leaf,” says Pattappa, who encourages clients to opt for a traditional set menu that’s high on flavour and taste but low on ostentation.

The big hand of the clock inches towards 12, and Balaji, Pattappa’s son, takes one last look at the counters before the guests come in. There’s kesari flecked with pineapple, chappati with dal, ghee-scented sambar rice, rasam rice, a creamy curd rice, kovaikkai (ivy gourd) poriyal, vadaam (fries), mor milagai and pickle.

The shutters go up and the till-now quiet room comes alive with the sound of familiar greeting. “ Maama, I’ve come all the way from Bangalore just to eat your saapad,” exclaims a customer, who’s grown up on food catered by Pattappa at numerous occasions — he’s been cooking for more than half a century now.

Within minutes, the 60-seater restaurant, opened just two months ago, is packed. It opens for lunch and dinner on weekdays, and there’s breakfast too on weekends.So, what prompted the move to enter the restaurant business? “A lot of people have been asking us to supply food in this part of town.

Thaligai is a step in that direction. It is also our charity arm. We keep the prices reasonable, and all proceeds go towards a trust in my mother Prema’s memory,” says Balaji. Pattappa was also responsible for steering the business and taking on wedding contracts instead of just the catering.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, where Prema smiles from a frame on the shelf, Pattappa checks out the hygiene levels; the first lesson he learnt as a trainee cook under his uncle Mukkur Sreenivasa Iyengar. Life’s come a long way since he started off by boiling milk in Thathachari’s house. “ Maami would make the coffee. I would cut vegetables, serve the food she cooked…” his voice trails off. He was paid Rs. 60 a month then, and gradually accepted the opportunity to cook for small gatherings. People loved his feasts, and it paid well too. Cooking for a two-and-a-half-day wedding would fetch him Rs. 20.

And then, Pattappa decided to strike out on his own. He’s seen the winds of change blow in the kitchen — firewood ovens were replaced by gas stoves, and steam cooking got popular, but he drew the line at LPG cooking.

Even today, Pattappa cooks every day — in the mornings and afternoons, he’s at venues where the family is catering; mid-mornings and late evenings are reserved for Thaligai. “We decided our timings based on appa’s schedule. Our wedding catering must not suffer because of the restaurant,” says Balaji.

It’s not easy to make the switch from a business where people queue up to book you to another where you wait for people to drop in. But, Balaji says that they were firm that Thaligai will not feature a traditional feast. “This is not fast food, but food meant for those on the go. That’s why all our ‘variety rice’ dishes are pre-mixed. Our wedding specialities are different and will not be served here. What is served here, stays here,” he says. Some things are a constant; they avoid the use of garlic and onion in their food, except on rare occasions when they include onion in some of the dishes at receptions.

And so, if you wish to eat Pattappa’s famous akkara vadisal, Kasi halwa, thayir vadai, Kanchipuram idli, rava dosai, potato roast or paal payasam, you still have to wrangle for an invitation to some event he’s catering at. Even that is exclusive. “We usually work on just one event a day, except in very rare cases,” says Balaji, who adds the business is run by Pattappa, his four brothers and their six children.

All the cousins have learnt cooking watching their fathers at work. “When we were young, our gurus would never teach us the complete recipe; we had to observe and learn. When we recreated it, it would be rejected. But today, we share recipes without a second thought,” says Pattappa.

“It’s such a good feeling when someone you gave a paal payasam recipe to, calls up to tell you that it turned out well. What else does a cook want?”

So, what’s the favourite food of the man who’s had the who’s who of the city eating out of his hands? A simple poricha rasam made by his daughter-in-law Vidya. And, the bitter gourd kaaramadhu his wife used to make.

Recipe corner

Paal payasam


Milk: 1 litre

Rice: 1 small ladle

Sugar: 2 small ladles

Saffron: 4-5 strands

Optional: cashew, raisins, cardamom


Pour the milk into a thick-bottomed vessel and boil on a slow flame.

Clean the rice and add to the milk. Wait till the rice is cooked.

Add the sugar and cook till creamy.

Stir in the saffron strands.

The payasam is done when it turns a pale yellow and the rice, milk and sugar come together beautifully.

If too thick, add half a cup of boiled milk.

Rest for an hour before serving.

Potato Roast


Potato (ask for the variety used to make chips): 500 gm

Salt and chilli powder: to taste

Oil for frying


Boil potato with skin on, till it is cooked but firm.

Drain and set aside for 10 minutes.

Once cool, peel and dice the potato into same-sized pieces.

Heat oil and deep-fry the potato in batches.

Drain on a colander, and add salt and chilli powder.

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 4:21:13 AM |

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