Having grown up in Coimbatore and studied in Madurai, director-actor Ram discovered the gastronomic treats of Chennai only after he entered the film industry. He would explore various joints in search of food that tasted like it was cooked at home. Over the years, Ram and his crew, working late into the night, zeroed in on certain favourite spots in Chennai, where they could get fresh food even during the wee hours.
“You can get food round-the-clock in areas around the airport and Koyambedu bus terminus. I know of a place where you get piping hot pongal and chutney at 3.30 am in Koyambedu. Also, Balaajee Bhavan in T Nagar serves hot kesari and pongal at 5.30 am. Then, there’s this gentleman who sells neatly-packed vegetable biryani and tomato rice at Koyambedu bus stand for night travellers,” elaborates Ram.
The AD version
Once he gets talking about food, it makes for fascinating conversation. “Have you ever heard of kaattu chicken or uppukari ?” he asks. It’s a Kodambakkam speciality that almost all assistant directors prepare,” he explains. “Chicken is sautéed with onion, red chilli and salt. ADs can’t afford mutton, but when they feel like eating meat, this is what they prepare, as it does not cost much, can be cooked fast, and requires fewer ingredients.”
A tea lover, Ram goes all the way to a tea shop in Kotturpuram, near Nandanam extension, just to taste the black tea that the ‘master’ there prepares by adding herbs. During a recent trip to Mamallapuram, he says he enjoyed a simple meal served at a mess. “It is located in a small alley, and serves superbly-prepared non-vegetarian meals. The quality of fish and meat there is so good, I’m a regular there,” he smiles.
Travelling back in time, Ram speaks of life as a hosteller at The American College, Madurai. “The boys used to work out for a longer time on specific days when kuska used to be served at the hostel. The workout ensured we did justice to the excellent dish.” The Madurai kuska , he says, is unlike its Chennai counterpart, which is biryani served without meat. “The Madurai version is mildly spiced and made with rice, onion and other condiments. It is white in colour, almost like the Kerala neichoru . It is subtle and a classic.”
His family had a tradition of preparing three-course vegetarian meals, including a kootu, aviyal and kuzhambu , every day. He recalls two favourite combinations — pulikuzhambu served with mashed toor dal, and pulikuzhambu with snakegourd poriyal garnished with coconut.
While studying in Sri Gopal Naidu School in Coimbatore, he would pack lunch in an eeya (tin-coated) tiffin box, as it was said to help food retain its taste. “Sharing lunch with friends was an endearing experience. Arisi-paruppu sadham , ulavalu chaaru or kollu rasam , kollu thogayal... ,” says Ram, adding that he specially relished his friend Devaraj’s lunch of chapathi-kurma .
Ram, turned non-vegetarian when he was 15. “I love to eat idli or dosa with mutton kuzhambu in small towns and highway hotels.” His favourites include Sultan Biryani at Madurai Simmakal, vegetarian meals at Gowri Shankar, Ambasamudram, and non-vegetarian fare at Courtallam Border Rahmath Kadai. “I avoid eating out once back home. My wife is a great cook and her speciality dish is chicken kuzhambu made in Mallipudur (a village near Srivilliputtur) style.” So, has he ever cooked a meal for himself and for his family? “Yes. And, I would love to more often, but I need four assistants to help me,” he laughs.
A fortnightly column on film personalities and their trysts with food.