Meet the famous Sundari Akka of Chennai Food

Hanging out with Sundari akka

Her stall is on Google Maps, she swaps recipes with international cooks and is currently running a Marina beach food festival at the Westin hotel kitchen. We spend an inspiring day with Sundari

Her day begins at 2 am, and she works till midnight. Her infectious smile and sense of humour have fetched her fans who throng her food stall at the Marina beach.

Hanging out with Sundari akka

Business means business to Sundari Shekar or Sundari akka, as she is fondly called. It is nearly impossible to get her to talk when she is at her stall; she is busy multi tasking and micro managing all aspects of the eatery that she set up in 1999. “I am a stickler for quality, and will never compromise. I train my 20-odd staff to clean fish thoroughly such that when they drop a piece in water, it should be crystal clear. Rice is cooked at the stall as I want it to be piping hot. The other items, such as marinated fish, are prepared at home,” she says.

Hanging out with Sundari akka

“My motto is serving nalla sappadu (good food) at a pocket-friendly price,” says Sundari. Her business was initially a huge hit among auto-drivers in the locality. “It was much later, with the advent of social media, that I became popular not only in Chennai, but across the globe. I feel elated when a customer tells me that he or she flew down just to taste my food. Many chefs from overseas also come to eat at my stall,” she says.

Her menu is limited: she serves rice, meen kuzhambu, varieties of fried fish, prawns and squid. For vegetarians there is sambar, rasam and buttermilk, served with omelettes.

Hanging out with Sundari akka

Until two years ago, this 53-year-old rode on her bicycle to Kasimedu at 4 am to procure fresh fish for the day. “I personally choose good quality fish. What I get on a particular day will determine the day’s menu. Even if the cost of fish fluctuates, I try and keep my prices constant,” she says.

Sundari was recently invited by The Westin Chennai Velachery to present her signature dishes for guests, as part of its food festival, Flavours From The Grand Marina Beach (on till February 17). “When we approached her, she refused outright as she said her customers were her priority, but finally her son Nagamurthi, who has a degree in Hotel Management, convinced her,” says Executive Chef Ganesh Teli. Sous Chef N Murugesh, who curated the dishes, accompanied Sundari during her Kasimedu expeditions.

Hanging out with Sundari akka

“She uses her own hand-pound spices, the secret ingredients of which she refuses to reveal,” says Murugesh, who has visited her stall several times just to observe her working style. Murugesh has learnt some of Sundari’s recipes, such as kadama (squid) and era (prawn) thokku, as well as her famous meen kuzhambu. “But, there is no fun in eating in this air-conditioned restaurant,” smiles Sundari. “My food tastes best when had piping hot amid sea breeze.”

How was the experience of cooking in the huge kitchen of a five-star hotel? “I can cook anywhere in any condition, but my issue was something else. Having cooked huge dabaras of food, I found it tough to scale down. It was like asking a college goer to sit for LKG classes,” she laughs.

While people swear by her fish fry, she says her favourite meal is simple: pazhaya sadam with karuvadu thokku.

Hanging out with Sundari akka

Paul Pradeep, a loyal customer at her stall says, “Although called Kaanavur Unavagam, we know her stall only by her name.”

When chefs from overseas invite her to their country, Sundari politely refuses by saying that her meen kuzhambu will not be tasty if not made with Chennai water. “This Sundari prefers to run one film in one theatre for many years, rather than running one film in multiple theatres for just one week or month. Ennoda philosophy puriyudha ungalukku?” she asks.

And how does one find her stall at the Marina? She says, “If you have a smart phone, just tell Google Maps to take you to Sundari Akka Marina Beach, and you will get there.”

Akka’s menu

Kadama (squid)thokku

Yera (Prawn) thokku

Varutha meen (shallow fried fish)

Meen Kulambu (fish gravy)

Avicha mutta (boiled egg)

Mutta (egg) omelette

Aatu thala kari (goat head in spicy gravy)

Aatu eeral (goat liver) curry

A meal consisting of one portion of rice, with a slice of fish with gravy and one boiled egg costs Rs 120.

The stall functions from 12.30 pm to 9.30 pm everyday. Phone: 9941068814.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 1:28:36 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/hanging-out-with-sundari-akka/article30800128.ece

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