What’s cooking at Chennai's music sabha canteens?

The canteen of the Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha in Mylapore.

The canteen of the Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha in Mylapore.   | Photo Credit: Shantanu Krishnan

A list of must-visit sabha canteens

It’s Marghazi, the season of music and excellent filter coffee. As always the kutcheris spill over into the lively sabha canteens. Drop in any time of day, and watch women draped in vibrant Kanjivarams and diamonds sharing tables with curious backpackers. Or elderly concert veterans explaining the intricacies of a raga to young music students.

Because if it’s December and you live in Chennai, you must sabha hop. Both for the music and the city’s unique sabha canteens. As the wedding season draws to a close, cooks and caterers move into concert venues. This was originally to fuel audiences, but the cheerful atmosphere and fresh, home-style cooking now draw everyone from early morning joggers craving crisp masala dosas to party-hoppers in the mood for a hot Horlicks sundowner.

For seasoned concert goers, this is the time to close down their kitchens, so they can try different canteens and the season’s ever-changing menus. (Most canteens close by January 1, 2019). By the end of week one, which is where we are now, the favourites emerge. Where can you eat a full-fledged kalyana saapad? Which celebrity cooks are featured this year? Who is cooking where? And what should you order?

We have meticulously done the rounds (fuelled by copious amounts of kesari) to bring you this primer. Here is this year’s list of must-visit canteens.

Narada Gana Sabha

Ravi Chandran, a member of Narada Gana Sabha, says he realises that, “Not everybody comes just for the kutcheri. So we ensure that our food is memorable.” For the past three years, Sri Sasthalaya Catering has been cooking at this sabha, popular for it’s large airy pop-up canteen set at the back of the building.

“During Margazhi season, we have a lot of visitors, and if the performer is well-known then our canteen is filled with people, who come in to grab a quick bite or two,” says K Ramesh of Sri Sasthalaya Catering.

The menu here changes everyday. With 50 people to manage the cooking and cleaning duties, the service is quick, polite and efficient. Yet, during weekends, they say they can’t keep up with the demand, as people come pouring out from the hall straight into the canteen after each concert.

To ensure that rasikas don’t miss the opening notes of any concert because of a tardy medhu vada, the staff have thoughtfully arranged separate stations, and ensured there are people manning each counter. “People who want only coffee don’t like to wait too long,” explains Ramesh.

Look out for the special counter which rustles up puttu and appams, served with coconut milk, kurma or kadalai curry. The dosa station serves up more than 10 different dosas. For lunch there’s a mini meal which features, a sweet, a chapati and sabzi along with vegetable biryani, bisibela baath and potato curry, along with appalam, thayir saadam and pickle.

Highlights:Elaneer payasam, khoa jangiri, vazhapoo vadai, idiyappam with coconut milk, Kanchipuram idli


Breakfast: 6 - 9 a.m.

Lunch: 11:30 - 2 p.m.

Evening: 3:30 - 11 p.m.

Address: No 314, Ttk Road, Alwarpet

The Music Academy

This year LV Pattappa takes over from Mint Padmanabhan at the Music Academy. Both are celebrated cooks, with well established catering services.

Set under a white canopy, the space looks calm in the morning. Pattappa’s son, Balaji says “Give it half an hour, and you will barely have space to move your chair.” The long tables, bedecked in clean white cloth, have a few lingerers still discussing the morning’s concert over cups of filter coffee. Between a heated debate on the raga and how the artist presented it, plates of upma descend and all talks cease.

At the Music Academy, Pattappa focusses on traditional lunches served on banana leaves (₹ 300). The menu, changes everyday but always features a crowd pleaser, like the seppankizhangu (taro) roast. “People keep asking when they will see that on the menu again, but we like to keep things interesting,” says Balaji.

Curd rice served with puli inji is a hit. Also try their healthy tiffin menu featuring dosas, upma and payasam made with millets and ragi.

“People from neighbouring offices phone and ask for table reservations. I have to remind them it is first-come first-serve basis,” smiles Balaji as customers begin to pour in.

The Music Acedemy in Chennai.

The Music Acedemy in Chennai.   | Photo Credit: K.V. Srinivasan

Highlights:Artikeerai vadai, nellikai chutney, akkaravadisal and shreeannam which comes dripping in ghee, nuts.

Timings: Morning : 7:30 - 10 a.m

Lunch: 11 - 2:30 p.m.

Evening: 3:30 -10 p.m.

Address: No.168,TT Krishnamachari Road,Royapettah

Mylapore Fine Arts Academy

A board outside Mylapore Fine Arts Academy announces the day’s menu. Chow chow kootu, radish sambar, and various sweets like semiya payasam, rasamalai, kaasi halwa and ashoka halwa.

In the canteen, decorated in maroon and gold, V Mahalingam, an organiser at Mylapore Fine Arts Academy, says “Our caterer is well-renowned”. K Baskaran of Meenambiga Caterers comes from a legacy of culinary giants. His uncles are the famous ‘Gnanambiga’ Jayaraman, and ‘Arusuvai’ Natarajan. As for Baskaran himself, he has been in the catering field for more than 10 years.

“We generally do a traditional kalyana saapad (₹170) and change the menu everyday, but our speciality is tiffin,” he says, adding with a grin, “We frequently have to turn down outsiders, but that doesn’t seem to stop them.”

The menu features a range of kozhaikattais and sevais including — lemon, tamarind, vegetable and coconut. Make a note to visit the vada section and try the sardaar vada, made with potato and sago. To keep things interesting, they experiment with different styles of cooking. For example the appam, kadalai curry and mor kali are made Kerala style.

A meal at the Mylapore Fine Arts Club.

A meal at the Mylapore Fine Arts Club.   | Photo Credit: Shantanu Krishnan

Highlights:Sevai, sardaar vadai and Ammini kozhukattaim, kuli paniyaram.

Timings: Morning: 6-9 a.m.

Lunch :11-2 p.m.

Evening: 3-9 p.m.

Address: 45, Musiri Subramaniam Rd, Kattukoil Garden, Mylapore, Chennai -600004

Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha

While most sabhas rotate caterers every three years, the Mountbatten Mani Catering Service has retained this venue for the ninth year, making this a consecutive triple of their triple-year contract.

As they host artists from different states, K Srinivasan, who represents the catering service, says they keep the menu diverse. “All the greats want variety,” says Jagan, who supervises the canteen. Some of the most popular dishes here are karupatti paniyaram, thinnai paniyaram, jackfruit payasam, red rice kulaputtu and cashew mysorepak.

Picking up a menu and running his fingers down, as though in evidence, Jagan says, “We have many, many dishes. You will not find this variety even in five-star hotels.”

Backed by a staff of 100, with 30 cooks and 70 helpers, the quality of the food is impressive. There is a live counter and the entire landscape of the tent is based on a theme every year. This year, it is inspired by agriculture. Despite the experimental watermelon rasam, chocolate dosa and apple bajjis, the traditional banana leaf lunch (₹400), comprising at least 17 different dishes, is what this canteen is best known for.

Highlights: Chocolate Dosa, jackfruit payasam, cashew and badam halwa, red rice kulaputtu

Timings: Morning : 7:30- 10:30 a.m.

Lunch: 11 - 2 p.m.

Evening: 5 - 9 p.m.

Address: Vidya Bharathi, 55, Bheemasena Garden Road, Mylapore

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 11:42:47 PM |

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