Order meals in retro tiffin carriers at these old-school Chennai restaurants

“There is sambar, vathakozhhumbu, rasam, kootu...,” says R Ballaya, the waiter, in a practised monotone. Smoothly putting my stainless steel tiffin carrier together, he continues “Here is the the poori, pachadi and dal with ghee. In this thooku, I have kept rice; here is the curd, pickle, the badusha sweet, appalam and two beedas. And here are two banana leaves.”

It is all arranged snugly in my basket: a hefty five-tier stainless steel tiffin carrier, two medium thookus (stainless steel cans with long handles), three small stainless steel containers, an appalam in a brown paper bag and a roll of banana leaves.

With the pandemic, we have reminisced about, embraced and cherished the unhurried life. Stainless steel tiffin carriers, the ones we carried to school, packed for family car trips and depended on during train journeys, are not as widespread as they used to be a few decades ago; but they are making a silent comeback.

A few city restaurants are encouraging customers to bring their own containers. A return to an age when life was slower; an unpretentious ellai saapadu, that gave the whole day a homely, relaxed feel.

Order meals in retro tiffin carriers at these old-school Chennai restaurants


“Across our three outlets in the city, the Egmore branch is most popular for carrier meals. What’s special is that the entire meal is cooked in Jain style, without onion and garlic,” explains Ram Bhat, third generation owner of Mathsya. But, the kitchen team also adds a ‘surprise dish’ in the carrier for the first couple of orders. “The chef tosses together two kinds of salads — a raw salad and a keerai-based salad. It’s packed and kept in their baskets,” he says.

Though the weekends are more popular for carrier meals, there is a steady stream of people who come in on Thursdays just to savour the ennai kathirikaai that is part of the lunch menu.

Order meals in retro tiffin carriers at these old-school Chennai restaurants

As they wait in line for their meals, customers enjoy a cup of filter coffee. “We noticed that some customers like to end a heavy lunch with coffee. So, we offer filter coffee decoction too. Now your evening coffee is also sorted,” he says.

Price: One carrier serves two, costs ₹204 onwards.

Contact: 1, Halls Road, Egmore. Call 9841819497/ 28191900.

New Andhra Meals

“Not just for lunch, we also offer vegetarian and non-vegetarian carrier meals for dinner,” say Prakash P, manager of the restaurant chain. Stating that their food is “simple and traditional Andhra style,” made by cooks from Andhra Pradesh, he explains how the owner, Seshaiya, launched the restaurant to cater to Chennai’s Telugu community in 1962.

CHENNAI : 30/08/2021 : CHENNAI : FOR METROPLUS : Carrier Meals serving at New Andhra Melas at T Nagar on Monday. Photo : PICHUMANI K / THE HINDU

CHENNAI : 30/08/2021 : CHENNAI : FOR METROPLUS : Carrier Meals serving at New Andhra Melas at T Nagar on Monday. Photo : PICHUMANI K / THE HINDU   | Photo Credit: PICHUMANI K

“A lot of Telugu-speaking people who wished to pursue a career in films moved to Madras back then, and were craving home food. I’ve heard from the management that meals from the restaurant would go to the homes and film sets of many celebrities, including NTR,” he says.

The non-vegetarian meals include a bowl of chicken and fish gravy, besides kootu, sambhar, rasam and poriyal. Prakash adds that regulars invariably order a side with their meal, and their bestsellers are the fried fish, chilli chicken or mutton fry.

Price: One carrier serves two, costs ₹355 onwards.

Contact: 102/42, Pondy Bazaar, Sir Thyagaraya Road, T Nagar. Call 7708099913.

New Woodlands Hotel

“For a South Indian saapadu, the basic ingredients are rice and dal. We cook both these in wood fire and traditional vessels are still used in our kitchen,” explains manager MK Kumar.

Opened in 1926 by Krishna Rao as The Udupi Sri Krishna Vilas, the iconic brand moved to its current sprawling premises in 1952, when it was renamed New Woodlands Hotel. Kumar adds, “Do you remember how people felt when Drive In Woodlands closed? That’s how our regulars felt when we were closed during the lockdown. Customers have an emotional connect with Woodlands and even today, especially on Sunday, we see families coming over to dine or take home a carrier meal.”

As he chats, customers waiting in queue mention that they are there to pick up a ‘veg set’: this is sambar, rasam, kootu, and other gravies and vegetables from the main meal, served without the rice. A convenient offering for the many takers lined up with their carriers in hand.

Price: One carrier serves two to three, costs ₹260 onwards.

Contact: 72 & 75, Dr Radha Krishnan Salai, Mylapore. Call 28113111.

Guest Hotel

“Weekends are always packed. A lot of the people in and around Nungambakkam, Chetpet and Kilpauk come in for carrier meals,” says Vedachalam K, the manager at the property. He adds, “We also do a lot of parcels, but there are people who prefer to bring their carriers and take home simple vegetarian saapaadu.”

CHENNAI : 22/08/2021 : CHENNAI : FOR METROPLUS : Carrier Meals serving at Guest Hotel,Poonamallee high road on Sunday. Photo : PICHUMANI K / THE HINDU

CHENNAI : 22/08/2021 : CHENNAI : FOR METROPLUS : Carrier Meals serving at Guest Hotel,Poonamallee high road on Sunday. Photo : PICHUMANI K / THE HINDU   | Photo Credit: PICHUMANI K

Sixty years ago, the management began serving Udupi meals, then expanded their menu to include tandoor and Chinese food. Besides lunch, the customers from neighbouring areas come for breakfast, he adds. Especially for the ghee mini idli, khichdi, rice pongal and set dosai.

Price: One carrier serves two, costs ₹160 onwards.

Contact: 803, Poonamallee High Road, Kilpauk. Call 9840642424.

The perks of a tiffin lunch
  • The separate compartments in tiffin carriers allow you to pack different food without spillage; and on reaching home each compartment can directly be set on the table for the meal to begin. “Not just in India, but tiffin carriers are still popular across Asia. It’s ideal for packing a typical Indian meal which comprises rice, gravies, vegetables and so forth. The carriers itself have evolved with time; they come in brass, aluminium, stainless steel, plastic, glass and I recall there was a variety designed to fit into a pressure cooker. Tiffin carriers also played a pivotal role in the establishment of dabbawalas creating a unique lunchbox delivery and return system in Mumbai,” explains Dr Kurush F Dalal, archaeologist and culinary anthropologist.

Hotel Maris

“We’ve been serving carrier meals for over 30 years now, and it’s our bestseller till date. During the lockdown, our customers would order our meals via Dunzo and Swiggy. Some customers who had an e-pass, would come to the hotel and collect their food,” says Vijay Venkatesh, general manager of Hotel Maris, which has been serving customers since 1974.

He adds, “We make simple home-style meals, and we allow customers right up to the kitchen so they can see their food being prepared and packed.” He adds that every evening the chef decides the menu for the following day, based on the seasonal produce available. Their drumstick sambar is very popular among diners.

Price: One carrier serves three, costs ₹340 onwards.

Contact: 11, Cathedral Road. Call 28110541.

Geetha Cafe

“People don’t know what carriers are anymore, all they know is takeaway,” smiles Keerthi Vasan, a partner at the iconic Geetha Café in Pondy Bazaar. He explains when his regulars bring carriers, he is happy to pack their lunches.

The establishment which began in 1954 is known for its lunches: in the early 1960s they used to offer 24 items in a meal, served in brassware. “Like we’ve adapted to changing times, so has our menu. We have a basic Tanjore style saapadu which includes rasam, sambhar, karakozhumbu, poriyal, curd, sweet, pickle, appalam and rice. Our arachu vitta sambar is still very popular among diners,” he states.

In a week, you’ll never find a rasam being repeated, and the range includes pineapple rasam, Mysore rasam and tomato soup rasam. Adds Keerthi, “This is one of the few restaurants in the city, where owners talk to customers. It’s old school but it’s also what defines us.”

Price: One carrier serves one, costs ₹110 onwards.

Contact: 86-107, Sir Theagaraya Road, Parthasarathi Puram, T Nagar. Call 28150083.

Hotel Safari

“We serve simple food with some dishes having a Kerala flair, especially the fish curries,” explains Abdullah T, a partner in the hotel. “Business is picking up, and we see more footfall. More importantly the regulars — who are from Royapettah and the Beach Line — are coming back,” he adds.

“We use a lot of coconut and spices like pepper in our restaurant, and the food is moderately spiced. If a customer wants more spice, he or she just has to ask,” says Abdullah, explaining that their meal menu includes the basic range of kootu, rasam, sambhar, poriyal, buttermilk and pickle. The regulars however know that to spice up lunch, you also need to order a side of either or both their prawn pakoda and Kerala mutton masala.

Price: One carrier serves two, costs ₹160 onwards.

Contact: 6, 296, Royapettah High Road, Ganapathy Colony, Royapettah. Call 9940325544.

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 2:42:47 AM |

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