From authentic Korean cuisine to exquisite sushi to a Russian stand-alone restaurant, Chennai’s food scene has gone truly global, but in this piece, we put the spotlight on 8 dishes (from morning to evening) that the city can call its own even though some of them might not have necessarily originated here.
1. Filter Coffee
From the early risers (the city is full of them) who grab their tumbler before sunrise at Hotel Saravana Bhavan (HSB) on RK Salai or Old Mahabalipuram Road to the tumblers of coffee that are served at Karpagamabal Mess and Ratna Cafe, almost every corner of the city boasts of top quality coffee. Freshly brewed decoction comes together with high fat milk in a tumbler that overflows with froth and a brew that is almost guaranteed to coat your tongue.
2. Masala Dosai
It was Udupi restaurateurs like Dasaprakash and Woodlands who probably brought this dish to Chennai. You can try their ghee soaked, crispy dosai version in restaurants like Krishna (Woodlands) or Mathsya or have an improvised Chennai version – the ‘caloricious’ GheeMasala Roast at Hotel Saravana Bhavan, which is a meal in itself.
3. Full Meals
There’s the all-vegetarian version – you could try the traditional Tamil Nadu meals or Andhra Meals (at restaurants like National Lodge) or even a Kerala Sadhya or head to one of the city’s Military hotels (Like Velu Military hotel) or restaurants like Junior Kupanna where an array of meat gravies complement standard fare like sambar and rasam.
4. Nethili Fry
Chennai’s fishing community can claim to be one of the city’s earliest inhabitants. One of the city’s quintessential seafood dishes is Nethili fry – fried anchovies tossed in a spicy masala (most restaurants coat the anchovies in a spicy ’65’ masala) -crunchy and scrumptious.
The Dindigul version cooked with the small grain Seeraga Samba rice is trending in Chennai but it’s the Ambur version cooked at Muslim weddings that is still the gold standard. Chennai’s iconic Buhari Hotel might be better known outside the city for inventing Chicken 65 but it’s the biryani that rules the roost here.
6. Mysore Pak
Chennai sells way more Mysore Pak than Mysuru; it’s the one thing most people will ask you to carry back from the city. The Mysore Pak fans in the city are divided into two camps – those who like the softer ‘Mysurpa’ version that was made popular by Shri Krishna Sweets and the slightly coarse yet crumbly Mysore Pak that tastes best at Grand Sweets. Try both and then take sides.
The Marina beach – one of the world’s longest urban beaches, is almost an integral part of the city’s identity. It’s also the best place to sample sundal – usually boiled whitechanna (it’s common to find black channa and green peas versions too) tossed withmustard seeds, grated coconut, raw mango and curry leaves.
Chennai’s Burmese connection – a large number of Tamils left Burma in the early 1960s, is most evident in North Chennai where quite a few hole-in-the-wall establishments (there’s even one that calls itself Atho Shop) serve delicious Burmese street food. This includes the fiery Atho – fried noodles tossed with cabbage,onion and tamarind juice. If you can’t make the trek to Burma Colony, there’s Ma Tint Tint in the heart of the city.