Rambling on….

about anything under the Sun!

Madras Masala

So this weekend was Masala Dosa time @ Corner House. And boy, do they make a mean Masala Dosa! I don’t know what they throw in the batter but that crepe is divine. I am guessing its the wee bit of salt and spice that they mix in that makes all the difference, but when I try the same at home, its just a salty, spicy dosa – who cares though, as long as they make it as well as they do and I live close by, I am covered. In any case, the discussion over the Dosa dinner veered to the topic of sambhar and one of my colleagues from Mumbai (she’s Tamil) had the audacity to tell me that Madras Sambhar sucks. Imagine that? But then again, she’s from Mumbai. She’s got Tamil roots, now lives in Bangalore and I am not even counting the dozen or so years she spent in the Bay Area. Of course she’s confused – my good side (yes, its small but I do have one) prevailed and I let it slide. But that got me thinking back to the wonderful eateries that I used to frequent in Madras (nope, sorry. I refuse to say Chennai because it was Madras when I lived there, and we shall stick to that) and how I missed them. Guess its time for another list? Given the Sambhar discussion, I am going to limit myself to native Chennai food here, so here goes…

Hotel Saravana Bhavan – For the religiously inclined, most good things start with saluting Lord Ganesha. But we’ll have to make an exception here, lets go with the younger brother on this occasion. It is the right thing to do. As long as you are trying any dish that’s native to Tamil Nadu, you’ve come to the right place. Some items on their menu that are worthy of a special mention – the ghee-dripping, sambhar-soaked 14 Idlis, their Chilly Parotta (not Paratha), the Spl Tamilnadu Meals (and you hit jackpot if the Rasam of the day is the Pineapple one) and a more recent addition, a Spl Kaara (Spicy) Dosa. Of course, no meal here is complete without a delicious cup of filter coffee…unless of course, you are here in the evenings and wanna try the Masala Paal (Flavored, steamed milk) instead. Some of us do both, one before and one after the meal. I’d provide directions but there’s a couple of problems there: They truly are all over town, so its hard to give directions. And more importantly, if you can’t find a Saravana Bhavan in Madras by yourself, you probably don’t deserve to eat there 🙂

Mylai Karpagam Mess – This is the one in Mylapore, across the street from the rear entrance to the Kabaleeshwarar temple. Its a totally nondescript place; be warned that things like ambiance, hygiene etc will be found severely wanting. They are not a hospital, so its wrong to expect a sterile facility but they do make some pretty amazing food. If you believe in the theory that the mess and grime that a kitchen houses add to the food’s taste like I do, you’ll enjoy your visit, and not just for the meal. They typically only have items that are classified as tiffin (I guess tiffin was meant to be a light meal but not here for it’ll be hard to stop with one dish). I’ve liked pretty much everything I’ve tried here but the ones I would particularly rate at the top would be their Adai-Aviyal combo, their Rava dosa (has black pepper corns embedded in the dosa, and that is simply divine!). Its a mess, so the food is cheap, but try not to eat like you’ve never seen food before – you will get a lot of cold stares from the Mylapore mamas that frequent the place. And don’t forget to polish off your meal with a slice of Badam Halwa, for you might as well go out in style.

Cutlet shop next to Adyar bakery – If you ever set foot in Adyar, chances are you know about this little outlet next to Adyar Bakery House. Started by a bunch of seemingly unemployed guys that decided to take matters into their own hands back in the 80s, the place has done exceedingly well over the years, and with good reason. They make the world’s best Veg Cutlets and Mirchi Bajjis. Made fresh and served piping hot on tiny newspaper sheets, I know people that are addicted to the place and will never move out of Adyar for this one reason, and I can’t say I blame them. Hell, I wish I could go back myself.

Pillayar Kovil Mani’s Sundal – yeah, a somewhat descriptive name but he can call himself whatever he wants as long as he continues to make that mean Sundal of his, and it wouldn’t matter. He only runs his shop for 4 hours in a day, from 4-8pm, parking his push cart right next to the Pillayar Kovil (Ganesh temple) in KK Nagar and selling hundreds of plates of steaming Sundal for Rs 2 a plate (this was back in the early 90s – I doubt Mani is still around, but if he is, you can bet he’s going to charge you a little bit more). The Sundal was usually mixed with a crushed vada – the crunchiness component was a crucial element and of course, chopped onions, cilantro and a squeeze of lemon on top. Even the atheist will start believing in God once he tastes Mani’s Sundal. A note of caution – back then, the digestive system could take the abuse and we survived on Mani’s offerings for years together; if I try the same routine now, I will probably not live to see day 3, so be warned.

Annalakshmi – so from the cutlet shop on a makeshift verandah and the sundal on a pushcart, its time to take it up a couple of notches. Annalakshmi is really the queen of the eateries for authentic South Indian fare in Chennai. The ambiance oozes class, the service phenomenal and the food simply heavenly – and their consistency amazes me, not once have I been disappointed (except when I didn’t reserve a table and was turned away at the door). Try any of their Thalis, and you won’t be sorry. If I may offer some advice, try not eating the previous day – you’ll need all the room you can find to put away all the food they serve. The place is right across the street from the LIC Building on Mount Road, and yes, please make reservations – they are extremely popular.

There’s more obviously, but I am going to do this in phases – this should work for starters, but feel free to suggest?

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