On 22nd August, 1639, a group of seaside hamlets were cobbled together and christened Madarasapatnam. Now called Chennai, the city celebrated its 377th birthday this year. To mark the occasion, Madras Heritage Week (21–28 August) is celebrated with fervour across the city and the best way to enjoy is to have your stomach lead the way.
We have picked dishes from cookbooks, Dosai by Chandra Padmanabhan and Chettinad Kitchen, Food & Flavours from South India by Alamelu Vairavan as a Chennai food sampler. If you are in the city dig into these popular treats.
Appam with coconut milk and chutney
A Chettinad favourite, this has a large fan following among today’s Chennaites. The thin pancake made from fermented batter of rice and urad dal is poured into a shallow wok and steamed on top and golden on the bottom. It’s served with coconut milk and sugar or tomato chutney.
Idli & medhu vadai with chutney
This traditional breakfast staple is an ideal way to kick off the day. The lightness and blandness of the idlis is offset with the crunchy bite of the medhu vadai with chilli and onion and the tomato, coconut or coriander chutney to add the spicy factor.
Tomato rasam & murungakkai sambar
Chennai will never be short of these whether it is the smallest ‘Meals Ready’ cafe or five-star restaurants. The sambar with steamed rice with a drop of ghee or oil begins the traditional meal but the tropical favourite, the drumstick or murugakkai adds a flavour that makes it popular. The tomato rasam, as soup or had the traditional way, mixed with hot rice, is a second course and is a must in all Tamil elai saappadu (meals served on banana leafs) across Chennai.
Fish is popular in this coastal city, but the residents taste buds betray a weakness for fowl on its plate. The chicken kuruma is a creamy gravy of coconut milk and spices with chicken. It’s eaten with steamed rice or appam.
While the traditional dosa holds sway in Tamil cuisine, its cousin the otthappam, made of sour dosa batter, has come into its own. The masala oothappam has a liberal smear of milagaipodi or gun powder; the vengaya thakkali ooothappam is more popular with a dressing of finely chopped onions and tomatoes as oothappam toppings with sambar and chutney on the side.