A treasured holiday from meat

Southern cuisine employs such distinctive ingredients as peppery-tasting curry leaves, tamarind and coconut milk. Sublime fresh coconut chutneys accompany almost every meal. (Barbara Hansen / LAT)

Never have I eaten so well for so little money as during the 12 days I explored the vegetarian restaurants of this city, formerly called Madras, on southern India's east coast.

I returned in February after a five-year absence to reconnect with the city's vibrant street life, great bookshops and music and, most of all, the food, which is as intricately crafted as the gorgeous hand-made rugs and shawls that stuffed my suitcase on my return.

I'm not a vegetarian, but many Indians are, some for religious reasons but many because they can't afford meat. In Chennai's 67 square miles are plenty of restaurants that cater to them. The way south Indians treat vegetables, rice and lentils is so remarkable that meat can't compete.

South Indian food is different from the cuisine of the north, which may be better known to Americans. Southern cuisine employs such distinctive ingredients as peppery-tasting curry leaves, tamarind and coconut milk. Sublime fresh coconut chutneys accompany almost every meal.

The day I went off the wagon and ate chicken, it was good, but it couldn't compare with a lacy rava dosa, a crisp, golden semolina crepe embedded with dried fruits and nuts. Or seven-taste uttappam, seven tiny pancakes made from a rice and lentil batter, each with a different topping.

Those were comparatively high-end dishes. The rava dosa cost slightly more than a dollar, the uttappam about 75 cents. The idea of this trip wasn't to save money, although I'm not a luxury traveler. I just wanted to eat well and in places that locals frequent.

New Woodlands Hotel

I stayed at the New Woodlands Hotel because it is thoroughly Indian. I liked waking up to the sound of birds outside, people gossiping in Tamil, the language of Tamil Nadu state. Occasionally, the plaintive, piercing sound of the nagaswaram, a south Indian wind instrument, drifted to my room.

New Woodlands is in the part of the city known as Mylapore, close to restaurants and a supermarket, Nilgiri's, where I bought spices and snacks. Since my last visit, Woodlands has added a fancy restaurant called Vrindavan, and I ate there the day I arrived. I ordered mulligatawny soup, made of lentils and rice and heavily spiced with black pepper, and tandoori aloo, tandoor-roasted potatoes stuffed with cashews and paneer, a soft cheese of curdled milk. The potatoes, fragrant with spices and accompanied by mint chutney, were exceptional.

I drank fresh pomegranate juice with the meal. Alcoholic beverages were not served in any vegetarian restaurant that I visited, which is typical, especially in small places. Besides, during the hot days of March when I was in Chennai, fresh lime sodas and fruit juices were more appealing. Locals prefer water, served in a stainless-steel tumbler, which they regard as hygienic.

Hotel Saravana Bhavan

Often, I dined down the street at Hotel Saravana Bhavan. (The word "hotel" in India can mean a place to eat, not stay the night.) The Mylapore Saravana, part of a chain, is big — I counted more than 20 ceiling fans — crowded and noisy.

The menu is enormous. What you eat depends on the time of day: coffee and breakfast items in the morning, full meals at lunch and chat, snacks such as hot channa dal (lentils), hot spiced potatoes and puffy deep-fried puri breads with yogurt, after 4 p.m.

For breakfast, I liked Saravana's mini-tiffin, a banana leaf-lined tray that included tiny idlis, steamed cakes of rice and lentil batter; rava kichadi, a hot, thick semolina porridge reminiscent of grits but studded with black peppercorns, cashews and curry leaves; and a mini potato-stuffed dosa, a thin, crisp crepe made from ground rice and lentils.

The tiffin even includes dessert, a saffron-colored semolina pudding called rava kesari. A tiffin, by the way, is a light vegetarian meal named for the tiered metal carriers in which meals are transported to workers.

Mylai Karpagambal Mess

At Mylai Karpagambal Mess near the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore, a freshly washed section of banana leaf was set before each customer. In south India it's common to serve meals on a banana leaf. I watched as locals sprinkled the leaf with water, then ate with their right hand. (Indians do not eat with the left hand, which is used for washing up after a trip to the bathroom.)

I was given two spoons. My meal, placed on the leaf, started with a vadai, a golden brown cake of fried lentil dough. Next came ghee pongal, a soft mash of rice and dal mixed with cumin seeds, cashews and curry leaves, followed by puffy fried breads and spiced potatoes.

Photos of the guru Sai Baba, who has many followers abroad as well as in India, lined the walls. Recorded chants played in the background.