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.
Shree Krishna Bhavan
The humblest restaurant I visited was Shree Krishna Bhavan in Triplicane, opposite the Parthasarathy Swamy temple. My rickshaw driver had suggested it. Cramped and cave-like, with crude wooden tables and crumbling paint, the place was downright shabby. But not so the food. The idlis were as big as plates and as light as clouds. The sambar, a stew with vegetables and lentils that serves as a sauce, was spicy and delicious.
And the place was loaded with local color. A bare-chested Brahmin man with a folded cloth over one shoulder brushed by my table. A father and tiny daughter sat opposite.
The bill for a hearty breakfast and masala tea was 75 cents.
For less than 50 cents, I had an excellent lunch at Chakkara Pongal in T. Nagar, a district of Chennai where I had gone to shop for clothes. The restaurant was clean but almost crudely basic, and I hesitated to enter. But I gave it a try because the local tourist office had recommended it.
Tourists were apparently a novelty there, and the staff gathered to watch as I ate. My mini-meal included a carrot dish and three types of rice — one soaked with sambar, another with yogurt and a third flavored with lemon, plus papads (thin crisp fried lentil wafers) and spicy pickles. The highlight was the restaurant's signature dish, chakkara pongal, a dal beaten with rice, brown sugar and cardamom until smooth. I'd go back any day.
On one occasion, the rickshaw ride cost almost twice as much as the meal. I paid about $4.50 to go to a restaurant called Thanjavur on the road to Mahabalipuram, known for its beaches, ancient temples and rock carvings. Thanjavur is roofless, covered by a brightly patterned canopy that I could imagine sheltering a maharajah's hunting camp.
An elaborate lunch cost only $2.60 for two, so I could hardly let the driver wait outside after he had maneuvered so valiantly through the road's mad tangle of buses, motorcycles, trucks and cattle. We each received a large round steel tray loaded with 11 small cups of food and a vadai, a lentil fritter, wrapped in a chapati, which is like a flour tortilla. The waiter spooned on rice, which he topped with nutty-tasting ghee (Indian-style clarified butter) and a fiery spice blend.
Along with delicious vegetables, sambar and yogurt, there were two desserts, a semolina pudding and a soupy concoction of mung beans cooked with jaggery, or brown sugar, coconut milk and cardamom. My tongue turned bright orange after chewing pan, a leaf packet containing betel nut and flavorings, which was served as the last course.
Not all my meals were budget-priced, but even high-end food wasn't costly by U.S. standards. A leisurely Sunday lunch at Southern Spice in the Taj Coromandel Hotel came to slightly more than $15, including tip and extra drinks.
The restaurant specializes in the cuisines of the four southern Indian states, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. The setting was luxurious, and the service was friendly and pampering.
The Taj thali was a copper tray shaped like a banana leaf, lined with a fresh leaf cut to fit. Little leaf-shaped copper dishes held masala beets, a vegetable and coconut stew from Kerala, leafy greens with dal from Andhra and much more.
Breads included papads, dosa, parathas as flaky as puff pastry and appam, a bowl-shaped rice crepe cooked to order in the dining room. Yogurt came in an unglazed earthen pot that absorbed the whey, making it thick and cool.
After a carrot dessert, I had coffee, which the waiter called "Indian cappuccino" as he poured it in a stream two yards long into the cup, producing a foamy brew.
Many restaurants, such as Mathura, describe their menus as multi-cuisine. Typically, they offer Continental, Indian and Chinese food, which is immensely popular in India. The Indian dishes may represent north and south and different regions within the south.
At Mathura, a large place crowded with businessmen at lunch, I ate a mushroom gratin with cheese sauce and toast, followed by an Indian dessert of clotted milk, called basundhi. The extensive menu includes dishes for Jains, followers of an ancient religion that demands reverence for all living creatures. Jains are strict vegetarians and won't eat onion or garlic because pulling them from the soil might harm small organisms.
For one breakfast, I went to Venkat's VIP, where chandeliers as antique as the British Raj hung from a green corrugated roof. This is an Udupi restaurant, linked to the legendary cooking style of Udupi, a temple city in the Karnataka. There, vegetarian food has evolved to a high level, spurred on by religious devotion and ritual. So exalted was the food that the name Udupi became a drawing card as the cuisine spread to other areas.
I had a plain dosa (no filling), served on a circle of banana leaf along with tasty sambar, coconut and onion chutneys and excellent coffee.
Another day I went to Annalakshmi, a restaurant as glamorous as an old-fashioned Hollywood film about Mogul India, and not overly expensive. Cool and dark, with sitar music in the background, inlaid rosewood tables and silken cloths, it seemed worlds away from the busy, dusty street outside.
Annalakshmi is operated by followers of Swami Shantanand Saraswathi, and the profit from the restaurant helps support free clinics that he founded in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The food is cooked by housewives, and the volunteer servers are professionals. The waiter could be a computer engineer.
My lunch started with fresh pea soup in a silver bowl on a banana leaf. The thali that followed included salads, dal, rice and a variety of vegetables dishes such as avial, a mixture of cluster beans and squash with yam, banana, yogurt and ground coconut. Avial is eaten with a lentil pancake called adai, which comes with a yummy dip of softened butter mixed with jaggery. After the meal, I rinsed my fingers in a bowl of warm water that contained a red rose petal and a lime slice.
The receipt read, "Thou art fulfilled."
Barbara Hansen writes for the Food section of The Times.
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Going vegetarian in Chennai
From LAX, Malaysian, Singapore, United, Air India and US Airways offer connecting flights (change of plane) to Chennai, formerly called Madras. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $2,190.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 91 (country code for India), 44 (the area code for Chennai) and the local number.
WHERE TO EAT:
Annalakshmi, 804 Anna Salai; 2852-5109. Lunches are $8 and up.
Chakkara Pongal, 46 N. Usman Road, T. Nagar. A basic combination lunch is 34 cents.
Hotel Saravana Bhavan, 57 Dr. Radhakrishnan Salai, Mylapore; 2811-5977. A breakfast mini-tiffin is 75 cents. A dosa with coffee is about $1.50.
Mathura Restaurant, second floor, Tarapore Towers, Anna Salai; 2852-1777. Lunch $2 to $3.
Mylai Karpagambal Mess, 20 E. Mada St., Mylapore (no phone). Breakfast and other meals, $1 and up.
New Woodlands Hotel, 72-75 Dr. Radhakrishnan Road, Mylapore; 2811-3111, http://www.newwoodlands.com . The 175-room hotel also has a restaurant, Vrindavan, where dinners run $4.30 and up. Breakfast in the hotel dining room is less than $1. A lunch plate is $1.25.
Shree Krishna Bhavan, 297 Royapettah High Road, Royapettah; 2835-0226. Items are as inexpensive as 11 cents for an idli, a rice and lentil cake.
Southern Spice, in the Taj Coromandel Hotel, 37 Mahatma Gandhi Road; 5500-2827. Lunch is $7 and up.
Thanjavur Vegetarian Restaurant, 5 E. Coast Road, Vettuvankeni; 2449-1829. A set meal is $1.15.
Venkat's VIP Restaurant, 158/227 Royapettah High Road, Royapettah; 2811-7684. Meals start at 57 cents. Dosas are 30 cents and up.
TO LEARN MORE:
Government of India Tourist Office, 154 Anna Salai; in Los Angeles at (213) 380-8855, http://www.tourindia.com .
— Barbara Hansen