Vegetarian or non-vegetarian is the eternal argument that is mooted amongst people all over the world. Were Adam and Eve vegetarians or non-vegetarians is another thought that flits through our minds. If they lived in the Garden of Eden, I suppose they must have been vegetarians.
Food is something that occupies our thoughts, our actions, our plans, our memories and a great deal of enterprise. The need to preserve species that are facing the threat of extinction, thoughts of inhuman methods to grow animals just for slaughter, for food and other enterprises is making sensitive people examine the idea of eating meat, fish and poultry. There is a strong movement to live on vegetarian fare and it is spreading far and wide.
In Indian vegetarianism is an accepted way of life. Even people who love their meat and chicken abstain from it during special periods in the calendar year. South India has been a wonderful source of a rich and varied vegetarian fare.
‘Saapadu tayaar’ or ‘Meals Ready’ is a common board found all over Chennai and Tamil Nadu from 7a.m. till late at night. These boards, very often a small blackboard with chalk writing and the day’s menu scribbled on it, informs the consumer what he can eat that day in that eatery. This custom of eating a full-blown meal early at the beginning of the workday is uniquely a Madras..okay…Chennai… habit and its inhabitants carry it with them where ever they go.
On arriving at a restaurant, the server would serve water and the customer’s first question usually was and still is, “Sooda ennappa irukku?” (What items are available hot?) The server’s talent at reciting the menu — some twenty to thirty items all in one breath could set the epicures saliva flowing and take your breath away at the same time.
Eating is serious business in India. Eating out is a phenomenon more urban in practice than universal. In Chennai, even the orthodox would drink a cup of coffee out of their homes as milk is kosher or has no dosham or negative aspects according to religious dogma. So little coffee shops were the first public eating places that appeared in the city.
Then two kinds of small eateries came into being–the suddha saivam or vegetarian hotels and the Muniandi hotels that served non-vegetarian food. The latter began to be called Military hotels because men from the Armed Services used to eating non-vegetarian food, patronised these establishments when they visited home for vacations.
South Indian street food is an opportunity to eat food that is cooked or put together into a delicious dish or a take away right before your eyes. The vendors are at it from early in the morning till late in the night. They operate from handcarts or small hole in the wall shops with minimum equipment. It is a no frills experience and many not only enjoy the vegetarian dishes but make it a part of their daily routine.
Let us look at just Breakfast dishes served a la carte and the variety is really mind boggling.
Idli is the standard fare in most parts of South India. The white rice and dal steamed cakes are the healthiest food that you can eat. It is twice cooked…once at the grain stage when it is made into parboiled rice and again when it is steamed in little cup shaped receptacles and served hot. The accompaniments can change with the terrain but the white coconut chutney and the spicy tangy sambar are the common side dishes that add zing to the bland idli. If you are in Andhra or Tanjore areas, you will be served a red chilli and dal powder that is euphemistically called ‘gunpowder’ because of its hot spice quotient.
The vadai is served along with the plate of two idlis. The crunchy, deep fried savoury donut with a hole in the middle is just a melt-in-the-mouth experience….and if you dunk it into the sambar…it is sheer gourmet heaven! Many South Indians also like to start their idli day with a ladle full of savoury Pongal, a rice and moong dal dish that is served piping hot, oozing with ghee and crunched up with cashewnuts and whole pepper. Karnataka has a variation of this dish called ‘chow chow baath’!
In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the aapam is a pancake, thick and full of holes in the middle and a lacy frill at the edges. It is fermented with toddy and served with a veggie stew. These were famous in North Madras and served from hand carts. Puttu is another famous dish that has gone out of fashion because of the effort needed. The string hoppers or Idiappam…a lovely white steamed rice noodle dish that is another breakfast special. It is served with a vegetable stew, rich with coconut milk or eaten with a dribble of a sweet coconut milk dressing.
In Kerala the puttu..a layered broken rice and freshly grated coconut dish steamed in a bamboo pipe is a universal favourite. It is usually served with a brown chick pea gravy dish and sugar if you want it. The idli in Kerala is a triangle shaped soft as a kitten dish. The accompaniments are green or white coconut chutney.
The dosa is not necessarily a breakfast dish but can be eaten at anytime of the day. Its avatar changes with the terrain. In Tamil Nadu it can be a plain dosai served with kothsu—a tomato, eggplant, onion gravy dish, or chutneys and sambar. It can be filled with a potato onion soft filling. This masala dosai gets an additional layer of hot red chutney in Mysore. Nowadays the fillings are becoming more and more creative with cottage cheese/paneer, grilled mixed vegetable with a dash of soya and chilli sauce and many other variations. There is a rice only dosai called neer dosai that is so very soft and thin that is more of a Mangalore speciality. The city people, Konkanis also serve a sweet dosai made with rice and gur that is fermented and made into thick pancakes.
In Andhra the pesarettu—a cousin of the dosai—is very popular. It is a thicker variety made with moong dal with its skin, a little coarse rice and a good helping of red chillies and asafoetida. This is served with an awesome green tomato chutney or red chilli, tamarind, onion, garlic chutney. In Tamil Nadu the thicker pancake called adai is made with a mixture of rice and various dals and spiced up with ginger, chillies, curry leaves and asafoetida. It is served with a stew of vegetables called aviyal.
Ahhh…how can I forget the uppuma..the gooey semolina savoury dish that is so aromatic with fresh flavours of onion, ginger, curry leaves and green chillies. The uppuma changes its character according to the state. There is even a vermicelli uppuma that has to be eaten hot!
The sambar is the customary accompaniment for most tiffin items as the idli, dosai, vadai, uppuma, Pongal items are called. In Kerala it is a thicker version with a blend of fresh coconut and spices. In Tamil Nadu it is a gravy dish with the tamarind quotient higher and made with familiar veggies like drumsticks and white pumpkin and small onions or shallots. In Karnataka it is a watery version with a blend of tomatoes in it and a hint of cinnamon and cloves and a dash of gur or molasses that makes it slightly sweet. In Andhra it is called ‘pappu charu’ and prepared with drumstick and shallots.
The North Indian influence in South Indian breakfasts is the Poori, the round deep fried puffed up delights made from whole wheat flour. The accompanying dish is made from urulai or potatoes, South Indianised with asafoetida, green chillies, ginger, turmeric. It is seasoned with the atypical south Indian flavours of mustard, urad and chana dal, curry leaves and a dash of lemon and garnished with chopped coriander.
No breakfast can be complete without a hot tumbler of filter coffee.
The preparation of this beverage is so very detailed starting with the choice of seeds, roasting them, grinding and preparing a thick decoction. Even the milk that is used and the scalding of—not boiling—is prescribed exactly to make that awesome glass of degree coffee. Kerala may offer a cup of Chaya or tea but kaapi is not to be taken lightly in South India.
He used to be dressed in white or beige with a cap on his head. Today the server quietly places a menu card and whispers, “Mineral water, Sir?” Many restaurants boast of having well-dressed stewards or hostesses to seat you, take the orders and finally give you the bill. Theme restaurants with the employees in matching clothes, the cutlery and plates fitting the décor and ambience, has become a common phenomenon.
Like any other city in India Chennai caters to every pocket, taste and preference. You can eat the kalavai saapadu or mixed rice that the ladies with a basket on their heads take to the offices, bus terminus, auto stands etc. You can stand in front of the corner tea shop and have a porai biscuit with your hot tea or kapi. You can eat at fast food outlets with a plate of food in your hand. You can sit at laminated tables and plastic chairs in shops, on pavements, under tin roofs, in poky rooms. You can be seated in upholstered sofas in AC comfort and order gourmet food.
Korean, French, Continental, North West Frontier pakhwan, Calcutta meals, Punjabi dabhas are all in the business of catering to the eclectic tastes of the city. Home delivery meals, catering for parties and special offers like price per gram of cooked food are innovative offers by restaurants to catch the hungry tongue.
The number of eating places, the choices, the tastes catered to and the ambience of the Chennai restaurants are multifarious offering a mind boggling choice to its regulars. The Amma canteens spread all over Chennai serves a mixed clientele at very reasonable prices. You will see the rag picker and autorickshaw driver eating a plate full of sambhar rice next to a ID badge garlanded IT geek…both relishing the simple but yet healthy food.
A family favourite used to be the Drive In Woodlands or Walkabout Gardens. Sadly this Madras/Chennai landmark has been erased from the map. Eating at the Drive in Woodlands on Cathedral Road was a family affair, especially before/after a trip out of town, following a movie or celebrating a special day like an anniversary or birthday. There used to be much more greenery as the number of vehicles in Madras was few. Gradually the leafy, cool gardens changed and the tarmac section became enlarged to accommodate more vehicles. The food too changed from a tiffin and light meals menu to include North Indian dishes, Chinese noodles and sandwiches and burger like concoctions.
Woodlands was also a great meeting place for various sections of society. College going youngsters would meet there for treats and time-pass and many romances bloomed in the verdant surroundings of the gardens under the benign gaze of the waiters. In fact many ‘ponn paakara’ events to introduce marriageable boys and girls took place in the premises. Similarly, it also witnessed many breakup’s and new alliances.
Intellectuals, writers, artists, office-goers met to have discussions, debates and arguments about everything under the sun from politics to world events, books to fashion, society’s changing norms to cultural transformations. It was also a popular place for the film industry for story and music sessions, interviews and auditions in its premises.
It was a unique concept for a laid back, conservative city. It was generally adapted by Mr KrishnaRao, founder of the Woodlands chain of hotels in Madras, from the US drive-in Macs and Burger Kings. Visitors had the novel experience of driving in to a garden that had a restaurant and parking the car or scooter amongst many others. The waiters dressed in a white cap and uniform with green trimmings (reflecting Woodlands and greenery) with a towel on the shoulders would come up to the driver’s window and reel off a string of items on the menu. Once the order was placed, a tray was fitted on to each window frame of the four doors of the vehicle. Cold ice water was first served followed by the dishes that had been ordered and that too piping hot. The waiters demonstrated multi-tasking abilities by balancing the plates of food, taking extra orders and looking out for the next customer who would have driven in. Ice cream was Woodlands speciality and the Basundi, Badam Milk and Coffee were the best in town.
Woodlands introduced Madras to the Mysore Masala Dosa, Vaangi Bath, Rava Onion Dosa, Kadubu and other mouth watering items. The Chaat items gradually appeared on the menu with the Bhatura—one huge puri that filled the plate—and Chana becoming the iconic dish of Woodlands along with the Bhel, sev puri and Dahi Ballas.
All that came to an end with the TN government cancelling the lease agreement of the Horticultural grounds given to Woodlands.
In Los Gatos, CA i had the pleasure of eating at Andale and that was such a memorable experience. I enjoyed the ambience, decoration and the food. Similarly, I have always enjoyed the British tea..Hot scones and Earl Grey, wafer thin sandwiches and cup cakes. I Hitchin UK my daughter has treated me to this atypical English custom and that was another memorable experience.
i must confess that Italian food is my favourite non Indian meal. We used to live in Mumbai opposite the famous Taj chain of hotyels outlet called the President Hotel. They opened a Trattoria..I am talking about 83 to 86 and everybody used to rave about that food. Sadly, I never got to visit it though I have been to other Trattorias and Bistros all over Europe, parts of the US and in India too.
Having said all this, i must confess that now with GERD, home cooked food is the most comfortable for my system!
This is my take on this week’s Friday 5 On 1 blog topic that was suggested by me. The other four bloggers who write on the same topic every Friday are Conrad, Ramana, Sanjanaah and Raju.
Please do go over to their respective blogs to see what they write about this topic.