Never one for flashy sights, Chennai keeps many of its riches in its kitchens, and the city is rightly famous for its elaborate, spicy cuisine. With street-side sizzling, hot-plate griddling, frenzied lunchtime ‘messes’ (canteens), and a skyrocketing fine-dining scene, Chennai – the increasingly cosmopolitan capital of Tamil Nadu – continues to stake its claim as the capital of South Indian dining.
Vegetarians are in for a treat: Tamil cooking is mostly meat-free, and it bursts with the flavours of chillies, curry leaves and coconut. But Chennai also packs in enough top-notch non-veg treats to keep even the most devoted carnivore happy. Look out for fiery, meaty dishes from the Chettinadu region of Tamil Nadu and fresh-from-the-net seafood, often served in Andhra- or Kerala-style sauces with coconut and tamarind.
Chennai’s must-try dishes
Breakfast brings out Chennai’s favourite foods, starting with the humble idli – a steamed, spongey rice cake, dunked into tasty sambar (lentil broth) or coconut chutney. Dosas – savoury South Indian breakfast crepes made with rice flour, and eaten across India no matter the time of day – come a close second (once you’ve tasted a spicy potato-stuffed masala dosa there’s no going back). Similar but thicker is the uttapam, chock-full of coriander, green chillies and tangy onion. And everyone down south adores deep-fried, doughnut-like lentil vadas for snacking. Then there’s the famous South Indian kapi - filter coffee made with milk, sugar and chicory. It’s a deliciously addictive brew decanted on every street corner.
So popular it has outlets strewn across the globe as well as all around Chennai, trusty budget-friendly chain Hotel Saravana Bhavan makes the perfect starting point for your Chennai food explorations, delivering the goods on every one of these veggie specialities of the South. For the city's best idlis, head to Triplicane’s Ratna Café, whose signature sambar recipe has long been one of the most jealously guarded secrets in Chennai.
The perfect thali
Known simply as ‘meals’ down south, thalis are the soul of the South Indian kitchen. The core ingredients are sambar, spicy gravies, chutneys, rasam (tamarind-flavoured broth), veg (often spiced cauliflower or ladyfinger) and cool curd, traditionally laid out across a banana leaf. The sauces are first mopped up with bread (usually a chapatti) and then mixed in with rice, which will be replenished to your heart’s content from an enormous stainless steel pot. Flavours are rich, spice levels soar high, and rice is key, as its lightness and freshness is a strong marker for food quality.
Hunt down the ultimate Tamil thali at T Nagar’s Junior Kuppanna (4 Kannaiya Street, North Usman Road), which runs a roaring lunch-time trade with limitless meals (veg Rs 190; non-veg Rs 160) piled high on banana leaves. The brilliantly clean kitchen is the stuff of dreams to travellers in India and you’re more than welcome to peek behind the scenes. For the slightly-less-spicy Keralan take on thalis, try packed-out Nair Mess (22 Mohammed Abdullah Sahib 2nd Street, Chepauk). It’s been a hit since 1961 and the queueing crowds will lunge for your table faster than you can say sambar.
Our top thali tip? Rinsing your banana leaf with bottled water before the food gets loaded. This is perfectly acceptable and highly recommended if you are worried about bugs.
Spectacular street food
Delhi might be king when it comes to street food, but there are some sensational South Indian flavours floating around Chennai’s crazy streets – if, of course, you know where to look.
In the heart of jam-packed George Town, Seena Bhai Tiffin Centre (11/1 NSC Bose Road) prepares just idlis and uttappams, griddled to perfection with lashings of ghee and chutney, between 6pm and midnight only.
Down south in Mylapore, Rayars Mess (on a narrow lane off Arundel Street) has been drawing the hungry crowds for 70 years with its crispy evening snacks, especially bondas (battered potato balls) and vadas, dished up in a shoebox of a family home. In the morning, it’s all about fluffy idlis and steaming filter coffee.
While you’re down in Mylapore, don’t miss Jannal Kadai or ‘Window Shop’ (Ponnambala Vathiyar Street), where a cross-legged chap doles out piping-hot bondas, bajjis (vegetable fritters), dosas, and vadas to loyal local followers from a tiny hole-in-the-wall just south of the Kapaleeshwarar Temple. Take whatever he’s got going; it’s all fresh and fabulous.
Southern fine dining
There’s a whole lot more to Chennai than roadside grilling, newspaper ‘plates’ and overflowing fastfood messes. As any local will tell you, Chennai is as cool and contemporary as it is rooted in tradition. It should come as no surprise that a growing collection of superb, high-end South Indian eateries (many in top hotels) are bringing age-old local flavours to the city’s thriving, modern-day dining scene – some adding creative flair, others keeping things old-style.
Top of the pack is Dakshin at the Sheraton Park Hotel, with its tantalising mix of flavours from India’s four southernmost states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The restaurant has been tempting palates since 1989 and recipes, like tangy Chettinad fish curry and coconut-infused Keralan stew, retain their authenticity. Every meal starts with a chutney tasting and the live classical music, silver-plated crockery, temple-inspired décor, and generous drinks list make this a fine place to bring a date, but also bring a well-stocked wallet.
Join the food party
If you’re keen to hear the stories behind some of Chennai’s most extraordinary flavours and ingredients, book onto the Storytrails Bazaar Trail, a fast-paced historical-cum-culinary walking tour of George Town’s heaving market streets.
And if you fancy jumping behind the South Indian stove, contact local food expert Kavita Chesetty (+919841027494; email@example.com), who whips up a mean Madras prawn curry and runs a traditional Tamil kitchen where you can learn all the spices and secrets. You'll find more local cooking courses listed on her website at www.malli.in.
For the full-blown Chennai foodie adventure, seek out the brand new, offbeat and in-depth gastronomic excursions led by Detours under the watchful eye of passionate Indian food historian Jonty Rajagopalan. Things kick off amid the early morning frenzy of Koyambedu Wholesale Market, where you can snack to your heart’s content on sizzling South Indian classics like idlis and dosas, then finish up with a sit-down breakfast at a swanky restaurant or a family home. Still hungry? Fear not, there’s usually an evening session too...
Isabella Noble is an author for Lonely Planet's India guidebook.