‘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.
South Indian Meals
The lady selling idli or aapam (rice savoury cakes and crepes) on the pavement was an early morning occurrence. Many families boast of their hotel businesses beginning that way. It was always more economical to buy a couple of idlis with coconut chutney or an aapam with coconut milk or paaya kari (mutton curry) and begin the day, than for a household to cook the dish at home. The physical and strenuous process of grinding the dough, letting it ferment and then making the idlis on firewood was a time consuming affair for the common woman. She had to be at work early in the morning to decorate the front yards of houses where they worked for a living.
Elite society would patronise the Connemara Hotel or the tearooms of the Gymkhana, Madras Club or Cosmopolitan Club. That old lady in Luz, the Mylapore Club (their dosai and badam halwa is still ranked number one in the city) was the hang out for the law fraternity. The common man went to the ‘messes’ and even today the Karpagambal Mess in Mylapore, retains its old world atmosphere with banana-leaf meals and no-frills tiffin.
The two kinds of small eateries that came into being were 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
With all this food around….Burp! I think I have indigestion.