When it comes to cuisine, Chennai can stand toe-to-toe with any city in the world. The capital state of Tamil Nadu is not only known for its sumptuous vegetarian fares, but is also considered a meat eater’s paradise. In 2015, Chennai was even featured on National Geographic’s list of Top Ten Food Cities in the World!
From elaborate, traditional preparations to street-food specialities, here are some of the must-try dishes for any food lover in Chennai.
One of Chennai’s most popular street-food offerings, the Kothu Parotta is a great example of the city’s ingenuity and experimental culture when it comes to food. Kothu Parotta is an ingenious collage of various South-Indian delicacies, with Kerala Parotta as its base. The parotta is shredded and mixed with various other items such as eggs, meat chunks, and salna (a sauce containing a mix of spices). While the dish isn’t that popular in major restaurants across the city, you can find yourself a plate of Kothu Parotta in just about any street-food market.
The Chicken 65 needs no introduction anywhere in the country. However, what many do not know is that this popular South-Indian dish has its origins in one of Chennai’s oldest restaurant chains: the Buhari Hotel. What’s even more interesting is that the “65” in the dish’s name is widely thought to have been a reference to the number of chillies that are used to prepare it! From its humble beginnings in the 1960s, the dish has now become one of the most ubiquitous chicken dishes not only in Chennai, but all over India. A food trip to Chennai is incomplete without a hot, spicy plate of Chicken 65!
This is yet another dish with roots outside of Chennai, but the Indian city has created its own take on Madras Atho. This dish finds its origins in a popular Burmese delicacy made with noodles. However, the Atho available in Chennai’s many hole-in-the-wall Burmese eateries boasts a unique flavor that is not quite Burmese and not quite Indian! Some of these eateries have existed for decades, and are remnants of the city’s unique connection with Myanmar. Myanmar (or Burma as it was known then) was once home to a vibrant Tamil trading community. In the 1960s, these traders fled the country following the establishment of military rule there. Many made it back to Chennai (then Madras) as refugees and brought with them Burmese culture and cuisine! They set up shop in North Chennai, in what is now known as the “Burma Bazaar.” So take a walk through these delicious-smelling stalls, or head to the more popular, unnamed stall on South Lane Beach Road, which can easily be identified as the most-crowded spot on the street.
This sweet may share its name with another city (Mysore is in India’s Southwestern Karnataka state), but nowhere does Mysore Pak quite like Chennai. The city’s famous bakeries, such as Adyar Ananda Bhavan and Sri Krishna Sweets, have made the dish their own over the years, giving Chennai’s Mysore Pak a inimitable taste. Prepared with generous amounts of ghee, the sweet is famous for quite literally melting in the mouth! Sure, this dessert is packed full of sugar, but if you are in Chennai, it is a temptation well worth indulging!
Chennai’s love for seafood predates the city’s colonial history, as Chennai was once just a group of fishing villages. One of the most prominent remnants of this old culture is the spicy finger-food dish known as nethili fry. Made from anchovies, which are fried and showered with lime, the best and most authentic nethili fry can only be found at places where the city’s fishing communities still thrive.
If anyone had to pick the most ubiquitous dish in Chennai (aside from the usual suspects of idli and dosa), it would probably be the sundal. This popular roadside food is available in almost any beach or temple in Chennai, but the best version is from vendors in Marina Beach. Sundal is prepared by mixing soaked chana with various spices and other items such as grated coconut, sliced, unripe mangoes, and chiles.
While the traditional dosa is more associated with the Udipi cuisine of Karnataka, it was actually popular Chennai restaurants, such as Saravana Bhavan, that pioneered the concept of variety dosas (masala dosas or ghee roasts, for example). Today, a regular Udipi hotel in Chennai will have as many varieties of dosas as most other restaurants have on their entire menu. Add uthappams to the list and you’d practically faint from the sheer number of choices in front of you. But, if you ever find yourself in such a conundrum, relax. You can choose anything. As long as you are in Chennai’s famous Udipi hotels, no dosa will disappoint!
There is something about the experience of eating prasadam or offerings in temples in Chennai that you won’t find in restaurants. And one of the most popular items usually offered as prasadam is the puliyodharai or tamarind rice. Usually offered in small servings on leaf cups, temple puliyodharai in Chennai is found at any of its major temples such as the Mylapore Kapaleeswarar Temple, Vadapalani Temple or Triplicane Parthasarathy Temple. Forget fit for royalty, this is food that fit for the gods!