While carnatic music artists dish out sindhu bharavi and naatai kurunji (melodic modes in Indian classical music) in the auditorium, there’s a different kind of music coming from the canteens – the crunch of crispy spinach vadai, the gurgling of filter coffee as it froths in the steel tumbler, and the violent sizzle of dosai batter when it hits the hot pan, smoothening into a soft murmur. Dosai is the South Indian equivalent of rice crepes, and is typically eaten with a lentil soup (Sambar) and spicy sauces (Chutney).
That’s right, Chennai’s December music festival is not just for music aficionados, but for lovers of traditional South Indian food, as well. It’s a time when artists of repute and unassuming fans share tables, and consume food and city gossip, alike. Margazhi is the ninth month of the Tamil calendar that starts mid December and ends mid January, and is considered especially holy in the Tamil culture. Chennai’s classical music and dance festival takes place during this month. It’s an exciting time for the caterers as well. As Margazhi is a lean period when it comes to weddings, caterers use the occasion to renew old friendships and reinvent old dishes, with no compromise to the traditional classics, of course. Much like Chennai itself, it’s the simultaneous existence of the old and the new that people come for. Where else would you find sambar rice and chocolate dosai, side-by-side, on your elai (banana leaf)? Introducing to you the Jamie Olivers of the city, who come alive in Chennai during this musical month. These one, you wouldn’t want to miss.
At The Music Academy, Royapettah At the bastion of the carnatic arts, The Music Academy, you come for the music, but stay for the food. Go for a full-course elai sapadu (meal) during lunch, for you can expect nothing short of the best authentic South Indian cooking here. Our pick for lunch? Mysore vadai (mixed lentil fritters), coriander rice, vegetable kootu (thick stew), potato roast, kadhamba sambar (vegetable and lentil curry), manathakkali vethakuzhambu (dried black nightshade in tamarind gravy), banana chips, and special mysore pak (traditional sweet made from gram flour and ghee). All time best: Podi idli (steamed rice cakes tossed in mixed spices), pumpkin halwa (pudding), filter coffee Experimental hit: Pineapple rasam (spicy tamarind soup, served with rice)
Mountbatten Mani Catering
At Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, Triplicane The dish that put this catering house on the map is their experimental watermelon rasam, introduced in 2014. A delicate balance of sweet and tart, this canteen is not shy to experiment! Lunch at this age-old establishment is a right of passage among the music circle in Chennai. Make sure to complete your meal with a tumbler of sweet warm Horlicks, that is sure to take you back to your childhood. All time best: Vazhathandu uthapam (thick rice pancakes topped with plantain stem), akkara vadisil (sweet rice pudding made from milk and jaggery), pepper kozhambu (spicy gravy made from a base of pepper and tamarind) Experimental hit: Chocolate dosai, apple pachidi (jam), vazhaipoo (banana flower) vadai made from green gram and lentils
At Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha, Vani Mahal, T Nagar Evening tiffin is what is best at this canteen, that is situated close to T.Nagar’s bustling shopping district, Pondy Bazaar. Start with the all time favourite spinach vadai, and move on to idiyappam (rice-flour string hoppers) with avial (coconut milk based vegetable stew), for mains. Finish with the halwa-of-the-day, and make sure to down it all with some piping hot filter coffee. All time best: Crispy ghee roast (crispy rice pancakes), poori-masala (fluffy deep fried bread with mildly spiced potato gravy), rava pongal (savory breakfast dish made from semolina) Experimental hit: Beetroot idiyappam sprinkled with grated coconut
The canteens are open to everyone, for breakfast, lunch and evening tiffin. You need not attend a kutcheri (music concert) to enjoy a meal. Get a token, sit down at the pandal (communal dining), and enjoy as the drama unfolds on your banana leaf.
The menu in every one of these canteens is refreshed everyday, and the owners are constantly experimenting with the dishes. The only way to know what’s best is to visit.
If you’re in Chennai this Margazhi season, ditch the bar hopping, and go canteen hopping, instead!