What is Tamil Nadu cuisine? It's impossible to define this in one sentence or with a binary response. Just like every region in India, Tamil Nadu's culinary traditions date back centuries. But not every dish has a timeless legacy, a lot that we define as Tamil cuisine today might have actually taken shape in restaurants in the state's capital and other culinary destinations like Madurai. There's no better place to explore Tamil Nadu's vast culinary repertoire than Chennai. It's impossible to draw up an exhaustive list of dishes but our list is a good starting point:
Kari dosai: The three-tier dosai at Madurai's Konar Mess is a local legend. A thick dosa, an omelette and a layer of minced mutton. This is not a dosai you can take lightly. Order a repeat at your own risk and do wash it down with Bovonto, Madurai's very own soft drink. This is now available at their Chennai outlet.
Try it at Konar Kadai, Whannels Road, Egmore
Dindigul Biryani: Dindigul's biryani gets its unique flavours from the local lamb, small grain (seeraga samba) rice and the water sources near the town. The Chennai version comes somewhat close. Thalappakatti Biriyani is one of the flagbearers for the Dindigul-style biryani. The restaurant began in Dindigul and took its name from the founder's penchant for wearing a turban (thalappakatti).
Try it at Dindigul Thalappakatti, 11th Avenue, Ashok Nagar
Vada Curry: a quintessential Chennai dish, this is a coarse dal mix in a flavourful gravy. It's almost the same prep as the popular masala vada. One of the theories that surround the origin of Vada curry is that this dish was made with leftover vada bits that are tossed into a gravy. By all accounts the vada curry was invented in a restaurant before it became a popular Sunday breakfast option in many homes. It's usually served in many homes and restaurants with idli, idiappam, set dosa. I enjoy digging into the bowl with a spoon.
Try it at Mari Hotel, Saidapet or Motel Mamalla, East Coast Road, near Mamallapuram
(Also Read: 8 Best Restaurants in Chennai You Must Visit)
Idiappam Paya: Idiappam or string hoppers might taste similar everywhere but there's a marked difference in the accompaniments. Some of Chennai's iconic restaurants do a pepper paya cooked with mutton trotters. Samco is one such legendary restaurant that hasn't tweaked its recipe for Pepper paya since the 1960s. It's like the Nihari Gosht cooked with lamb shanks. Quite a few meat shops in North Chennai supply specially smoked pieces of lamb shanks for paya.
Try it at Samco Hotel, Eldams Road or Zum Zum Hotel, Second line beach, Parrys
Sakkarai (Sweet) Pongal: is an integral part of the menu on Pongal Thirunaal or Pongal day that is the most important day of the Pongal festivities.This harvest festival is the biggest in the state's festival calendar. Sakkarai is the Tamil word for sugar but oddly enough Sakkarai Pongal is usually cooked with jaggery and not sugar. The melting of the jaggery is the key process in this dish, this syrup is blended with a rice and green gram mixture. There's also a hint of camphor that lends a unique flavour to the dish
Try it at Murugan Idli shop (T Nagar or Besant Nagar)
Onion Uthappam: for the uninitiated, Uthappams might be very similar to a dosa but they're not quite the same thing. Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, this is almost where the dosa meets the idli and is a popular evening snack or dinner dish that can be cooked in a jiffy. It tastes even better with dosa batter that has gone slightly sour. The Onion Uthappam is the most popular version and is cooked with chopped onions and green chillies with the reassuring flavour of gingelly (sesame) oil.
Try it at Murugan Idli shop (Besant Nagar) or ID at the Chennai Airport (Domestic Departures)
Meen Kuzhambu: there's a legend that the cooks at Velu Military hotel still talk about. Their founder (Velu Ambalam) had to get a whiff of their signature Meen Kuzhambu (Fish gravy) every single day when he pulled into the restaurant (from at least a couple of buildings away). If he didn't, he would storm into the kitchen, dump the gravy cooked for the day, roll up his sleeves and make the Meen Kuzhambu from scratch. This fish gravy is deep rooted in Tamil popular culture and in homes across the state. It tastes equally delicious with rice and as an accompaniment with idli or dosa.
Try it at Velu Military hotel, Eldams Road
Adhirasam: Records of this popular sweet dates back during the reign of the formidable Chola dynasty almost thousand years ago. This deep-fried sweetmeat is essentially a combination of two ingredients - jaggery and rice flour; the flavour is enhanced by the quality of the oil (gingelly oil or groundnut oil). The cooking process is laborious and requires skill and experience in equal measure.
Try it at Grand Sweets Adyar or Suswaad Mandaveli
Filter Coffee: Ask any true blue Chennaite what they miss the most when they're away from home, you're very likely to hear filter coffee. This is not just a beverage that most Chennaites wake up to, it's an emotion. Chennai's version of filter coffee is quite similar to the state's famous Kumbakonam degree coffee. Most restaurants brew this drip down coffee in large percolators and serve it in tumblers and davaras (cups). Strong coffee with thick milk that is most likely to coat your tongue is always invigorating.
Try it at Sangeetha Adyar or Mami Mess Mylapore
Pallipalayam Chicken: One of Tamil Nadu's best known chicken dishes and a dish synonymous with the Kongunad region of Western Tamil Nadu. The dish takes its name from a small town near Erode where this unique spice mix - Pallipalayam chicken powder, has been perfected. It elevates this dish of chicken nuggets cooked with coconut slivers. While some homes and restaurants have shifted to broiler chicken, the traditional recipe for Pallipalayam chicken involves free-range chicken.
Try it at Kovai Alankar Mess, Anna Nagar or Junior Kuppana Nungambakkam
About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.