If you've ever walked around Manhattan, New York City, you will know that you eventually need to keep 'pace' with the locals. New Yorkers hate lost tourists who slow them down. It's the same in one of Chennai's busiest and oldest areas. George Town was where Madras truly began, a grid of busy streets where each street specialises in a particular commodity or trading line. It's almost like 19th Century London in that sense. The city's bustling economy was a magnet for traders; Marwari traders from Rajasthan were among the first movers - some families claim to have been in Madras for nearly two centuries now. The community has also left its indelible impression on the city's culinary scene.Sowcarpet, which is an extension of the crowded George Town area, is truly a multi-sensory experience. Frenetic streets, alleys with room for only two-lane bike traffic, multi-coloured sarees hanging from crammed shop windows and some of Chennai's most delectable street food. It's not easy to find parking around Sowcarpet and walking on these streets is an art form - just follow the locals for cues when you're in doubt. But these are minor challenges that stand in the way of a unique food trail through Sowcarpet's streets. I'd strongly recommend that you begin your culinary journey through this area around tea time - ideally around 4:30 - 5 p.m. You will probably need about two to three hours to tick of the key experiences; don't worry about making dinner plans after that. These are some of the must do culinary stops in the area:
Maharaja Ice-cream: This ice-cream store next door to Maya Chats, serves delicious home-made ice-creams and kulfis. Their seasonal mango and orange ice-creams (served inside the skin of the fruit) are their bestsellers. Where: Audiappa Naicken Street
Ajnabi Mithai Ghar: One of Chennai's oldest chaat brands with multiple outlets across town. It's this outlet's newest innovation that has won the attention of foodies and locals alike - their khakra sandwich. Cheese is slathered on sandwich-bread style khakras and filled with a coleslaw-style filling (eggless) and an additional layer of grated cheese.Where: Elephant Gate Street
Kakda Ramprasad: Their kesar badam milk has acquired cult status. They've recently opened a second, swankier outlet in a residential quarter of Chennai - Kilpauk, but that hasn't kept the crowds at Sowcarpet away. Apart from their badam milk and piping hot jalebis, it's their version of aloo tikki - crispy, hot tikki submerged in a bowl of creamy dahi and topped with a cube of paneer, that's totally worth the trek.Where: Mint Street
Anmol Lassiwala: Almost next door to Kakda, Anmol Lassiwala is one of the city's most visited street lassi stalls. Their creamy lassi has a hint of kesar (saffron). Even their small-sized lassi is quite formidable, especially when you're halfway through a food trail in Sowcarpet.Where: Mint Street
Novelty Tea house: If you're lucky, you might score a table and enjoy air-conditioned comfort in the middle of all that walking through Sowcarpet's alleyways. Their rose milk and paan ice-cream can provide succour on a hot Chennai afternoon but it's the butter-laden pav bhaji, which is their signature dish.Where: Mint Street
Murukku Sandwich At S Chinnappa Saandwich Centre: The classic Bambaiya sandwich has inspired many clones but there are a few that are as innovative. Tiny pieces of cucumber, tomato and onion with mint chutney are crammed into murukkus - a south Indian deep-fried snack made with rice flour and sometimes combined with Bengal gram. There are quite a few outlets in Sowcarpet that serve this delicacy that was probably invented in this area. Where: NSC Bose Road
Seena Bhai Tiffin Centre: Sowcarpet is not just chaat heaven. Leave Seena Bhai for your last stop - they're not usually ready to roll until 6:30 p.m. Their coin-sized idlis and crisp onion uthapams might be a welcome change after a surfeit of chaats.Where: NSC Bose Road
So head to these places and make the most of the yummy food available!
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.