I still remember my first conversation with Ashutosh Nerlekar about five years ago. The Executive Chef at The Park, Chennai had just moved in from Pune and was keen to explore Chennai's vibrant food scene. We spoke about all the diverse food experiences that each of the city's traditional neighbourhoods offer. A year later he invited me to be part of a Ramadan food walk that he had curated with his team. Almost every big city in South India offers its share of Ramadan specialities for Iftar. I've been around the vibrant Charminar area in Hyderabad's old city. The hub for Chennai's Ramadan food experiences is Triplicane, an area not far from the MA Chidambaram Cricket Stadium in Chepauk, the den of the Chennai Super Kings.
This year, I accompanied Chef Ashutosh and his team with a bunch of culinary enthusiasts to walk through the streets of Triplicane for our Ramadan culinary trail. All roads in Triplicane lead to the Big Mosque. It dates back to 1795 and was envisioned by Muhammed Ali Wallajah who was the 'Nawab of the Carnatic' at that time. The unique structure is constructed with granite and does not use wood or steel in any form. He was also credited with the construction of the Chepauk Palace, one of the first and finest examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture. Triplicane's streets come alive during the month of Ramadan and food is a big part of that mix.
1. The Legend Of The Nombu Kanji
It is the Big Mosque that was the first stop in the Ramadan Food Walk. All visitors who break their fast at the mosque are served a Nombu Kanji. One of the locals from the area tells us that this was first made by Muhhamed Ali, a Tamilian settled in Burma. He then introduced it in his village - Kadayanallur, in the 1940s. This wholesome porridge combines broken rice with lentils and pieces of mutton. There are some versions of the nombu kanji that also add fenugreek (for its cooling properties). The kanji is mildly spiced so that it's easy on the stomach when you break the daily Ramadan fast after a long break. The Big Mosque remains a symbol of communal harmony to this day; many non-Muslims come to the mosque to serve the kanji to those breaking their fast.
2. Haleem And Kebabs
Haleem, a popular delicacy during the holy month of Ramadan traces its origins to Harees, which gets a mention in Kitab Al-Tabikh, a 10th-century cookbook of dishes popular with kings and caliphs of Baghdad. This dish is popular from Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent with variations like keskek in Turkey. Hyderabad's Haleem might be India's best known but the Triplicane version is quite delicious too. This version also gets its subtle flavours from the golden fried onions and coriander. Aside from their signature Haleem, Haleem Express in the area also does a mouth-watering version of the shami kebab. Mutton, chana dal and spices are held together with egg before these kebabs are deep-fried.
3. A Local Favourite
The numbers can put IPL statisticians at the nearby Chepauk stadium to shame. 50 whole chickens are prepared in their rotisserie each day for which 200 shawarmas are made each day. Firdaus Café has been doing this for 20 years and their chicken shawarma and grilled chicken are both crowd favourites.
4. Biryani Pit-Stop
No Ramadan trail in India is complete without a biryani pit stop. Charminar Biryani is one of the most popular biryani spots in the city. This is no fine diner. It's a grab-and-go eatery where the mutton biryani (made with long-grain, basmati rice) usually hits the spot. The aromas waft from their large handis even before you reach this pokey eatery.
5. Sweet Fix
Basha Halwawala is a local legend. The stall in Jam Bazaar has sparked clones but the good thing is most locals and auto drivers will point you to the original shop that serves one of the most delicious halwas in Chennai. Jalaludin, who runs the stall is proud of its 80-year legacy and their signature dum ka roat. This delicacy combines semolina with sugar, ghee and khoya with a unique crust that is formed by the charcoal on the lid during the cooking process. Another Ramadan favourite here is the Andae Ka halwa. I'd also recommend their gulab jamun and carrot halwa.
6. One For The Road
There's more than one option for that one drink for the road. The perfect antidote after pounding the streets of Triplicane and checking out the Ramadan delights. It's fun to watch the badam milk vendors dispense hot cups of the beverage through the evening. If you'd rather have a cold fix, then the lassi stalls around Jam Bazaar provide the perfect respite for the Chennai heat before you head home.
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.