There's nothing quite like it in India and probably the entire world. It's why the annual Madras Marghazi season has acquired a reputation as one of the world's largest music festivals. Just like Madras High Court and Madras University, some institutions continue to be associated with the Madras (and not Chennai) prefix. It's the same for this unique music event where Carnatic musicians hold centre-stage at over 50 live venues through the day. The audience ranges from silver-haired rasikas (the local term for connoisseurs of Carnatic music), young students and many International visitors who make the trip during the first half of the Marghazi month (usually December 15 to January 14). But for some Carnatic music fans like myself there's another magnet that draws us to these Sabhas (the performance venues) and it's not the music.
Many of the major music Sabhas also offer meals through the day at their canteens. For many years these were the spots that rasikas would dissect the performances with their critical analysis of the musicians over invigorating tumblers of filter coffee and snacks. Gradually these canteens began to add 'full meals' (the big South Indian meal served on a banana leaf) to their menu. But it's not just music rasikas who frequent these Sabha canteens anymore. Most of the big Sabhas feature canteens that are run by wedding caterers. The Marghazi (December 16- January 15) month is usually not a season for weddings and the vegetarian caterers also get to showcase their craft to a relevant target audience.
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The fare is a welcome departure from the standard vegetarian meals that are on offer at most restaurants. This is high quality food that you would normally only sample at a wedding feast. Most of these canteens are open until January 1 - usually the last day. Blame it on social media, the second half of this decade has seen these canteens teem with gourmands. The menus are refreshed every day and most caterers either go back in time in search of classic 'TamBrahm' recipes or tweak recipes with their own innovative twists. Each year I end up hopping Sabha venues with my friends, in what I call the Sabha Canteen Crawl (after a full meals at one of these canteens you can barely move!) and these are my favourite picks for the 2019-20 season:
Balaji Catering at Music Academy:
My pick for this year for their exquisite meals (Rs 425/head) that incorporate a large number of dishes. This is traditional Iyengar fare at its best. This canteen also has a whole lot of millet-based dishes for tiffin (that never ending time between lunch and dinner) like thinai Pongal. Some of the dishes that stood out were the pineapple rasam and a molgorai (a flavoursome pepper rice) making it the best spot for lunch among the Sabha canteens. The canteen also has a live (audio) feed of the performance from Music Academy's main performance venue.
Music Academy, Cathedral Road
Chennai music academy food
Mountbatten Mani Iyer at Parthasarathy Sabha, Mylapore:
You don't forget a name like Mountbatten Mani Iyer! This legendary wedding catering service has been at this venue (that's not easy to locate; parking is a challenge too) for the past few years. Many diners do multiple visits during the fortnight because this caterer refreshes the menu (The full meals cost Rs 442/head) everyday - so you get 15 different types of rasam or sambar. I still remember the watermelon rasam I tried last year. This year's highlight is a rose infused rasam.
Vidya Bharati, Bheemasena Garden.
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Sri Sasthalaya at Narada Gana Sabha, TTK Road
Probably the best Sabha canteen for tiffin time. Just like last year the menu includes Chettinad specialties dished out by a dedicated Chettinad counter. Their (curd) vadai and juicy gulab jamun are bestsellers and so are their appams. One of their signature dishes is a traditional Ashoka halwa (made with moong dal) and their filter coffee always hits the spot. While they don't offer a classic 'full meals' their set lunch with an assortment of pre-mixed rice dishes (like a sambar rice) is a great option.
Narada Gana Sabha, TTK Road
Filter coffee at Narada Gana Sabha
Most of these canteens are open for breakfast, lunch and tiffin (the tiffin menu continues till dinner). Lunch time can get very crowded - these Sabha canteens also become hubs for office lunches. I'd suggest reaching these venues early (between 12 and 12:30 pm) for lunch. If you're craving for a massive wedding feast and are unlikely to get invited for a South Indian vegetarian feast anytime soon in Chennai, then make a beeline for these Sabha canteens before this decade ends.