I still remember the look on my aunt's face. Eyes half closed, jaw dropped, cheeks flushed and a mix of scorn, anger, amusement and indignation.
It was my first trip to the US. In fact, my first trip abroad. 10 years ago, when Chennai and India didn't have half the number of culinary jewels we have today. I was supposed to be amused and look at everything with awe. It was America after all. And mostly, I did play that part. Skyscrapers were gaped at. Mexican food was gobbled down as if I hadn't had food in a decade. Wondered how they put a lift inside an arch in St. Louis. And then I was handed down the pop corn. Garrett popcorn. With a long line snaking its way to the counter to get a pack of what America considered the best pop corn in town. With caramel pop corn that was supposed to give you an orgasm. And a cheese pop corn that was to transport you to Italy. With.....well, you get the point.
One bite and clearly I wasn't amused. That look apparently showed on my face that prompted a scornful "What?" from the aunt.
"Well, if this is the world's best pop corn, the world clearly hasn't tasted Satyam's pop corn yet."
Yes, that prompted that look. I tried hard to explain why this movie theatre in Chennai served pop corn that left the 'World's best pop corn,' way behind. 10 years later, after having eaten in more than 18 countries, like Paulo Cohelo says in The Alchemist, you have to travel around to find the gold in your home!
So, on Madras Day, I'd like to look back on some of Chennai's jewels that are uniquely Chennai. In no particular order.
Needless to say, this ranks right at the top. It has survived the test of time, money, consistency, loyalty, brand value and emotional connect. Satyam brought the pop corn and the spice powder to make your own pop corn flavours. There was apple, cinnamon, mexican, sour cream and bunch of other powders to spice up your butter pop corn. By the time I was in the US, people were getting Satyam's caramel pop corn delivered using 3rd party delivery services for a fee. While I was at awe with a number of things in the US, the movie theatres and the food in them were nothing compared to Satyam. With the news that Satyam is selling the business to a competitor, more than half the city was in tears! We've been assured that our pop corn stays. I hope it does. Actually, when was the last time I saw a movie elsewhere? Coming to think of it, why did I look at SPI cinemas and said, movie sold out, without checking other theatres?
Gaggan Anand, the flamboyant and naughty Indian chef made it to the word's top 5 restaurants serving micro variants of Indian food to the world based in Bangkok. But can you serve idly and curd rice with a twist to the Chennai crowd and stand out? For the average Chennai eater who has tasted every variant of the idly, from the softest (called the Khusboo idly) to ones in hostels that you can use as bullets, Chef Ajit Bangera was entrusted by ITC to create Avartan in the idly's own backyard. After more 2 years in the making, the team pulled off a stunner of a restaurant that is extremely under rated in the national media for what it serves. At Rs 2500 per head, you get a near Michelin quality food and presentation with excellent service. The original write up is here
Ecstacy by Mickael Besse
Satyam's dominance and its position as being 'more than just a movie theatre' cannot be better explained than the fact that they brought in Mickael Besse, a decade before fine chocolates became a talking point in Chennai. Long before bean to bar was even heard of and the likes of Fabelle at ITC was probably even conceived, Ecstasy was doling out the finest of pastry and dessert within the confines of a movie theatre. To date it remains Chennai's own with no other outlet in the country and has held its own against the onslaught of new players and a price point that borders on being unbelievable.
Prem's Grama Bhojanam
Prem's is now bitten by the expansion bug and has a few swanky places around the city, but make no mistake, the rustic first flood outlet where it all started off is still the go-to place for a quick vegetarian snack or meal and the one place I take people when they come to Chennai and ask for the Bhavans with various first names. If you think, that the ambiance is not where you would take somebody, consider this - I was with the Karnataka's Agricultural minister, a learned man with a strong knowledge of agriculture seated right there with Mr. N.S Krishnamurthy hosting him for insights into millets. Prem's is a place that breaks the myth that you need foreign imports for healthy meals, but its the flavour they create from millets that you have no idea was made of millets until it was mentioned to you. When available, the black rice puttu is a must try. You'll feel like Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain! The original write up is here
Gilli Biriyani at Anise, Taj Coromandel
Yes, this is a terrible excuse for a biriyani. For all practical purposes, this is non vegetarian version of the bisi bele bath or a chicken/mutton sambar rice. But the chef who created it more than a decade back called it that (pronounced gheeli - a hindi/punjabi word for wet), but quickly became known as the Gilli, which is a colloquial word for a risk taker (among other things). Created for the post party scene where the alcohol fuels hunger and biriyani being a much loved dish was an easy sell, the Gilli Biriyani quickly became a favourite among diners for its uniqueness and not needing a brinjal gravy! Both the chicken and mutton are available and I guess equally loved.
The city has grown by leaps and bounds in the culinary scene and I'm excited to see how this moves forward as the years go by.
These are my top 5 picks for Uniquely Chennai delicacies. What are yours?