A Vegetarian’s Guide to Chennai – Food of the South

 Chennai market

Chennai market

 A return to the Motherland – Chennai, India. For TASTE Magazine

It dawns on me at the Georgetown market in Chennai, that the locals find me perplexing. Amid ox-drawn carts piled with fresh vegetables, the vendors sit cross-legged in front of their tidily arranged wares, offering me a smile and a characteristic waggle of the head. I tend to elicit similar reactions as regards my physical appearance (“Oh, you look like Indian,” many will say), strange accent and homeland, wherever I go across India. My ancestors left the province of Tamil Nadu in the late 1800s, in an attempt to escape poverty. Exiting the port in Chennai (formerly Madras) they endured the arduous journey to the sugarcane plantations in Kwa-Zulu Natal, to work as indentured labourers. Mine is a similar story to other South African Indians whose roots are embedded in this region of Tamil Nadu, in southeast India. These communities have maintained the same religion, customs and culinary traditions (with certain circumstantial adaptations), as their forebears from in and around Chennai, the province’s capital city hugging the evocatively named Coromandel Coast. A pukka Durban curry is, in my experience, the closest in flavour and profile to an authentic Madras curry. However, one can’t discount the other renowned Tamil Nadu cuisines from Chettinad, Kongunadu, Tirunelveli and Nanjilnadu, for example.

“Do you know what these are?” asks a smiling Lakshmi Shankar, a guide with Story Trails, as we stroll through the historical Georgetown neighbourhood, where Madras began its expansion in the mid 17th century. She points to bushels of slim green okra, plump bitter gourd and ridged luffa. I know them well, I tell her, explaining that these vegetables, and so many others from the Motherland have been grown or sourced by South African Indians for generations. In spite of the extreme oppressive conditions of the past, I tell her that the inherited recipes and culinary traditions have been well preserved. She’s impressed, but soon bursts into peals of laugher, interrupting her delightful story telling that weaves the iridescent history of Chennai, past and present. Yet another vendor has asked why I’m not speaking Tamil and where I come from.

“She’s from here. But her people left a long time ago,” Shankar explains. The vendor grins toothily, and waggles his head in my direction.

Dosa is King

Thali lunch

Thali lunch

“Strong, fragrant filter coffee and golden, ghee drenched dosas. This is the Chennai culinary cliché,“ says Chennai-based Shonali Muthalaly, deputy editor and food critic at The Hindu. With the growing presence of multi-national cooperations, the flourishing technology and call-centre industries, an eclectic food offering spanning everything from Korean to Turkish cuisine has infiltrated the city.

Regardless, the dosa, made from fermented black split lentils (note: also called urad dhal, which is actually a creamy colour on the inside) and rice flour, is indisputably king, says Muthalaly. And rightfully so. “Conical ghee roast dosas shaped like little hats, grainy rava [semolina] dosas punctuated with caramelised onions and folded masala dosas filled with spiced potatoes, are the classics,” she explains.

The dosa, a crisp, thin paella-pan sized crêpe, is often associated with an accompaniment of bitty bowls filled with spoonfuls of curry, pickles and chutneys. In traditional restaurants it’s served on a banana leaf, something I equate with prayer feasts held at my own grandmother’s Merebank house in the 80s. In Chennai the dosa plays hopscotch with fusion too. Try cardamom-scented banana dosas and crispy adai teamed with coconut flecked avial [a vegetable, coconut and curd dish originating in Kerala] and a lump of jaggery, suggests Muthalaly.

 guava vendor Chennai

guava vendor Chennai

The Veggie Plate

While peppery Chettinad chicken, Madras mutton curry and countless seafood dishes are popular, I’ve come to realise that eating a purely vegetarian diet in Chennai (and across India) is both effortless, and immensely satisfying. The statistics on the number of local vegetarians vary widely – some say it’s an equal split, others says they are a minority. Regardless, it’s plentiful, to the extent that meat options are boldly termed “non-veg”. Many travellers who aren’t sure about refrigeration and roadside stall hygiene opt for vegetable snacks and meals.

With Sanjeeta

With Sanjeeta

Subscribing to the principles of Ayurveda, all six taste profiles, namely sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent are incorporated into a meal, exemplified by the thali of small bowls served with a dosa, says executive chef of the Savera group, A.K Mohana Krishnan. Dairy and milk products, he explains, are crucial to the Tamil Nadu diet: milk, ghee curd, paneer, and thick condensed milk. Usually a meal ends with a digestive of homemade curd, frequently mixed with rice. I meet him with popular commercial food stylist Sanjeeta Kumar, who creates healthy vegetarian recipes at Lite Bite blog.


They explain that prominent elements of the daily meal involve rice, a bounty of pulses and greens. “The food is simple but nutritiously balanced,” says Kumar, a busy mother who often spends long days on shoots, and whose children request snacks of idiyappam (rice string hoppers), vada (crispy lentil fritters) and puran poli (thin flatbreads stuffed with jaggery and coconut).

“Going vegetarian is easy in Chennai,” says former California-native Emily Walker who resided a year in the city, establishing communications for an international human rights N.G.O.  “Like most of India, the majority of the population is Hindu and most eat vegetables daily. So there’s a wide array of delicious vegetarian dishes with many gorgeous flavours. I enjoyed lots of dosa, paneer Madras, paneer vindaloo— spicy, spicy!” she says. Along with dosa and spongy steamed cakes called idli, with its roots in Udupi, she joined the locals in eating rice every day, and drinking mango lassi, coconut water and refreshing lime juice.

Building Flavours

The basic South Indian flavour base comprises onions, garlic, ginger and tomato and the masala component of chillies, cumin, fennel, pepper and fenugreek. These flavours: pungent, sour and salty, balanced with dairy, and the encyclopaedic variety of curried vegetables, as well as the thin, fiery soups, like rassam and sambar, keep the palate enthralled. Flavoured rice (Kumar regularly makes cumin and tamarind rice) and substantial rice-based staples like idli, as well as crisp and crunchy poppadums fill out the meals. Coconut and mango chutneys, salty lime pickles and relishes, are, as they are all over India, essential to a meal. Coconut is a staple feature in South Indian cookery – a reason meals must be prepared freshly each day, and cannot be recycled or refrigerated. The coconut, Krishnan says, separates and spoils.

Snack time, anytime

South Indian snacks

South Indian snacks

All across south India, snacks aren’t just treats or fillers. Often they’re substantial enough to comprise a meal. Kumar takes me to the canteen at Sri Krishna Sweets, a snack shop or “hotel”, as they’re known, for onion pakodas, ammini kozhukattai (tiny rice balls covered in fresh grated coconut), savoury paniyaram (fried spheres made of leftover idli batter) and mor kali – rice flour and buttermilk squares. Office workers arrive in drones, ordering large platters. Here, I taste the cold version of thengai paal payasam, an ambrosial fresh coconut and jaggery drink. Most of the edible foil-crowned sweets (called sweetmeats) on display are made of thickened condensed milk or cashew nuts, intriguingly resembling marzipan. These little blocks pair excellently with the local Madras coffee, or a glass of coconut water.

colourful outfits

Madras Coffee

“We South Indians can not survive without a cup of coffee,” says Krishnan earlier, and Kumar demonstrates how to cool the coffee or kaapi, pouring it from a height to create a bubbling froth. Kaapi is made by mixing a decoction of strong filter coffee with plenty of hot milk. Unlike chai, Chennaites won’t dream of adding any spices to their brew, says Kumar. Looking over her portfolio of recipes, I know that a bowl of decadent paal kozhukattai (rice dumplings in coconut milk) with my kaapi, would be the ideal, though bittersweet farewell to Chennai, city of my ancestors.



  • South Africans require a visa to visit India.
  • SAA flies daily to Chennai, with a stop in Abu Dhabi, from R 7 900 pp, return.




  • The Leela Palace: www.theleela.com,
    Adyar Seaface, M.R.C Nagar
  • Taj Coromandel, 37, Mahatma Gandhi Road, Nungambakkam www.tajhotels.com/luxury/city-hotels/taj-coromandel-chennai/overview.html
Print Friendly, PDF & Email