Madras taste makes way for Chennai flavour

ponnuswamy meals.JPG

Chennai: It is 17 years since our beloved Madras gave way to crackling Chennai, at about the same time that Bombay became Mumbai. In the near two decades since then there has been a sea change in the city’s landscape as well as in attitudes and lifestyles. On the city’s 374th birthday, old timers may still pine for Madras in the sense they yearn for those sedentary times when life was lived at an easier pace.  However, some of GenNext can afford to zoom around in zippy imported cars these days, even living life on the edge as in racing their bikes over weekends in busy Chennai.
Taste buds may change in people over the years but the feature of all great cities is the variety of food on offer. In the culinary sense, Chennai is a vast improvement on Madras although memories of youth would invest the Keera Vadai of Karpagambal Mess or the Rava Dosai of Rayar Café, two stalwart institutions of Mylapore, with as much taste as the feast of kings at the Royal Vega in Grand Chola where the Aloo Kesariya (potatoes cooked to perfection in a rich almond gravy, following a traditional royal recipe) is eminently eatable or the vegetarian sushi at the grand dining room in Velachery Westin from which the wasabi seems to go electrifyingly straight to the brain.
The choices available today are awesome compared to the rather restricted fare of the olden days. But the fun factor lent to the food a different taste, particularly the Masala Dosa with the butter floating on a small slice of banana leaf inside at the Woodlands Drive-In, numero uno haunt of the young and old from the ’70s well into the ’90s,.
That is not to forget the late night Idlis in Sambar at the 24-hour coffee shop at Dasaprakash on Poonamallee High Road. The same family also gave Chennai the delectable nut cutlet at Dasavin Dosa on Mount Road.
A late night meal at Buharis Mount Road was never complete without the item number 65 on the menu, which later became famous as Chicken 65, even if the vegetarians must confess that the bun-butter-jam was about the only thing that would easily get past sharp olfactory senses being invaded by the smells of meat floating all over the restaurant. So, boyhood eating contests had to be held in Woodlands on RK Salai or the Udupi Mathsya on Egmore high road in order to accommodate the ‘grass eaters’.
The Badam Halwa at Mylapore Club was worth drooling over, so too the Bread and Peas Masala at the Madras Cricket Club, a signature dish much reduced in its modern day avatar and tasting nothing like when we were young. 
Shanti Vihar in Luz served the best Bhel puri and such with that distinct Chowpathy taste. The late night vendors of Kulfi with the authentic North Indian taste seem to have joined the list of vanishing vocations. But then there is so much more to compensate these days for the forgotten tastes of yesteryear.
The Sundal of the Triplicane beach vendor had its unique appeal on the Marina although quite often you bought it only to drive away the distracting little fellow while romance promised to bloom nearby.  The unforgettable chilly powder-flaked sliced green mangoes and the sheer colour of the rose muttai (cotton candy) were highlights then of the city’s proud sands of the Marina.
It is a curse of age that the adventurousness of youth fades out year by year until generic food becomes standard fare. But don’t forget the huge choices available today for the occasional feast – the Lebanese rolls coming out of a Domino’s box, with that distinct waft of garlic, the pan crust pizzas to tickle the Italian taste buds, the authentic Gnocchi and Trimarisu at the Foccacia at the Hyatt on Mount Road or the culinary delights of at the Flying Elephant at the Park Hyatt.
Appams and stew at Dakshin in Park Sheraton and the Vadais at Sangeetha are city classics that defy age even as the Taj Coromandel now recreates the awesome and authentic tastes of yesteryear cooking at its brand new Southern Spice.
Those with a taste for Chinese cuisine had quite a deal of choice even in the old days but today’s fare simply defies the imagination with specialty restaurants catering to every possible taste. A city marches on its stomach, they say, and Chennai, as much as Madras used to, keeps moving on a satiated midriff.

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