As I explore the heaving lanes of George Town, I pass ramshackle stalls piled high with fresh coconuts and gigantic watermelons, and shop windows filled with colourful sarees and glittering faux gems. Cars, scooters, rickshaws and bicycles compete for every inch of available road, zigzagging around sacred cows and seemingly fearless pedestrians to a soundtrack of blasting horns.
In 1639, a fishing village on the Coromandel Coast on India’s Southeastern shore became Madras, a fortified trading post established by the British East India Company. Renamed Chennai, it’s now India’s fourth largest city: a sprawling, chaotic metropolis and a fascinating mix of ornate Hindu temples, neo-Gothic Portuguese churches and British Raj-era edifices.
What it lacks in major sights, it makes up for in its kitchens. Tamil Nadu’s increasingly cosmopolitan capital is at the forefront of South India’s culinary scene, and you can find a take on its characteristically spicy dishes everywhere, from street stalls to fine-dining restaurants.
Chennai may be rapidly changing but it’s keeping its long-held food traditions. I began the day with a typical breakfast at the luxurious ITC Grand Chola, which included some of the city’s most popular dishes: the unpretentious idli, a steamed fluffy rice cake that’s delicious served hot with sambar (a spicy mix of lentils, tamarind and spices) and coconut chutney, and dosas, savoury crepes made with rice batter and black lentils. And for those with a sweeter tooth, there are doughnut-like lentil vadas.
Fort St George was the city’s original settlement and soon grew into a base for merchants, starting life as Black Town, a place where Indians sold everything from the exotic to the mundane to the Europeans who lived in White Town.
I explored George Town’s historic bazaars with Akila Raman from Storytrails. As we walked, she pointed out multi-hued mounds of aromatic spices – turmeric, cardamom and peppercorn, used to make fiery masalas, or sauces; blocks of jaggery, a traditional unrefined sugar used to balance the heat of spicy foods, and the amla or Indian gooseberry, with twenty times as much vitamin C as oranges.
Akila also shared insights as intriguing as the produce. Rice may be the staple food of India, but it’s also part of a colourful southern Indian custom, the kolam. “The design that’s painstakingly drawn in the front of every house each day is made of rice flour and is meant to feed little creatures like ants and sparrows, as well as welcome prosperity in to the home,” she told me.
Further south along the coast, Mylapore is one of the city’s oldest and most traditional districts. Begun in the 7th century, the Dravidian architecture of the ornate Kapaleeswarar Temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, and its rainbow-hued, 120-foot gopuram, or tower, and pillared pavilions rise majestically above the neighbourhood’s more humble dwellings.
Food plays an important role in Hindu worship and coconuts are one of the most common offerings in South Indian temples. Some worshippers break a coconut on the temple grounds: “The hard shell symbolises the head, specifically the ego. When it’s cracked open to reveal the pure flesh, it signifies that the ego is broken and the person is ready to begin their prayers,” Akila explained.
The women were dressed in their finest sarees, some with turmeric paste on their faces to protect them from the sun, others with sweet-scented jasmine blossoms woven into their thick black plaits. Temples are also places to socialise and indulge in vegetarian treats from hole-in-the-wall kitchens, such as tamarind rice, bondas (potato balls) and bajjis (vegetable fritters).
The Royal Vega restaurant at the ITC Grand Chola has an all-vegetarian kitchen. With solid silver platters, sparkling chandeliers and heavy silk drapes, it recreates the opulent dining styles of erstwhile Indian royalty, when extravagant parties were the norm and a banquet could have up to 200 different dishes on the menu.
I ate with world-renowned chef Manjit Gill, Corporate Chef of ITC Hotels – a gastronomic guru in his bright red trademark turban. Gill has been a strict vegetarian all his life. He’s also incorporated ancient Ayurvedic principles in to his cooking.
“There are six seasons in India, five elements – air, fire, water, earth and either – and six complex tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent. Each taste has a direct energetic effect on digestion, creating either a heating or a cooling sensation,” he explained.
With a passion for Indian culinary traditions and slow food, Gill has successfully adapted classic dishes for the luxury market, without losing any of their authenticity and the Khaasa menu, which took three years to put together, is fit for a maharaja.
We began with anardaana raita: muddled pomegranate kernals and mint folded into thick creamy curd, lightly seasoned with rock salt and freshly roasted cumin, before feasting on breads like pithi poori – home-milled wholewheat flatbread stuffed with black lentils, spiced with ground coriander seeds, fennel and red chili, and fried in desi ghee, or clarified butter; artisan tomato-flavoured paneer cheese delicately spiced with dry fenugreek, and baked guava stuffed with grapes, roasted pine nuts and crumbled khoya cheese.
To the west, Bengaluru – formerly known as Bangalore – in the state of Karnataka, is India’s answer to Silicon Valley. It may have grown into a skycraping city of over 10 million people, but the country’s Garden City has preserved its historic green spaces, including the vast Cubbon Park, and the Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens.
It’s also kept its colonial-era heritage. The Bangalore Palace, built by a Wadiyar King in 1887 and inspired by Windsor Castle, comes complete with Tudor beams, Gothic windows, turrets and battlements.
As sophisticated as the city may be, many locals still visit the market every day to buy fresh vegetables, fruit, meat and fish. And there’s a coffee shop on every corner – the famed South Indian kaapi, or filter coffee, is even more popular than tea. The majority of India’s coffee is grown in the southern states and the beans are often planted alongside spices, such as cinnamon and cardamom, giving it a distinct taste. In Karnataka it’s always made with milk and sugar and poured repeatedly from a great height to create a frothy head.
Dating from 1924, the Mavalli Tiffin Rooms – or MRT, as it’s better known – is a Bangalorean institution and one of the city’s oldest restaurants. It’s claimed that the founder invented the iconic rava idli, made with semolina rather than rice, and the restaurant still serves up classic vegetarian specialties. The thali, the round platter on which various dishes are served, is at the heart of South Indian cuisine, and I tried a combination of flavours, textures and colours – spicy sambar, flavoured rice, flatbreads, tangy chutneys and cooling curd – served in small bowls on top of a fresh banana leaf, in a nod to the time when the leaf was used as a plate.
Of course not all Indian dishes are vegetarian and at K&K, the sleek restaurant at the ITC Gardenia hotel, Executive Chef Yogen Datta showcases heritage cuisine – kebabs, curries and biryanis – from clay ovens, iron tandoors and stone grills. Out of the open kitchen came the melt-in-the-mouth Mughal specialty, kakori kebab, made with finely ground minced lamb wrapped around a skewer; aromatic murgh angaar, grilled chicken marinated in ginger, garlic, fenugreek leaves and chilli, and grilled lamb chops marinated in fragrant herbs.
As Manjit Gill told me: “Trends come in and out of fashion, but traditions live forever. One always has the memory of traditions, and food lives in the memory.”
A double room at the ITC Grand Chola, a Luxury Collection hotel in Chennai,costsfrom £84 per night B&B.
A double room at the ITC Gardenia, a Luxury Collection hotel in Bengaluru, costs from £94 per night B&B, including butler service.
Fly direct from London Heathrow to Chennai and Bengaluru with British Airways.
Contact Storytrails India for fascinating walking tours of Chennai.