A Tiffin Trail in Chennai

A morning spent eating at 4 iconic places in Chennai (Mylapore and Triplicane) - notes from the #ChennaiTiffinTrail

A Tiffin Trail in Chennai

When my friend Lakshmi went on a tiffin trail with Mr. Vasudevan last month, I was green with envy. Every update was sheer torture and I wanted to teleport myself from Bangalore to Chennai to get my hands on all that they were eating. So when we made Chennai plans for the long weekend, this was pretty much on top of mind. I was excited to go on a tiffin trail to these iconic eateries in and around Mylapore.

Vasu, who is @vasudevan_k on Twitter, conducts these food walks in the city and he was kind enough to keep some time aside on that Friday morning, for an extended breakfast session.

We made plans the previous evening, coordinating where to meet, where to start etc. and we decided meet up at 9am at Mylapore near the famous Kapaleeswarar Kovil. However, we reached earlier than planned, blame it on the lack of traffic jams in Chennai. Vasu asked us to go ahead and start off at the first stop - Karpagam Mess, also known as Karpagambal Mess, which is strategically located bang opposite Rasi Silks (ahem, shopping idea sneaked in there).

A Tiffin Trail in Chennai

As soon as you are seated, they place a piece of a banana leaf and a trio of sambar, coconut chutney and red chutney in front of you. You can have as much of the accompaniments as you like!

A Tiffin Trail in Chennai

He instructed us on phone to ask for Vendhaya Dosai, if it is available. This is a different kind of dosai _where fenugreek seeds (_vendhayam / methi) are soaked and ground into the dosa batter, giving it a unique flavour and golden colour. This dosai _is served with a unique side dish called _Vadai Curry, a sort of Kurma made using crumbled dal vadas.

A Tiffin Trail in Chennai

On questioning, our waiter informed us that the quantity of fenugreek seeds added to the batter is critical, too little and no flavour, too much and it turns too bitter and unappetising. He also said that vadai curry is served with this dosa because the fenugreek flavour sort of goes well with the kurma like flavours of the vadai curry, as against pairing it with regular chutneys and sambar.

The husband had a vadai and a masala dosa here, and a kaapi. The masala dosa was quite large in size with a ton of potato filling. Having an entire dosa each was a bad idea to start a tiffin trail as we soon realised, after all we were newbies to this whole food walk game. We were wondering what we would manage to eat in the following stops! Vasu joined us here and we soon left for the next stop on our tiffin trail.

P.S. Do try the Keerai Vadai here. I have had it in my earlier visit and it is crisp and delicious! Also, Marryam Reshi, the food writer, swears by their Molagapodi, which you can buy to take home.

A Tiffin Trail in Chennai

After a short walk through the busy lanes of Mylapore, we reached this nondescript place tucked away in the ground floor of a building. Thank goodness for the expert's company or we would have never quite found our way into this lane and the mess, which looked like the back entrance to a small home. Outside the mess, two wet grinders were working away at grinding the batter, one for idli / dosa and other was for dal.

A Tiffin Trail in Chennai

4 square tables, each seating 4, a total of 16 seats at Rayar's Mess, that's it! Vasu told us that on his food walks, he gives express instructions to the food-walkers (is this even a term!) not to spend too much time here, and share one dish among 3-4 people so that they can go inside in two quick batches. I can now understand why!

A Tiffin Trail in Chennai

It's just a small corridor kind of a space, at one end is the entrance and at the other, the meagre kitchen, where we could spot a huge vat of oil to fry the vadais and an equally gigantic idli steamer. It was a cramped place but quite neat and tiny and all 16 seats were occupied on a Friday morning. Check out their simple menu above.

A Tiffin Trail in Chennai

Their idlis are said to be epic. Between the husband and me, we ordered a pongal, which was studded with lots of whole black pepper corns. It was served with the usual coconut chutney and sambar, along with a unique green chilli chutney. I mustered the courage to taste a teeny bit and whoa it was potent. 

They have a sort of a modular billing system where you pay extra for podi, ghee, getti (thick) chutney, as their base pricing is quite less as compared to Karpagam Mess.

A Tiffin Trail in Chennai

Our third stop was to be Ratna Cafe at Triplicane, to which we drove down from Mylapore. As per Wikipedia, "Ratna Cafe or Triplicane Ratna Cafe was founded and established in 1948 by the Gupta family and particularly by Mr. TrilokNath Gupta, originally hailing from Mathura, UP". Their USP is their sambar-idli and boy was it good or what! Point of note was a special saucepan placed in front of diners to pour sambar over the idlis (or whatever else they order). While most hotels give you sambar in a small cup, these guys give you a vat full! Perfect for those who like to 'drink' their sambar.

A Tiffin Trail in Chennai

I found this special sambar serving saucepan only in the AC section, while the regular section had waiters moving around with a jug full of sambar and pouring liberally over everyone's plate of idlis and vadais.

A Tiffin Trail in Chennai

The filter coffee here was fairly good, but I liked the one at Karpagam Mess better.

A Tiffin Trail in Chennai

We had planned to visit only three places but we had some more time on hand and Vasu suggested that we round up the trip with a visit to Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane, just a short drive from Ratna Cafe. Vasu had Puliyogare (tamarind rice) and Chakkara Pongal (Sweet pongal) on his mind. Before descending on the prasadam counter, we decided to go around this 8th century temple, dedicated to Lord Krishna. Long queues thronged outside each shrine in the temple and many of the sections were fully air conditioned. Talk about praying in comfort :)

The prasadam counter was conveniently located as soon as you entered the temple, selling both freshly prepared hot prasadam and dry snacks. Photography was prohibited (well of course), so I just managed to sneak a photo of my favourite adhirasam and my not so favourite tenkuzhal in these glass counters. Apart from the p_uliyodharai and c_hakkarapongal _that Vasu got for Rs.10 each, I bought packets of t_hattai and adhirasam _to take home. Vasu's pro-tip is to take a couple of plastic spoons in your pocket, so you can eat the _prasadam without messing up the hands and move on to the next stop :)

A Tiffin Trail in Chennai

I ate one of the thattais after coming back home and let me say that I am never straying away from my mum's homemade thattai again. It wasn't the best thattai I've eaten, and adhirasam was just about ok. Forgive me gods, if this is blasphemy :D

A Tiffin Trail in Chennai

A word of gratitude to the Chennai weather gods for some awesome weather that morning. It started drizzling by the time we were hailing our Uber cab back from the beach, where Vasu dropped us.

In retrospect, we should not have eaten full dishes to start our trail at Karpagam Mess, but having run 12.5km that morning, I was ravenous and the dosai was so good that I couldn't stop myself.

Big thanks to Vasu sir for taking time out and taking us around. You should ping him on Twitter if you are keen on doing such food walks in Chennai. We restricted ourself to Mylapore and Triplicane as we were just 3 of us and there is only so much we can eat. In larger groups, you can go to more places and taste more items. Covering these 4 places took us roughly 2 hours.

Most of these places have varied working hours, for example, Rayar's Mess shuts at 9.30am. So do check the timings before you land up.

So that sums up our delightfully delicious morning doing the #ChennaiTiffinTrail. 

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