Nungambakkam High road @ Sterling road
V and I are back from our world travels - Singapore, Cambodia and India. Every single time, my eyes moisten as the wheels of the plane touch down on beloved Maatrubhoomi, but the nostalgia gets a cold water douse as soon as I witness the utter madness and chaos at the Chennai airport. Maneuvering a successful pickup at the airport is a Herculean task; kudos to you if you have ever done it without losing your luggage, your dupatta, your kid (if you have one), or your temper!
There is a lot to talk about food-wise in our trip, but more about food in Cambodia and Munnar (Kerala) in a later post. Will focus on Madras (as Chennai was formerly known) in this one.
In summary, food in Madras was awesome as far as Amma's kitchen was concerned. This time, she even outdid her normally superlative gotsu, kathrikkaai saadam, vaazhakkaai podimaas, and Iyengar mor-kozhambu. However, regarding food outside Amma's kitchen, the lesser said the better. Madras' restaurant scene hasn't grown up at all. Could this be because the average Madrasi would choose to eat plain and simple thayir saadam at home anyday, rather than seek out a new trendy chaat place like a Delhi-ite might? Or did we just not have access to information? I don't beleive that since we read both the Hindu and the Times of India religiously and even tapped our young cousins working at Infosys for pointers. If someone has better ideas, we would love to hear about it before our next visit to Madras.
However, on the cultural front, Madras filled our hearts to the brim. Since our pilgrimage fell bang in the middle of "katcheri" season (annual Classical music festival), we got to pick two singers we were dying to hear live - Bombay Jayashri and TM Krishna. Apparently Indra Nooyi enjoys her curd rice and katcheri too! Also, V took me to his favorite "Kapaaleeswarar" kovil in Mylapore, which is the center of the world to V. What a glorious temple, bang in the middle of a buzzling city?! I was humbled at first glance.
Coming back to food - after reading about it in Chetan Bhagat's "Two states- the story of my marriage", V recommended that we swing by "Amethyst" for lunch one day. We were quite impressed by the setting - a well-preserved heritage house converted in to a casual restaurant. We only saw foreigners when we walked in and soon discovered why. The rather sparse and uninspired menu items had outrageous prices attached to them. We walked out quickly and went to the Chinese restaurant at the food court at Spencers which also sucked big-time. (The trip wasn't wasted though - we picked up Chandra Padmanabhan's new vegetarian cookbook "Simply South" at Landmark bookstore at Spencers.) One other day, V and I went to "Mathura" on Mount road after a concert, and decided that we wouldn't wish that experience even on our worst enemy.
After all these horrible experiences, finally a day before our return, V and I finally had our first positive restaurant experience. V had already been to Sanjeevanam before, but it was my first time and my parents' too. It was funny how Appa was quite reluctant to try the restaurant because it touts itself as a "health restaurant". He protested that he didn't want to pay someone to feed him diet food since Amma forces him to eat it at home anyway. Besides, he said, who could make diet food taste as good as Amma did - hmmm, was that a compliment? Despite this, we did go and all of us, including dad thoroughly enjoyed the food.
Food at Sanjeevanam is prepared naturally in earthen, copper and bronze vessels using fresh ingredients. Salt and spices are used sparsely, allowing the natural flavors of the vegetables to come through. Attention is paid to the order in which food is served; water is served only at the very end. Food is served on a banana leaf, considered to both enhance the flavors as well as the nutrition in the food, and eaten with bare fingers.
The first course consisted of five types of juices served in shot glasses, meant to be consumed in this order - Dates juice, Nuts milk, Vegetable clear soup, Buttermilk, Bran rice water.
After this came a row of uncooked vegetables (sprouted green gram, cucumber, carrots and beets). Following this was a row of partially cooked vegetables (banana flower, green chutney, and others) and finally came a row of cooked vegetables (bitter gourd, okra, and others). Coconut was used liberally as a garnish for some vegetables. One could ask for as many servings of these vegetables as one could handle. My dad really liked the "oorugaai" - which was a rather interesting concoction of minced raw mango, raw beet and carrots. I loved the banana flower curry, which is impossible to find in the US anyway. For the main course, first some red rice was served with cooked daal. Then regular steamed white rice was served with sambar, mor-kozhambu, rasam, and buttermilk. Dessert was a cup of paayasam. Finally you held your palm out for a dollop of honey which is supposed to aid in digestion.
We all left quite happy and light from Sanjeevanam. I don't remember how much it cost, but I am sure it was not more than Rs. 150 (less than $4) per person. We got there around 12:15pm for lunch, and were able to get a table of our choice, but it got very crowded just a few minutes later. Service was slow but we let it slide since it was Christmas day and they only had two people to wait on all the tables.
On our way out, we stopped at their store and stocked up on some natural soaps, health drink mixes, turmeric, ginger tea and other natural products. Sanjeevanam also offers ayurvedic massages - something to consider when we go next time!