How Chennai’s migrants gave the city its iconic street food havens

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A melting pot of migrants, Chennai is home to myriad communities who have given the city some iconic street foods, from bread butter bun to hand-churned ice cream. This Madras Day, we pay tribute

As locals, we know what to order at Chennai’s most iconic restaurants and food stalls. Over years of sitting at their tables, we have also learnt the stories behind these spaces. This Madras Day, we meet the faces behind the spaces: people who moved to Chennai from other States and towns, worked hard and created institutions that now define the flavours of this city.

How Chennai’s migrants gave the city its iconic street food havens

Thanjavur Military Hotel, Park Town

For KK Gangadharan, it is a matter of pride to hold on to a legacy that his great grandfather created many years ago. Many years ago, Kattayan Chettiar made the journey from Kothattai near Chidambaram to Madras in search of new opportunities in the city.

He married the daughter of the founder of Kattayan Hotel. Now named Thanjavur Military Hotel, to emphasise its “non veg meals,” it still operates from the same single room that can seat about six people at a time. Well before live cooking and chefs’ tables became popular, here, the kitchen and dining area merged into each other, and customers have always been able to enjoy watching their dinner being prepared.

A staunch traditionalist, Gangadharan has stuck to his roots and little has changed here over the decades. He still likes to calculate customers’ bill using a slate and pencil, the way it has always been done.

How Chennai’s migrants gave the city its iconic street food havens

The menu includes a popular meat and rice preparation, which he specifies is a pulao and not biryani. “The pulao masala’s main ingredients are green chillies and garlic. It is made in a copper handi which gives it a distinct taste,” says Gangadharan, adding that it is accompanied by mutton gravy.

Thanjavur Military Hotel is one of the few places in the city that serves a non-vegetarian meal as early as 8.30 am. Their customer game is strong, with loyal diners across generations. However, as the clientele got younger and business became more competitive, Gangadharan realised that his menu needed new additions. This is when his popular kari dosai and naatu kozhi fry were added.

Address: 75, New No.60, Old Rasappa Chetty Street, Park Town.

Contact: 044-25330955

How Chennai’s migrants gave the city its iconic street food havens

Gopaul Diary, George Town

For many students who have studied in the vicinity, Gopaul Diary is an emotion. K Pramod, who is the third generation owner, beams with happiness when he mentions how their oldest customers still come to their shop, often with grandchildren in tow. One of Pramod’s best memories, in fact, is when an octogenarian visited along with two grandsons, who brought him as visiting Gopaul Diary was his last wish.

The little outlet was launched about 75 years ago when V Venkatraman moved from his home in Bavani Sagar, Erode, to Chennai, looking for job opportunities. He quickly realised that selling “bun butter jam” to the Anglo-Indians in the area was a practical way to earn a steady income.

He began with two items on the menu, and the format has never been changed. Venkatraman’s son, V Krishnaraja, who is now 65 years old, took over the business next. And, nine years ago his son, K Pramod, began to help him run the business.

How Chennai’s migrants gave the city its iconic street food havens

Pramod fondly recollects how during his grandfather’s time their popular bun, slathered with creamy Uthukuli butter and jam, sold for one rupee. Over the years it gradually went up to ₹10, and is now ₹25.

Their small studio space is always busy with locals in the morning and they are usually sold out by 1 pm. Pramod is attached to both Chennai and his customers: “We have seen cyclones, storms, tsunami and the pandemic,” he says. “But, people here have always helped me bounce back.”

Address: 3, Philips Street, Parry’s Corner, George Town.

Contact: 9952954965

How Chennai’s migrants gave the city its iconic street food havens

Kunhiraman General Stores, Royapuram

When C Kunhiraman moved to Chennai from Kozhikode to start a small departmental store in 1925, it quickly became a shopping hub for the Anglo-Indian community in the area.

The department store, selling provisions, got busier when he decided to sell juices from a special counter inside the shop, about 75 years ago. Then, 40 years later, he introduced the ice cream that made the shop famous.

Akilesh Baskran, Kunhiraman’s grandson, now runs the store along with his cousin Lakshmi Vasu, the granddaughter of the founder. Even today, their ice creams are churned out from their own unit behind their shop, following an old fashioned ‘hard ice cream method’ as opposed to the popular soft serve technology. They are popular for selling mango ice cream through the year, made from tinned pulp.

How Chennai’s migrants gave the city its iconic street food havens

Akilesh says there was a lull when many Anglo-Indians moved out of the locality. Fortunately, social media made Kunhiraman popular again and people started travelling from across the city to get photographed digging into a scoop, and post with #Kunhiraman.

Address: N Terminus Road, Chetty Thottam, Royapuram.

Contact: 044-25904889

Trouser Thatha Kadai, Mylapore

In 1977 R Rajendiran travelled to Chennai for the first time, from Vilampatti (Virudhunagar) for his daughter’s medical treatment.

Faced with mounting bills, he launched a little stall serving simple food as a means for income to support his daughter’s medical expenses. Set in the heart of Mylapore, the place became popular for the non-vegetarian food it served.

Even today, he insists on cooking the same way he did when he began, using hand ground masalas and wood fires.

Rajendiran, thoughtfully recollects how, in 1985, he changed the name to Kamakshi Mess from Arunagiri Mess though he does not remember exactly why. However locals, who became loyal customers over the years, came up with another name: since Rajendiran wore shorts as he cooked meals, they fondly started calling it the “Trouser Kadai”.

How does he stay the course? He answers with a single word, “Patience”. He adds that life and business have not always been easy, but patience has paid off. That and hard work. Although his sons R Vijaya Raj and R Ramesh now manage the restaurant, in the kitchen, with just one assistant, Rajendran is still cooking.

Address: 107, 56, Ramakrishna Mutt Road, Jeth Nagar, Mandaveli.

Contact: 9884380470

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