Chennai music season is back, much to the delight of rasikas as well as serial canteen hoppers. As per Marghazhi tradition, festive canteens spring up at the venues offering tiffin, elaborate lunches and filter coffee from 7am till 11pm.
With venues shuttered by the pandemic, concerts went online in 2020 and 2021. Though a couple of canteens opened at venues last year, the mood was subdued with an emphasis on masks and takeaway. This year, sabhas are buzzing again, with caterers and audiences grateful for this return to a normalcy we once took for granted, along with cups of steaming hot filter coffee and elaborate ela saapad (traditional South Indian wedding feast served on a banana leaf). The big hit this year is the traditional South Indian wedding feast.
At Sri Parthasarathy Swamy Sabha, at Beema Sena Garden Road, Arusuvai Arasu Catering is in charge of the canteen. “We are back in the sabha scene after a decade, and we want to keep up to the expectations of the rasikas,” says N Sridhar, son of the legendary wedding caterer, the late Arusuvai Arasu Natarajan, who is at the helm of affairs. Their lunch, served on a “royal gold plate,” as they call it, draws large crowds despite the lack of parking space and inevitable queues. “We include some of our father’s signature items such as kovakkai (ivy gourd) curry, bitter gourd roast, yam fry, pachadis,” says Soumya Ramesh, daughter of Natarajan. In the evenings, try their variety of dosas and kuzhipaniyarams Thattu idli, potato bonda, and an array of halwa are the highlights over here.
R Vijaykumar, son of wedding caterer V Ramachandran of VR Catering Services, Ullagaram, is working round the clock. (He says he gets barely three hours of sleep a day right now). He has bagged the opportunity to operate the canteen at the prestigious The Music Academy this year, for the first time. Here too, ela saapad, is a major crowd-puller, with the team serving customers in an efficient, seamless rhythm. “My father was in the catering business for over four decades, and we thrived. So even though I did my MBA in finance, I took over the business from him,” says Vijaykumar. Work begins at 3.30am, with his staff of 75 boiling milk, preparing coffee decoction, and cooking a breakfast of mostly idli, dosa, pongal and vada.
“In the evenings we offer traditional items such as puttu, kozhukattai and idiyappam,” says Vijaykumar, adding “Every day we prepare one Chettinad-style kulambu and one type of kozhukattai.” VR Caterers is known for its payasam, and they offer a variety, including idichi pizhinja payasam or chadachadayam (payasam made by pounding and grinding coconut and squeezing the milk), coconut and rice payasam and kadala payasam.
“I don’t make chakka pradhaman as jackfruit is not in season. I believe in sourcing local and preparing seasonal vegetables. Just for sake of novelty, I don’t use vegetables and fruits that are not in season. Going seasonal has its advantages,” says Vijaykumar.
At Narada Gana Sabha on TTK Road, Sri Saasthalya Catering Services is focussing on mini meals. “This includes three types of rice, one vegetable, one sweet, papad, and pickles,” says K. Ramesh, proprietor. He adds, “This year, our live Chettinad counter is doing roaring business until midnight.”
The canteen is popular for Chettinad vella paniyaram, kuzhipaniyaram and adai, served with avial. “Due to popular demand we make idlis for breakfast and dinner, and offer it with Kumbakonam kadappa (a coconut milk based gravy made with a mix of vegetables, moong dal and spices). Our signature khoa jangri and Asoka halwa are available on all days,” he adds. “As food tastes best when eaten hot and fresh, I dissuade people from taking parcels through delivery services.”
Sabha canteens: The ultimate guide
Even when the other Sabha canteens did not function for the past two years due to the pandemic, RK Venkatesan of Sastha Catering Services, Porur, operated the canteen at the Mylapore Fine Arts Club, Mylapore. “This is my sixth year in the Sabha canteen, and this year the number of takeaways is less as more people prefer to dine in,” he says, adding, “We also have set up a canteen at Kalakshetra for the first time this year, and over there it is only evening tiffin and dinner.” Try their idli with v ada curry, for breakfast, and in the evening, their vethala (betel leaf) bajji. New launches this year are strawberry kesari, ginger kesari and lychee basundi.
All these caterers take pride in the coffee they serve, and since coffee is an integral part of the meal here, they control the bean sourcing, and roasting. Though the competition is fierce, of all the canteens we tried, we enjoyed the coffee at The Music Academy the most. Perhaps because we could relax over a cup while listening to live concerts in progress on the stage, just a door away, soaking in that familiar joyous Marghazhi mood again.