Chennai again drew me to a forgettably convenient meal at Saravana Bhavan. I find the food utterly pedestrian, but somehow the sheer convenience of this Wal-Mart of Udipis sneaks me in. Yes, they have every kind of food on earth - I noticed Lebanese and fusion this time (vegetarian is probably the only reason sushi is left out). Unfortunately, its all fairly dull routine stuff. Not incompetent, but about as exciting as a Michael Jackson rendition of Bach to a western classical fan.
Luckily, that’s not all I ate in Chennai. My visits to Chennai aren’t very frequent, but I’ve noticed on my last few trips an increasing proliferation of signs announcing biryani. Unlike Mumbai (where nearly every eatery offers biryani right next to manchurian in an encyclopaedia of a menu) these places headlining it, staking its reputation and business model on the mutton and chicken variants of this one dish. All very interesting for the biryani lover.
It was this in mind that I got my host of the day to take me to a biryani place for lunch. We headed into Triplicane, which I was told was the Muslim heart of Chennai, and promptly encountered clusters of biryani signboards, each offering mutton, chicken, veg and a few other variants. They all seemed to dole out the stuff from these huge aluminium degchis in the front. I was guided to what was supposed to be the best known – Thalappakattu Biryani, right on the main road and bustling with customers and noticeably more prosperous than some of the others. It turned out to be a chain too, about 14 branches all over Chennai.
We ordered a classic mutton biryani each, and were promptly handed a plastic tv-dinner plate with baingan pachadi and onions coated with yoghurt (basically a dry onion raita). The biryani itself came, somewhat intriguingly, in plastic cello-like casseroles, one per person. Each portion comes with a boiled egg.
Now to the meat of the matter – the biryani itself was indeed quite good. Its the dry fragrant lucknow-calcutta style made with Basmati, not the curryrice mumbai style that is the despair of so many true biryani lovers. The bustling place does incredibly well – we got the last plates of mutton and even chicken was nearly empty by the time I took the photograph. They also have a special version (couldn’t figure the difference out) and a Moglay version that has eggs scrambled in to the rice in addition to the boiled egg. Stick to the classic, is my advice.
My host explained the origin of the rather odd name thus – Thalappakattu means headgear in Tamil. It supposedly comes from the traditional habit that biryani vendors had of tying the biryani pots with their headgear when putting the biryani on dum. My friend is convinced this is a traditional Triplicane biryani joint, and this headgear thing is how they have done it for decades – he’s been having it since childhood, he says. When I asked, however, the man at the counter told me the shop was thirty years old – still in the decades but not quite as old as all that. The website, interestingly, says “since 1990” while the newspaper articles say the chain was started in 2004. Ah, the powers of branding…
A little googling dug up some intrigue – Thalappakatti Naidu Biriyani Hotel from Dindigul founded in 1957, not affiliated with the Chennai variant, claims to be the origin of the stuff. The single Dindigul shop is supposedly quite famous, counting politicians and actors such as Sivaji Ganesan as regulars. They also have a more convincing story about the name – apparently the owner used to wear a headdress to hide his bald pate, and was therefore nicknamed Thalappakatti Naidu (hence the name of the eatery). The Chennai version, on the other hand, was started in Koyambedu by a young entrepreneur called Hashnas from Kerala less than a decade ago, in 2004 (the 1990 on the website refers, I think, to the original non-biryani restaurant his father ran). Hashnas seems to have no obvious connection to either headgear or chennai’s version of biryani – his father ran a highway eatery in Payoli in Kerala. However, given the current rash of biryani places in Chennai claiming to be headgear related, I must say Hashnas has done a wonderful job of brand building.
Of course, the Dindigul original sued, and the courts finally decided to let both exist, so now the Chennai variant is called Chennai Rawther Thalappakattu Biryani (Rawther, in case you’re wondering, is a community of Tamil Muslims). The Dindigul version, meanwhile, has just opened a Chennai branch so now you can find out for yourself which one is the original – and more importantly – which one is better. A key point of difference is that the Dindigul one uses Seeragasamba rice (a native Tamil rice that I’ve been told absorbs flavours very well and so is great for biryani); the Chennai upstart meanwhile uses regular north-indian basmati.
Let the wars begin…