Right across the road from the Park Hotel are these big white letters on coca-cola red, once in 2D, once more in 3D; in other words, unmistakeable. I was finally face to face with the the Chennai branch of the injured party in the local biriyani wars.
Much as us outsiders insist on thinking of Chennai as veggie heaven, the city is actually teeming with biriyani joints – a feat attributed in no small part to the very successful Thalappakattu chain (the last letter of the spelling is critical here). In an earlier post almost exactly a year ago, I blogged about a quirky story of intrigue, marketing and myth-building around the popularity of biriyani in Chennai and its now-ubiquitous association with headgear (thalappa) – apparently two claimants presented themselves as the headgear trademark for biriyani. The battle between the Payyoli Rawther defender and the Dindigul challenger went to court, but seems finally to have been settled now with both parties left standing.
The Dindigul version (which to my mind has a more believable story to the headgear association) has been around since 1957, and they were not about to give up. They promptly opened up in Chennai and made sure that everyone new where they were the originally from – going from the original Anandha Vilas Biriyani Hotel to the simpler, pithier Dindigul Thalappakatti Restaurant. As of now, they have three large branches in the city and, as I will come to later, have established their own legendary tales.
The two biriyanis claim interesting origins. Rawther is an influential Muslim community from Kerala (where, oddly, they seem to be called Tamil Muslims) while Dindigul’s Hindu Naidu community originates from Andhra Pradesh and traces its roots to the Vijayanagar Empire. The Rawther variant uses basmati rice, while the Dindigul version makes much of its use of the native Jeergasamba (or seergasamba) rice, which they claim is superior for biriyani because it absorbs more flavours. Oddly, their website also talks about sourcing meat from particular breeds of cattle in the region; yet the Naidus are Hindu and there’s no beef on the menu.
Dindigul Thalappakatti is a moderately upmarket restaurant. Unlike the Rawther variant, this one was airconditioned, sported liveried waiters and plenty of interior ambience. A leather-clad menu continued the bright red colour scheme and biriyani, as expected, was given pride of place - the rice USP mentioned twice over. However, they’re not a pure biriyani place, for the menu is long and even reaches China. They’ve been able to build quite a legend around the rice, though – the two people who sat at my table were both articulate about the rice and its purported biriyani-superiority (they did say, however, that Ponnuswamy was better still).
Among the unusual items was a mutton rasam, which I decided would be a good pre-cursor to the biriyani. It turned out as expected, a spicy, peppery rasam with pieces of mutton floating about. The mutton biriyani landed up boneless (which is a little disappointing – I’m a great fan of bone in a biriyani) accompanied by onion raita, gravy and dalcha (a meat-stock toor dal with brinjals). Along with it came Neenju Curry Chops – a dry, peppery stir-fry of fatty mutton chops (ribs), onions and dhania. I must say, however, that a lot of the dishes sounded worthy of exploration.
And now the verdict. The biriyani was genuinely great, even without the bones. The Jeergasamba rice is chewy, flavourful and works very well as a biriyani rice. The Neenju Curry Chops were quite worth the calories too. Rasam wasn’t as mutton as I expected (I guess they don’t make the stock with mutton, just add the pieces at the end)
My personal opinion – Dindigul is better biriyani than Rawthers. Both are good biriyanis, but Dindigul definitely has something going for it.