Atho To Sundal; Exploring Chennai’s 7 Iconic And Famous Foods

While it is hard to pin point a specific kind of cultural influence that the cuisine in the city of Chennai really comprises of, one could identify with most of its popular south Indian comfort food offerings that the world normally associates with the culture; besides the usual fare of idlis, dosa, uttapams, pongal-vadai and kothu parottas that continue to be eaten widely, as staples across the city, some varieties of dishes continue to remain underrated but equally popular. Between a good mix of crowd favourites and what locals really enjoy, here’s a list of seven dishes that enjoy icon status.


In perhaps one of the city’s lesser-known pieces of food history, the Burmese atho – a noodle salad with julienned vegetables and a seasoning, sauce, the dish traces its origins back to the Burmese migrants who made the city their home in the 60s. Settled close to the beach and as a way of enjoying a light snack or meal to combat the city’s tropical weather, the atho is a colourful delicacy that is ideal for lazy evening snacking.

Idiyappam-Thengai Paal

Also known as string hoppers, idiyappam is a traditional South Indian and Sri Lankan delicacy made by pressing a rice flour based dough through a special press or sevai nazhi into thin noodles. These noodles are steamed and eaten for breakfast or as a light supper, typically served with slightly sweet coconut milk, spicy meat or fish curries and chutney.

Peanut Sundal

A popular snack to enjoy by the beach, boiled peanuts are seasoned with various spices, onions, tomatoes and fresh coriander. Besides the snackable version of the sundal, festive versions which are quite popular during Navratri and Ganesh Chaturthi, are made with a slew of beans and legumes tempered with mustard seeds, curry leaves and urad dal. This nutritious snack is a protein-rich take on the salad and ideally eaten on its own or as an accompaniment to drinks.


Boli – or what is known as puran poli in some regions of India, is a popular stuffed sweet flatbread eaten as tiffin – the South Indian version of an evening snack. Made with all-purpose flour, or a combination of wheat flour and maida, the stuffing typically consists of grated coconut flavoured with jaggery and cardamom powder. Some preparations also include a mashed lentil variation that is also sweetened with jaggery and cooked on a hot skillet with plenty of ghee.

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Mallipoo Idli

Mallipoo idli or malli idli, is an iconic breakfast take on regular idlis that are steamed with a few pods of fresh jasmine or mallipoo – giving the idlis its signature aroma. This delightful variation of idlis use fresh jasmine flowers to infuse the idli batter with their natural fragrance and flavour, which imparts a unique and subtle floral note to the idlis. A specialty dish that is not as common as regular idlis, these steamed rice cakes are often prepared for special occasions like weddings or festivals and eaten with the usual accompaniments of sambar and chutney.

Nethili Fry

Nethili fry, or nethili meen varuval is what can essentially classify as a bar snack. This seafood small plate made with small, silver-coloured fish known as nethili or Indian anchovies, is a flavorful and spicy fish fry that’s often served as an appetizer or side once the fish are coated in a spice mixture and left to before being pan-fried in hot oil until they become crispy and golden-brown.

Full Meals

A term used as a way of referring to a quintessential South Indian thali meal, the full meals in Chennai are a ‘mess’ concept that constitute rice, sambar, two or three vegetable preparations and buttermilk. Based on where you have a chance to enjoy full meals across the city, the elements may vary – some with the addition of meat dishes or a fully vegetarian affair, loaded with the classic flavours associated with South Indian cooking. Full meals are a cost-effective way of enjoying a variety of foods at a pocket-friendly price and usually enjoyed for lunch or dinner.