In Chennai's Sowcarpet, Street Food Holds Key To City's Past
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This article is part of Slurrp's Friday Food Walks.

THIS is ground zero. It was around this area that the city of Chennai as we know it took shape. It was Madras, and this is where the British established their first strategic outpost in India — Fort St. George in 1639. The area close to the fort went on to become the commercial nerve centre for the city with the Port of Madras as its very hub. Not far from the fort is George Town, a busy trading hub characterised by grid-like streets — like Victorian London where each street possessed its own niche or specialty wares. 

The opportunities in this busy port and city drew many settlers, including the first wave of Marwaris who moved here in the 19th Century. In the 1840s, the East India company moved its coin making facility to one of the main thoroughfares. It’s still known as Mint Street, except today it’s better known as a food hub. The Marwaris didn’t only leave their impact on trade and commerce but also influenced the culinary scene in an area that’s come to be known as Sowcarpet. It’s almost like a slice of Rajasthan in Chennai with Jain temples, tiny retail stores that sell colourful sarees and narrow alleys where pedestrians jostle for space with old-school cycle rickshaws and two-wheelers. Sowcarpet’s unique food culture adds to this vibe. From kachoris to frothy lassis to sinful badam milk, you can do a culinary trail of Rajasthan without leaving Chennai. 

This is one of the first street food districts in the city and worth the effort of walking through the crowds even on a humid Chennai day. But it’s not easy to navigate these busy streets even with Google Maps. Our quick guide might help: 

📍Maya Chats, Audiappa Naicken Street

There’s one thing you will hear from the owner and the team at Maya Chats — ‘no city does kachori better than Jodhpur’. They are clearly proud of their roots and the sweet mawa kachori (a Jodhpur specialty) is proof. It’s one of the only food stalls in Chennai that serves this scrumptious, sweet kachori. Their signature onion kachori is a bestseller. It tastes particularly delicious when it’s piping hot and fresh off the frying pan. You can unleash slow-mo mode when they toss dozens of kachoris into the frying pan. Regulars don’t just come back here for the kachoris. The paani puri, mirchi vada and the kachori chaat with curd are all house favourites.

📍Ajnabi Mithai Ghar, Elephant Gate Street

Ajnabi is a household name of sorts in Chennai for chaats, with multiple outlets across the city. Many of the outlets in Sowcarpet seek inspiration from street food trends in Mumbai, and Ajnabi is no exception. Their bhel poori is a local legend and I always make room for their fail-proof, spicy samosas served with their trademark chutneys. Like most other chaat outlets in the area, Ajnabi keeps innovating with new frequent updates to their menu. One of my favourites here is their khakra sandwich. Traditional bread slices make way for custom-made custom sandwich-bread style khakras that are slathered with cheese and stuffed with an eggless coleslaw-type filling with a layer of grated cheese. Think of these as a Sowcarpet version of tacos. 

📍Kakada Ramprasad, Mint Street

If you are a self-confessed ‘dessertarian’ like me, then you can’t leave Sowcarpet without a sweet stop at Kakada Ramprasad. Kakada has expanded its footprint with two more outlets in the city but old-timers still come back here. Kakada’s jalebis are time-tested and synonymous with this establishment that dates back to 1956. But that’s not the only reason I come back here. Most foodies in Chennai will agree that Kakada serves one of the best versions of badam milk in the city with an almond overload complemented with saffron strands. And then there’s their delicious kesar baati. Kakada is not just for your sweet tooth. Do check out their aloo tiki that’s dunked in a bowl of creamy dahi and crowned with a cube of paneer.

📍Novelty Tea House, Mint Street 

Another iconic brand in the Chennai chaat and snack scene, Novelty has multiple outlets across the city. I’d still recommend the trek to the Novelty in Sowcarpet for their hero dish that you will find on almost all tables — the pav bhaji. You can watch a knob of butter melt into the spicy bhaji. This is clearly not the spot for calorie counters. Wrap up your Novelty experience with a rose milk or their equally popular paan ice cream. The Tawa pulao is another popular option here. 

📍S Chinnappa Sandwich Centre, NSC Bose Road

I won’t recommend this place for the faint hearted. It’s not easy to find standing room here; it’s a busy part of Sowcarpet. But it’s one of the best spots to check out one of Sowcarpet’s very own innovations — the murukku sandwich. Murukku (in Tamil) literally translates to twisted. This is a clever twist on a classic  Mumbaiyya sandwich. It’s almost a happy meeting ground between Chennai and Mumbai. The murukkus (similar to chaklis) that are made with rice flour and Bengal gram double up as tiny slices of bread in this bite-sized sandwich that combine tiny pieces of cucumber, tomato and onion with mint chutney. A crunchy treat. 

📍Anmol Lassiwala, Mint Street

Quite a few street stalls in Chennai have been quick to harness the power of Instagram. The lassi wala at Anmol is a case in point. He’s happy to pose for the camera and brings a lot of flair to one of Chennai’s most popular lassis. Located next to Kakada Ramprasad, Anmol’s rich and creamy lassis feature a hint of saffron and can be overwhelming especially after an evening spent sampling Sowcarpet’s many treats.

(All photos except banner image by Ashwin Rajagopalan)