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Aroma from Karaikudi

The famed Ponnuswamy Chettinad Hotel of Chennai is here. And you can't get that elusive flavour at home, however hard you try



The spread includes specialties such as crab masala, sora puttu, kaadai 65, rabbit roast, pigeon roast, and biryani. — Photo: Murali Kumar K.

V. PONNUSAWMY'S branch of Chennai's famed Ponnuswamy Chettinad chain of restaurants is in Bangalore. Velupillai, who set it up initially, was selling salt before he learned to cook. He later set up a mess which he ran with his wife's help (she would grind the masalas). Today, it is more than the mess and the grind. Fine Chettinad cuisine from Chennai has come here, another confirmation of our city's penchant for food. The restaurant inter alia serves meat and poultry such as rabbit, pigeon, quail, and shark. Visitors from here liked the exotica in Chennai so much it prompted the Ponnuswamy management to set up the restaurant here, on Residency Road.

Chennai chapter

Many Bangaloreans on a visit to Chennai dine at the 50-year-old Ponnuswamy's restaurant for a bite of authentic Chettinad delicacies. Often their fellow diners would be the likes of Rajnikanth, Vikram, Vijay, Surya, Trisha, Rathi, even Dr. Rajkumar and his family. The food that won over greats like MGR and Sivaji Ganesan in Chennai, continues to entice clients like that and from outside the country including Dubai and Malaysia.

Mr. Ponnuswamy's father A.R. Velupillai set up the establishment first in 1952, feeding just four mouths. Two years later, he set up a full-fledged eatery, Ponnuswamy Hotel. Mr. Velupillai had learnt the art of making Chettinad food from a friend in his hometown, Karaikudi, which along with Virudhunagar is known for producing the best Chettinad chefs. After Mr. Velupillai death in 1989, his sons ensured the hotel would run its course. And now brothers, V. Ganesan, V. Ponnusamy, and V. Solai run the chain. Mr. Ponnuswamy has brought with him two expert chefs with over 20 years' experience from Karaikudi for the branch here.

A typical Chettinad house façade welcomes you in yellow and orange. The wooden panelling for windows and antique pillars brought from Tamil Nadu lends that homey feel.

Since its inauguration in Januaryby the eldest of the brothers, Mr. Ganesan, the restaurant has almost always been full at its capacity of 90.

Chettinad food is typically spicy and aromatic. Though chillies are liberally thrown in, the proportions don't come in the way of enjoyment of the food. A sprinkling of preserved, sun-dried legumes and berries give a special character to the fish, meat, and fowl dishes. Green plantain leaves make the food appetising. The paan and plantain after the meal make for a total Chettinad experience. Mr. Ponnuswamy says once customers eat at his restaurant, they feel they've dined at a Chettinad wedding.

The culinary adventure includes specialties such as crab masala, sora puttu (shark) kaadai 65 (quail), rabbit roast, pigeon roast and biryani. The non-vegetarian meal consists of rice, chicken, mutton and fish gravy for just Rs. 55.

The vegetarian meal has rice, khara kolumbu, more kolumbu, sambar, rasam, buttermilk and three kinds of vegetables, of which two are poriyals and one is a koottu (the vegetable is different each day), papad and pickle (the garlic pickle is a must-try), all for Rs. 50, and the food is unlimited.

Mutton chukka, a signature dish of the Ponnuswamy restaurants since its inception, comes in the style it first appeared in the '50s. Mr. Ponnusamy says customers try this at home and come back and tell him they just can't get that "elusive flavour". The dish is made up of about 15 pieces of mutton, not big chunks. The dry item goes well with white rice. Spices and a certain masala are added to the chunks that are fried for a short time. This comes for just Rs. 55.

Boneless chicken, another item on the top of the menu is most sought-after and is unique to the restaurant. This chicken dish was an instant hit with the late MGR who would eat it twice a week. Mr. Ponnuswamy says they experimented by tearing apart the chicken pieces (pichaputtu koli), which became an instant hit. It comes in small pieces at Rs.70 a plate and again goes well with white rice. In Chennai, up to 85 plates of the dish are sold a day.

The other Chettinad specialties are thalakari, liver fry, kidney fry, fish kozhambu, viral fish fry and kozahmbu, nethili fry, paya (trotters) offered only in the evening. The mutton kola (kheema ball) is in the right proportion and the minced kheema is fried just right.

Biryani

Six types of biryanis, all endowed with a subtle flavour are like what one eats at a Karaikudi house. Don't let the light-coloured biryani mislead you into thinking it is insipid. The mutton biriyani, chicken, egg, country chicken, prawn and plain biriyani here are proof that the food need not be spicy to be tasty. The onion and cucumber raitha and the gravy accompanying it make for a wholesome experience. The boneless mutton biriyani goes down very well too.

The crab masala, minus or with the shell, is a good combination with white rice. And the vathral kozhumbu has that stamp of Chettinad.

There's more: idli, idiyappam, egg kothu paratha, chicken kothu paratha, mutton kothu paratha, dosai, egg dosai, egg uthapam, appam, egg appam and paper roast. One can try the idle and idiyappam with paya or fish gravy. The sambar and chutney served with tiffin have that Chettinad flavour.

Country chicken biriyani at Rs. 85 is a plate is out of this world. Mr. Ponnusamy says the spices and masalas that go into the preparation of various food items are recipes they have been following since their father's day, right down to the minuscule proportion. One must taste the egg dishes, especially the egg podimas.

The restaurant plans branches at Koramangala and Indiranagar. Ponnusamy Hotels is at 93, Residency Road. For details, call 25550477. Lunch is served between noon and 4 p.m. and dinner, 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.

  • Ambience: Authentic Chettinad
  • Service: Good
  • Specialty: Everything
  • Wallet factor: Rs. 250 for a meal for two

    M.V. CHANDRASHEKAR

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