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Street food in swanky ambience

That's what the Thattukadai Festival at Taj Connemara is all about



Thattukadai treat: The oily and spicy spread gets a five-star treatment Photo S.R.Raghunathan

The greasy, meaty kotthu parathas, banged out on a noisy, sizzling tava make their way towards us, borne aloft by a waiter in a mismatched lungi and loud floral shirt. On the table, a lamp flickers warily, as the hoots and drums of a flamboyant folk dance rent the air. This is an evening of street food served in the most rural of ambiences. Well, except for the perky little brochure on our table, which helpfully suggests a glass of Chardonnay, or perhaps some Moet Chandon, to go with the chilli bajjis.

And that is what happens when a five-star hotel decides to help its linen-and-diamond clad patrons to slum it. (But stylishly, of course.) At the Taj Connemara's Thattukadai Food Festival, there are baskets piled high with jasmine chains, but they're handed out by a impeccably clad hostess armed with little clips, so she can show the foreigners just how the `traditional Indian woman' does her hair. There's sugarcane juice, and a painstakingly done-up TASMAC wine shop. But, which wine shop owner worth his rum-and-fish would think of combining the juice with a shot of vodka? Or opening a tender coconut and adding vodka, for a deliciously bizarre cocktail. And there are mamis, crouched over pans of noisily frying bajjis — wearing long, hygienic gloves.

But, as everybody who has ever eaten on the road — shooing away friendly stray dogs and balancing flimsy paper plates piled high with blistering, overly-bright and dreadfully spicy food — knows, street food isn't street food, unless it's deliciously unhealthy. Gleaming with oil, bright with artificial colours, bursting with flavour enhancers, spiked with green chillies and the aroma of unwashed hands.

The Taj's collection, of course, works hard on authenticity — but not too hard. After all, that Chardonnay does need to find takers.

So there are stalls offering a wide selection of thattukadai favourites: the first stall, specialising in parathas and rice, serves us a plate of spicy fried rice, made on the spot, crunchy and bright with fresh, sautéed vegetables. It's accompanied — of course — by chunky chilly chicken.

At the `Subermal idly shop,' there are appams, dosais and uthappams, all served with a variety of curries. They even have a little shop next to their `TASMAC' bar, which serves drinkers' favourites: fried fish, omelettes and boiled eggs.

While the Taj menu is far from the brash food thattukadais specialise in, the chefs have obviously worked painstakingly on recreating the flavours and the ambience of the street — to the best of their ability. After all, you can't really bring cows into the Taj... they'd wreak havoc on the upholstery, even if they do supply some essential aromas.

Try it out, if you crave the real thing, but prefer to pair your food with champagne, rather than "a la diesel fumes."

The festival is on for dinner till May 2 at The Raintree, Taj Connemara.

SHONALI MUTHALALY

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