Madrasi Sappadu, Copper Point, GRT Grand Hotel.
The conscientious food reviewer in Chennai faces a dilemma. This is more so, when the reviewer is asked to describe that perfect thali. The dilemma is this: stay true to local cuisine and traditions and thus perpetuate the myth that Chennai is all about Sambar and Rasam, or truly describe the range and scope of the city’s cuisine, and talk about the Bombay, Rajasthani, Gujarati and other regional cuisines at the expense of Madras’ own.
Which is why, the last month saw me walking in and out of Chennai’s many restaurants, the walking out bit always a little more ponderous yet a gleam of satisfaction in the eyes. (By the way, if the news reports from this part of the country talk about the death of recession and a sudden increase in obesity among 25 year olds, you know who to blame: Marie Claire.)
The south Indian vegetarian thali appears, at the surface, very simple and almost plain in comparison to its northern cousin. But dig in and you are blessed with textures and flavours so different and so special.
The Madrasi Sappadu at the Copper Point is a case in example.
When I walked into the restaurant (It lives up to its name – earthy, metallic colours throughout, with a large copper urn centrepiece, and metallic plaques all around with bas-relief depictions of the cooking utensils favoured in this part of the world.) I am greeted by the Maitre ‘d and shown to a table in a corner. A welcome drink – salted and spiced butter milk – is the first to arrive. Followed by a basket of vadams – crispy, crunchy chips made of rice and sago.
The restaurant is quiet as it is not yet peak time. Which suits me just fine. Vazhaipoo vadai (A deep-fried snack made of lentil + banana flowers) and mint chutney next occupies my thought. In Tamil cuisine, the banana holds a special place. Almost every part of this tree is used in cooking: stems, leaves, flowers, the yet-to-ripen fruit and the ripe fruit.
As I ponder on that, the general manager and the chef come to my table and we talk about food and this particular review I am writing.
By now, my thali is ready. Today’s menu is Dosa and chutney for the bread, Coconut rice, Besi Bela Bath, Spinach+Corn kernel kootu, deep-fried potato curry, Vettha kuzhambu (a spicy sauce made from Tamarind/red pepper and select spices all cooked in Gingely oil), Sambar and Rasam.
I begin with relish. The dosa is devoured in minutes. With that out of the way I turn to the coconut rice and besi bela bath. Both live up to the high standards I set, but I do like my besi-bela a little more besi and a lot more bela.
Business can now begin in right earnest. Steamed rice comes in a large copper plated bowl, piping hot and ready to be mixed with the kuzhambu and sambar. The tamarind-y goodness of the kuzhambu makes my day. I ask for and get two extra servings of the same which goes to show the care the restaurant’s staff show for their guests. I can say with honesty that kuzhambu will henceforth be measured against the Copper Point yardstick.
The sambar and rasam are standard fare in Chennai, and one has to take extra effort to ruin it. Copper point knows its Madrasi tongue and therefore the two were about as good as they can get.
Thick, sweet curd served in a small matka can either be mixed with rice (Thayir sadam – the reason for the disproportionate number of Tam-bram students in the IITs and IIMs) and eaten along with lime pickle or just spooned into the mouth as a preliminary to the dessert.
The main part of lunch over, my plate is cleared for the sweet stuff. Up first is cold, scintillating basundi. A mouthful any day, at Copper Point it gets thicker and tastier. I didn’t much care for the dry rosogolla or the little banana provided as an aid to digestion, preferring instead to wait for the promised ice-cream.
When it came, I forgot all my earlier concerns. Friends will vouch for my expertise in ice-cream, so let me tell you that this was perhaps the best ice-cream I’ve had in the city of Chennai. Rich and creamy, with small bits of actual strawberry adding volume and texture, I could spend a whole column writing about it.
The Madrasi Sappadu at the Copper Point, GRT Grand comes to you at Rs. 475 plus taxes. Believe me you, it is worth all that and more.
(An edited version of this, along with a photo I’d shot, was published in the February issue of Marie Claire, under the title Thali-ho!
book possession this. It begins with an introduction that is more history than most books in the CBSE syllabus. Punctuated by poems from Tamil literature. And more. Followed by pages and pages photos and description of the best bronzes.
In Patrick French’s biography of Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul appears the words “big, popular, well-researched biographies” describing Antonia Fraser’s work.
Perhaps they apply to Mr. French’s own book?
“The World Is What It Is” is definitely well researched. Dipping into letters, diaries, published interviews and exploiting to the full direct access to the man himself, Patrick French covers the rise, and rise, of the nobel-winning author.
Mr. French’s sources – family members, close friends, associates and editors and the world’s most famous people – each tell us one side of Naipaul and it is up to the biographer to piece these many sides together to create something of a whole. Which he does very well indeed.
And it is big enough a read. Written almost like a screenplay, with action shifting places, dates and stages in the author’s life, characters coming in, going out only to be recalled later.
The jury is out on its popularity, but I am sure the verdict will be guilty. For, you see, it has all the ingredients to do that. Romance, intrigue, suffering and celebrity endorsement. As well as sex, though a bit late in the day.
In pages where V.S. Naipaul’s letters to Shiva or other writers are reproduced, there are good, quick lessons for new writers. Like Stephen King in his part-memoir, part tutorial On Writing, these lessons are simple and have come from years of honing one’s craft.
But those pages are few. Talking about which, they don’t turn fast. There are places where the story told (for isn’t that what a biography is? A story of a person.) feels heavy and laboured. Even the torrid affair of Naipaul and Margaret sometimes feels boring.
Through all of this, the author ensures that the genius of Naipaul shines through brightly. While that might be stating the obvious, it is difficult to do that with a person who is caustic, caring, eccentric, weird and the many other adjectives that will easily fit Naipaul.
For somebody who’s never read Sir Vidia’s books, this biography has snatches that will intrigue, and reviews that will tempt. He, Mr. French, does not pass judgement on work of a fellow writer. Patrick French is rarely felt in this, only the people he taps for information.
But I cannot be Patrick French and therefore will let my prejudice seep through this piece.
I’ll admit I am not a fan of the biography as a genre of writing. The ones I’ve read seek to glorify (in some cases the opposite is also true) the person being written about. A single brush and one single colour, chosen long before, is used to paint the picture. Which is something I find used in this book as well, but sparingly. There are repeated references to Vidia’s ‘deracination’ and his depression, as if great writing comes only from a deep mental anguish. (Perhaps it is true, and perhaps that is why I can never be a great writer.)
But those are not deal breakers.
In the end, this book, while not exactly something you will read from beginning to end in one stretch, offers a close look at the East Indian author from West Indies, sorry, Trinidad.
(This review appeared in the Sunday Indian Express’s book section, yesterday 11th May 2008. Unable to find a link online, so I suppose you have to buy the paper or just take my word for it.)
When the Madrasi Chick speaks, Madrasi boys listen. She asks one to tell one’s readers what books one’s read of Indian Authors. Before that, one would like to ask her what defines an Indian author? Therein lies the answer to all questions, one thinks.
All right. One shall not get smart alecky, here. One shall, because one likes what the Madrasi Chick stands for, and all, get right down to business. (It’s going to be a long transaction.)
Statutory Warning: Just listen to the songs. Don’t watch the video
Makes some Tamil films look good. And, what’s more, original.
Anantha, Karthik, Yuvan might have paid homage to the cartoon’s theme, but the film pays multiple homage to multiple tamil film cliches – especially the one where the hero’s mother/father/sister/someone gets between hero and villain’s aruvaal/trisulam/bullet.
Fantastic movie. Go watch it, but overlook the really bad camera work and insufficient lighting. But, watch the movie.