Sunday, 5 February 2017

Chennai Kitchen - the best South Indian Restaurant in SE Asia

When we go abroad, and live out of a suitcase it is hard to express how much we miss home made food. There’s always at least one Indian restaurant in each city and you can eat there some times, but very few of ‘em match the palate and the feel of home cooked food.

And when you do, it is important to celebrate and call out them like I am doing – for this fabulous restaurant that I had the privilege of enjoying more than 10 years ago.  This is the Chenai Kitchen in Bangkok which I am hoping is still going strong, as I haven’t been to the city in nearly a decade now.

When I was working in Bangkok my brother had visited this with his business associates. One of them was joined by his wife for this trip.  They were Muslims from Tamil Nadu and loved Bangkok. The trip was for about a week and by day 2 the wife and husband both were feeling lost in terms of food.  Strangely they stayed in Silom which has a lot of Indian restaurants, but they’d tired of eating North Indian food and even though they were non-vegetarian they just couldn't enjoy the Thai/Asian dishes. My brother asked me where could they get South Indian food and I directed them to Chennai Kitchen which incidentally is in Silom but you are likely to very very very easily miss this.

Apparently both Husband and wife went there, and loved it so much that they stuck to only Chennai Kitchen for the rest of their stay. And, in their first visit there had tears in their eyes as they ate the south Indian tamil food.

Chennai Kitchen actually is a really tiny room and calling it a restaurant seems unfair.  It had about five tables, seating not more than 20 at a time with great difficulty.   It was run by this middle aged couple who were of Tamil origin and settled in Bangkok.  The restaurant was in fact next to one of the oldest Temples in South East Asia – one for the Goddess Mariamma (a version of Parvati) – and this temple was founded around the late 1800s, yes it was that old.  Its been renewed and is now resplendent colourful like all the Hindu temples in Malaysia and Singapore. 

We loved visiting the temple and praying to the Goddess at this temple.  The devotees were from all races – Chinese, Thai, Indian, Malaysian, Burmese.   There’d be a lot of the locals from the adjoining red light areas who’d come and bow their head to the Goddess and moved away.  During the Navarathri festivals the place would be lit up beautifully. Similarly during all Hindu festivals (esp. Thaipussam) the decorations used to be bright and colourful and not to be missed.

We’d love to stop and eat at Chennai Kitchen but it was hard, as the place used to be full and it didn’t make sense to wait, plus there was no queueing system. Not only would the restaurant get cramped, even the roads outside were crowded.

But when you got to eat there, you’d notice the difference.  This was not food you ate at an udipi restaurant where the Sambhar is sweetish and the dishes very similar across all restaurants. In fact one bite into the food and you couldn’t help feeling that you were at a Tamil friends’ home eating food cooked by his mom or his paati (grandma). Home cooked food is hard to describe – devoid of all show, but so fulfilling and satiating. 

The lady who ran this had henna-ed hair and always was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans.  But she was one of the reasons the restaurant was so successful.  She’d sometimes step into the kitchen and make food herself for the waiting customers.  If you’re familiar with Tamil Nadu, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the middle aged women who wear a nose ring and have bright bindis on their foreheads and hair tied in a ponytail or bun.

But it was how she handled customers that was a joy to watch.  It was a comedy show by itself.  She never spared anyone and if you followed tamil (I don’t but my wife does) it would be hard not to be in splits when Aunty started off on someone.  Actually Aunty didn’t speak much (as Indians normally do) and would speak for barely a couple of minutes but would be fun.  Her English was impeccable and her Thai was with the thick Tamil accent.  She knew very little Hindi, just manage-able to talk to Indian tourists.

But she was fierce. Once an Indian tourist came in a group and asked her for beer, while the rest of them wanted Lassi and soft drinks.  She told him for beer he’d need to go up the road and ended the conversation there.  Another person wanted a proper receipt (she used to give a simple kachcha one, but you didn’t need it as the Menu had the prices and you knew how much the bill would be.  She told him that if he wanted a receipt she’d need to then add all the taxes and VAT and she didn’t mind earning the extra money (but the damn thing would take sometime).

She could easily have been one of the comedians from the Tamil screen like Manorama (look her up) and other popular ones.  My wife would speak to here in Tamil sometimes and aunty wasn’t were encouraging as her answers would be crisp and rarely personal, and she wouldn’t go beyond or intrude much.  But she warmed up to my wife and sometimes when there’d be a breaking point she’d un-burden (not for more than a minute) and talk in Tamil. Once she’d got a new helper from Malaysia and the guy couldn’t keep up and she was talking about him right within earshot but the words she used to describe the man were hilarious. My wife still had a great time remembering this.  Another time a tourist (who else, sadly an Indian) right in front of us asked her where the closest ATM was and that he’d have to withdraw cash and didn’t turn up.  It wasn’t a big amount but the sheer callousness and depravity of the gentleman who’d got his family and did this shamelessly. She didn’t seem very upset and shrugged her shoulders.

Her husband also managed the shop and worked in some office during daytime and ran the restaurant in the evenings and very very rarely spoke.  We used to meet him very often at the temple and he’d have his plate of offerings to the Goddess and sometimes would share this with us as Prasad.

The food was remarkable in the sense that for a scale of a shop this small, they’d produce a variety that was un-imaginable. There was the regular Idli-Dosais, but also a special of the day (like Adai, or paratha etc.). But the triumph was their Thaali (or rice plate) which we absolutely loved loved, and had a great variety of curries and daals, and one small sweet.

Yes in addition to the meals there would also be some south Indian snacks and savouries all prepared by the Chennai Kitchen.  One of the reasons and the main one which I loved the place was that it was purely vegetarian  - for me it made all the difference in flavor, and I think the stream of fans and visitors would attest to this.

My brother’s friend discovered succor and was grateful to aunty and her shop, as countless Patrons from India and the globe are grateful to her.  I think what she charged was a pittance for the home made food that one longs for.

Oh yes, I need to add IMHO having stayed in Malaysia and eaten the Indian restaurants food there, I need to admit that Chennai Kitchen would easily beat them hands down.  Even in Singapore which has pure vegetarian south Indian restaurants very few (almost none that I know) can come close to Chennai Kitchen.  All good things need to come to an end, but I think what Chennai Kitchen created is timeless and the memories of support and succor it provided to Indian tourists is forever.  

God bless the family that created and sustained in it.