It all began with Louis Vuitton. There’s an urban myth that luxury luggage coyly rubs shoulders with pirated copies of “Slumdog Millionaire” at Burma Bazaar. Talk about smugglers with posh taste! You can just imagine them cheerfully packing kilos of gleaming IPhones, handfuls of electric razors and squishy packets of Tang in the latest Chanel tote, before stylishly pouting their way through Customs.
Which, of course, makes a great story. And that’s how a colleague and I found ourselves wandering down Burma Bazaar, having Oscar nominated movies shoved in our faces. (These guys are with it!) We eventually gave up on Dior and Co. Turns out they’re as hard to spot as the Lochness monster. Tougher really. At least Scotland isn’t awash with virulently coloured, disconcertingly shiny, flamboyantly labelled fake monsters.
So we ended up at a quirky little junction, opposite Burma Bazaar, flanked by Burmese food, a stall selling plump strawberries by lantern light and a restaurant that was titled — to our delight — ‘Zum Zum’ in flaming orange. Unfortunately, the watchman wouldn’t let us in. Apparently there was a swinging party in progress and they wouldn’t countenance gatecrashers. Even if we had come bearing fake Dolce & Gabbana.
And that is how we discovered Hotel Sri Nataraj next door and bread masala dosa.
Everyone who’s whining about Chennai becoming just another colourless, slick, hip global city really should dive into its more individualistic corners. They’re simply magnificent. Like many Chennaiites of my generation, dosas necessarily come from the Saravana Bhavans, Sangeethas and Vasantha Bhavans. Unless we’re being brats and eating them at the Taj.
At Nataraj the waiters are dressed in a delightfully lurid pink that conjured up images of tall glasses of overly sweet rose milk. (You have got to love a restaurant that has the courage to think pink to that degree.) They’re proud of their bread masala dosa here, which our waiter succinctly explains to us is “Bread. Masala. With dosa.” It turns up golden, crisp and ghee-laden, accompanied with startlingly tasty chunks of bread that have been enthusiastically fried and then determinedly overwhelmed with masala.
Don’t you love the way we manage to appropriate even the most British of foods? In fact bread, seen as food for invalids by traditionalists for the longest time, still manages to find its way to the breakfast table in the most unexpected avatars. I’m not talking French toast, garlic bread or bagels. Desi bread’s far less la-di-dah.
There’s the bread dosa, served with either old-fashioned chutney or a dribble of gleaming honey. It’s made by soaking day old bread and then grinding it with rice flour, sooji, curd and salt. Then adding spices like chilly powder, mustard and curry leaves to zing up the batter.
I’ve even heard of dosa-coated bread, which sounds rather iffy. But then I guess you can’t really knock it till you try it. This involves mixing chopped onions, green chillies and coriander leaves with dosa batter. Then you dip slices of bread into it and cook them individually on a tawa.
But one of the most unusual is probably what Lonely Planet calls a Benares butter sponge dosa, covered with little pieces of fried bread. The accompanying picture is determinedly traditional: a well-perforated dosa covered with cubes of deep brown bread, accompanied by steel spoons, plastic plates and little bowls of chutney. All set off with a tablecloth that looks suspiciously like a sari or dupatta. Of course travel experts deliberately hunt down exotica. But then, in the more robust, matter-of-fact, everyday parts of the city, the unusual happens everyday.
Besides, you can’t deny it’s rather charming to eat a dosa that’s three times the size of your face and then bump into a ‘Hogo’ Boss bag at the shop next door. Imagine what a great conversation piece it will make at your next swish party in Paris!