Baked beans on toast. Hardly the heights of fine dining in these days of culinary high jinks, where caviar is handed out with all the nonchalance of popcorn, and death by chocolate is more of a steadfast purpose than a menacing threat.
Yet, in the 1970s, when Spencer Plaza was Chennai’s ‘It’ place, I have it on reliable authority that once of the coolest things to do as a college kid was to stylishly spoon up baked beans on toast.
The ultimate British comfort food? Well, it’s hardly surprising. Wikipedia states that the mall goes right back to British Raj. It was established around 1863-1864 and was really the first departmental store in the Indian subcontinent, comprising India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Hence this quintessentially item, which was
one of many on their bangers-and-mash menu.
Then, in 1983, Spencer Plaza burnt down and had to be rebuilt. Things began to change. By the 1900’s India was accelerating rapidly, and so was good old ‘Spencers.’
Today it’s arguably the best place in the city to take a reasonably tasty culinary journey across a diverse array of cuisines With two bustling food courts and a variety of little stalls and restaurants boasting everything from coconut water to fresh waffles, you can travel from starter to dessert in fifteen minutes – depending on how
fast you vaccume it all up of course. Just don’t go there on the weekend when the all the city’s languid and lethargic people seem to converge into one aimless, amorous mass, which then proceeds to conquer every corridor, lift and store.
On other days Kolkata Chaat’s really the place to be if you like the whole elbow-to-jowl brand of socialising that’s rampant in these kind of joints. It helps that many swear this place makes the best pani puri in the city: crisp outside and deliciously mushy inside, accompanied with a burst of cold, tangy tamarind-spiked pani puri
Then there’s the ever-popular Thattukada, which already has die hard fans despite being a relatively recent addition, thanks to it’s peppery chicken roast ‘porizha Kozhi’ served with soft chapattis, If you’re feeling more indulgent try the scalding chicken curry that arrived with their signature Kerala parottas, which are simultaneous crisp, flaky and fluffy.
However, what really seems to be grabbing attention now is Su Wai, which is a surprisingly authentic Thai place, set in the midst of the babel, chicken biriyani and filter coffees of the Akshaya Food court in Phase one. Run by a Thai family, the food is cooked and supervised by the owners who are also on hand to serve and explain the food.
We try the aromatic green curry, paired with a astonishingly fragrant pineapple fried rice. The highlight however was the basil chicken, deliciously succulent and laced with the powerful flavour of bright basil leaves. The pad Thai was less endearing, since the ingredients here don’t really pop with that enthusiastic freshness that
characterises most Thai food. However, considering it operates from a tiny kitchen, Su Wai really is quite a remarkable little place. The menu’s reasonably extensive, featuring all the favourites: Vegetables in garlic sauce. Drunken noodles and the intense Tom Kha, bouncing with lemon grass.
The best part? It’s in a food court. So you can pair it with combinations that will make food connoisseurs go white with horror.
Some Ponnuswami chicken 65 for instance. Or maybe a curd rice from Sarvanna Bhavan?
We’re relatively boring. We go for the Brain Stimulator juice, to deal with some issues of absent-mindedness, and a vitamin C enriched drink.
I wonder what the new age equivalent for baked beans on toast would be anyway? Organic lima on whole-wheat bread served with a dash of salmon roe? And if it’s Spencer, it will probably come with a liberal helping of masala chaat and sweet-and-sour ketchup.
Globalisation can be quite fascinating. Especially when it plays out in a crowded foodie mall.