Monday, 30 July 2007

Food of the Gods

I first came to live in London via Norbury, and so in a whimsical way even though I've lived all over the capital, including Belsize Park, Bloomsbury, Shepherds Bush, Camden, Clapham and more, there's a piece of me which always be a Sarf London boy. Recently its the massive South Indian community in this part of London that is pricking up my planning barometer trend antenna.

On my last business trip to Chennai (formerly Madras) in India I wandered around the back streets trying to observe and breath in a bit of the culture in a way that might contribute meaningfully to a market entry strategy report that I would later be writing for a multinational client. I've found that luxury hotels are the same all around the world, good for networking but awful for grasping how a country ticks and so on this particular sortie I found myself hungry for food but completely at a loss to even describe what may possibly have been a Tamil script menu in a clean but simple, open-front shop house. I plumped for the tried and trusted method of food adventurers around the globe and pointed vaguely at a bunch of ordinary Indians, indicating I'll have a bit of what they're having; and that's when my first dosa was brought to me.

Really good food should be simple and delicious. That's not actually as easy as it sounds and so ever since my first dosa I've been a proselytizing this simple but astonishingly tasty South Indian Fare. Its the "food of the Gods" as Mohammad Iqbal of Bangalore and I like to say. On my latest return to London I was really pleased to discover that a 'fast food format' of dosa food was available in my locale. When I say fast food, I'm sure the owners of this briskly expanding chain of restaurants would be a little annoyed at the term but what I'm getting at is an unfussy way of ordering and eating. The Chennai Dosa is a no nonsense, food-from-heaven kind of joint that I probably like to dive into and out of quicker than most of its patrons. The south Indian community in particular are some of the best and most welcome immigrants this country has ever had - and their cuisine is practically worth body-popping over, as its a little different from the Punjabi cuisine that most people associate with Indian food. Although this is a little like saying that European food is pretty much represented by Italian pasta and pizzas.

Southern Indians I find are hard working, family focused, low key and modest people. There's nothing I like more than dining at my local Chennai Dosa and studying this ethnic group of people who for me bring nothing but welcome diversity to this country. I've since worked my way through the Chennai Dosa menu and buffets over many visits and I think they've accepted me as a fan boy. Their food is inexpensive, tasty, healthy and all importantly; freshly made. Pretty much everything that Western (fast) food has moved away from and I pity the blinkered folk around these parts for whom the height of eating pleasure is either a Subway (sub way. I always think thats ironic) or other junk food fare, when world class eats are dotted all over the map in this neighborhood.

By complete coincidence, shortly after my discovery I thought I'd do a twitter search of my area and came across someone plugging the exact same Chennai Dosa I'm fanatical about, called Rory Sutherland. I thought I knew the name from somewhere and while adding him to my Twitter discovered that not only did he blog but that we were also in the same game - I've since discovered that he's a really top thinker in our business but more frequently Rory writes commercially dispruptive pieces for Brand Republic now, than the crafted and more literary posts I first came to enjoy . We've since had some twitter banter along with Giles about great Indian food spots as we're all Indian food fans but interestingly, Rory believes as do I, that the dosa food could quite possibly be on the cusp of something larger.

So I'm unashamedly plugging and suggesting bigger things for The Chennai Dosa Group. You heard it here first (think McDosa) and I believe their next outlet is opening in Tooting. Try also their Idli or the Idiyapam) and more importantly for UK planners I'll be wrapping this up later into a broader post about third millennial cultural observations and trends that I've found both provocative and inspiring this time round in these parts of London.


  1. Low key and modest people - you must fit right in!

  2. We obviously still need educating in the delights of Asian cuisine. So much more than good old curry.. I'll look out for this d word from now on.

  3. Yep. Charles 'low key/modest' Frith they call me in Chennai, Mumbai and New Delhi. Well maybe not the New Delhi Gymkhana Club John. That was straight out of an EM Forster Novel. To be seen to be believed ;)

    Glad to have shared the delights of South India to you Chimpster :)

  4. I'm kinda surprised - I thought by now almost everyone in the world would have seen and eaten a dosa. Afterall, the Dosa (in Tamil, we call it the Dosai) and the Idly (steamed rice 'dumplings') have been for long associated and rather falsely stereotyped as Madras/Tamil food.

    If you liked your Dosa, you might want to graduate to other stuff from this (South India/Tamil Nadu) part of the world - The Aappam and its many variants, (Including Idiaappam, Oothaappam, VelLaiaappam and more), the Parotta, the Adai (adai means dense/thick and is a rather thick, crispy version of the Dosai)

    Thank you for a super post, seriously.

  5. A couple of things I forgot to mention on the previous comment

    The Origin of the dosai is a little doubtful - some say it is Udipi (Central Karnataka - TN's neighbour) in origin, while others say that it is definitely a variation of the TN's other similar food (Adai/Aappam).
    But, it doesn't matter, because Dosai now means Madras/Chennai and South India.

    And oh, I'm a Madras fanboy. Have been one since 1982.

  6. Hi ravages/cc

    Thanks for your comment and dropping by. I mention the Idiaappam in the post too as I'm fond of them but I have also tried the Oothaappam and the Parotta on the Chennai Dosa menu. I just thought I'd introduce the simple and the best first :)

  7. It is quite simply the best vegetarian food in the world.

    You should also add mention of the chilli paneer (a hard-core version of muttar paneer, with peas manfully replaced by chilli). I think this might be the single best meal I have ever eaten.

    I would also big up Rasa Samudra in Charlotte St for this type of food which it serves alongside Keralan fish specialities.

  8. Next time you visit Chennai Dosa order yourself a plate of Pongal, the Tamil pongal and a vada with coconut chutney. Or keep me posted if you're coming to Chennai or Bangalore and I would love to take you through a gastronomic journey of south Indian cuisine which includes Kannada, Tamil, Telegu and Malayalam dishes. Freshly prepared, healthy and inexpensive dishes that you'll crave for more.

  9. Hi Rory. I'm glad you mentioned the vegetarian side of Tamil Nadu cooking because in all fairness although Chennai Dosa do have meat and fish on the menu I invariably end up going vegetarian 95% of the time and feeling bloody healthy for it.

    The chilli paneer sounds just like a 21st century gentlemans dish; obscure, exotic and oxyacetylane hot. That's next on my list as will a visit to Rasa Samudra.

  10. Hi poor_planner. I certainly will keep in touch with you if I'm ever in the neighbourhood and I'm glad you've reminded me of something because Pongal is also a festival that has been celebrated for 5000 years. It is this overwhelming feeling that I felt when I wandered around Chennai.

    Its FEELS like the cradle of civilisation and is also highly mystical. I can explain it with words. Its a feeling I got.

  11. hey charles - if you're in town, there's a rad club night on in sarf east london this sat. night that we should definitely go to.. bhangra baby yeah!

  12. Hi Lauren. Sounds very good. I'm off to Glasgow tomorrow and then Cardiff on Friday so lets try and do it before I bail out. I love all that Indian action!!