Synonymous with moneylenders, Sowcarpet is also a delectable slice of north India in Chennai.

Never start a food tour with badam milk, especially one as rich as Kakada Ramprasad’s in Chennai’s Sowcarpet. It fills you up — and unless you want to brazen it out, you can’t eat much else. Chilled, sweet, and chunky, with bits of almond; perhaps you’d find that much badam only in a home-made version. No amount of walking is going to lighten your stomach after that.

Organised as part of the Madras Week, the Mint Food Trail took us to chaotic Sowcarpet, one of Chennai’s oldest localities. Madras Week is an eight-year-old annual event that celebrates the founding of Chennai (formerly Madras), which turned 373 years old this year. Heritage walks, lectures, photographic exhibitions, and competitions are all part of the celebrations.

A big section of Sowcarpet’s residents are Rajasthanis and Gujaratis — merchants and money-lenders who migrated to the city in the seventeenth century to do business with the East India Company, which traded in cloth. Mint Street was where the sahukars or sowcars (money-lenders) settled down, and hence, the area’s name. Setting foot in this area is like going through a time warp and stepping into a dusty little town in North India. Women in traditional North Indian clothes and jewellery lend colour to the grey and grimy landscape.

Kakada Ramprasad, a spacious, tiled outlet, stands out amidst narrow, long streets chock-a-block with money-lending establishments, pawn shops, stores selling steel regular and oversize utensils, groceries, dry fruit, vegetables and more — all cheek by jowl with homes. The eatery is a landmark in the area; say “Kakada” and the auto driver nods and sets off without further ado.

The Jain Temple close by is another landmark. Our tour guide, Pratibha Jain, co-author of two cookbooks - Cooking at Home with Pedatha and Sukham Ayu — grew up on Kakada’s treats. She recommends the badam milk and the aloo tikki chaat (which comes topped with a cube of paneer).

Though I was not able to discern it from the single bite I took, a member of our group said the tikki was fried in ghee, not oil. It was definitely tasty, all golden crispness beneath a blanket of curd, chilli powder and mint chutney.

From there, it’s a very short walk to the sugarcane juice vendor at the corner of Elephant Gate Street. He has just two jugs of juice, which are drained as soon as they are refilled — those who tried it said it’s very good. Then on to Ajab Mithai Ghar, where a traditional Gujarati combination of jalebi, fafda and crumbled dhokla was waiting for us. On Sundays and festive occasions, this is breakfast in Gujarati homes, along with a pickled chilli. Ajab Mithai has branches in Purasawalkam, Egmore’s Fountain Plaza (Ajnabi), Vadapalani, and Ayanavaram. We pass a nondescript store selling sacks of pasta — old Madras jostling with the new!

The pyaaz kachodi at Maya Chaats (General Muthaiah Street) are frying in an old iron kadai when we get there. We wonder if it contains potato, but it definitely has a touch of lime, which keeps it from being an entirely oily affair. Kesar-pista may be the flavour to go for at Maharaja Kulfi next door, but what catches my eye is an ice lolly called ‘Orange Dolly’. No, I didn’t try it; I just liked the name.

Turning left into Mint, I was drawn to a paan shop that was not on our list - Gupta Pan House. Its tagline read ‘Spicily: We are undertaking marriage and party orders’. I leave it to your imagination to guess the intended meaning. Agarwal Chaat, the pani puri stall next door, is another institution.

Finally, Pratibha leads us to Murugan Sandwich, where we have modern Chennai’s own North-meets-South creation: the murukku sandwich. Though it sounds bizarre, don’t dismiss it — at the very least, it is ‘interesting’, and has many connoisseurs. Between two murukkus are arranged slices of tomato, onion and cucumber, mint chutney and grated cheese, all topped with sev. No bread involved.

Mint is perhaps the only place in Chennai where one can do a food trail, says Pratibha. “In my experience, no one road has such variety in Chennai where you can just keep walking and finding snacks.” In Mylapore, for instance, there is Rayar’s or Karpagambal Mess, but they have a variety of snacks, and are sit-down places. Purasawalkam has some places, but not one such road, nor so many, she explains. So, whether you’re a gastronome or just want to explore something offbeat, you know where to go.

(This article was published on November 15, 2012)
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