India-in-Your-Pocket Cookbooks

We’ve enjoyed Indian food so much that I wanted to take some cookbooks back with me, both to use myself and to share with friends. However, a couple of hardcover cookbooks with glossy pages and color photos can really weigh down one’s luggage. So I was delighted to find a collection of pocket-sized cookbooks at the Phoenix Mall Starmark last week. They feature full color illustrations (so you know what you’re making), measurements in American quantities, and a variety of recipes ranging from simple snacks to complex entrees.

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A Dosa a Day

The wall of the Vasanta Bhavan restaurant in the Phoenix Mall caught my attention soon after our arrival in Chennai:


Recently I began to take this advice to heart. We can get these crisp, satisfying crepe-like creations fresh from the griddle at the Radisson Blu Hotel breakfast buffet. As previously mentioned in Food, Glorious Food, dosas are generally eaten with a side of sambhar and three chutneys: coconut, cilantro, and tomato. Continue reading

Poori and Vasanta Bhavan Hospitality

When I first heard about the Phoenix Mall, I thought, with smug superiority, that I would have no need for an upscale mall replete with Western-brand stores and a Walmart-style supermarket in the basement. I would be shopping at Indian stores.

However, when Brianna was invited for a play date in the Phoenix Mall vicinity, I found myself back for the second time in three days and the fourth time in three weeks. The mall boasts an abundance of women’s boutiques, each with an array of stunningly elegant dresses that Indian women seem to wear for everyday, and I welcomed the chance to browse with no husband or child on their own agenda.


For lunch I sought out the Vasanta Bhavan of “a dhosa a day” (see previous Food, Glorious Food post). We had tried to eat there once before on a Saturday and found the line prohibitively long. However, on a Monday at noon (early for Indian lunch), I was one of the first to arrive.

Again I questioned whether a woman dining along would be considered, at best, eccentric. But while I ate, at least three other single female diners came in, as well as a group of three young women.

After  querying my server on types of dhosas and descriptions of optional sides, I ordered a plain dhosa with raita (yogurt with chopped onions and cilantro). One of the condiments I had inquired about was “poori,” but after being told that it was quite spicy, I intended to dismiss it. This must have been lost in translation, because the poori arrived with my dhosa, and I soon had reason to be thankful.


Poori is on the right, sambhar, a thin vegetable and lentil soup always served with dhosa, is on the left.

Poori is a powdered mixture of one or more kinds of dahl (lentils) and spices, mixed with oil or ghee (clarified butter). It was a bit crunchy, only mildly spicy, and delicious. It reminds me a bit of dukkah, a Middle Eastern blend of spices and sesame seeds combined with olive oil and eaten with bread.

Thinking I detected a hint of nuts in the poori, I asked my server, who brought the sous chef to my table. He explained that the spices were mixed with sesame oil. The chef, Mohanram, then insisted on bringing a “small” bit of rava dhosa for me to sample. A rava dhosa, he explained, has semolina (a form of wheat, I think) flour added to the rice batter, along with some spices—in this case peppercorns and cumin, as well as bits of carrot.


My sample of rava dhosa, complete with sides.

I have seen dhosa mix in the store, but Mohanram assured me that Vasanta Bhavan dhosas are made in the traditional manner. For more about dhosas see, the next post, “A Dhosa a Day.”


Mohanram, third from right, and his team. Don’t overlook the kitchen guys in the back, who were eager to get in the photo. The young woman was my smiling server.

Mohanram told me he is the head chef at this particular Vasanta Bhavan, one of perhaps a dozen around Chennai. He recently returned from two years in Canada, where he worked at Red Robin and on a British cruise line.


Assorted condiments and raita

Even without all this special service, I would have given the restaurant high marks for cleanliness, cheery ambiance, courteous staff, and delicious food. As a foreigner who is easily overwhelmed by a multitude of options, I also appreciated the simple but fully adequate menu, complete with kids’ items.

As soon as I had paid for my lunch—just under $2—I made straight for the Big Bazaar department store in the basement, where I asked for, and found, “idli poori.” The ingredients read: “gramdahl, black gramdahl, sesame seeds, chili, salt, garlic, compounded asoefotida (edible gum, maida, hing, mustard oil) [this will be the subject of a later post], curry leaf, refined ground nut oil.” Hmm, is that peanut? I decided to hold out for a different concoction, just in case. In any case, I’m looking forward to trying poori at home.

Services in Chennai: Doctor & Barber (and a little massage)

At one time, in both North America and Asia, the same person would have performed both these services. However, the professionals we visited last week were definitely specialists well trained in their respective fields.

Brianna had been suffering from a worsening earache for several days, probably induced by the combination of a cold and seven hours (yes, seven) in the pool on Tuesday. (There was a good reason for that, but I won’t go into it here). Not to mention a couple of hours swimming nearly every day previous to that.

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Scholastic of India & Name that Spice

Yesterday, feeling particularly adventuresome, I told a rickshaw driver the general area we wanted to visit and asked him to recommend a restaurant. (Actually, the exchange was much more complicated than that and involved a passing motorcyclist, whom the rickshaw driver engaged as a translator while we were navigating an intersection. But I’ll skip the details.)

We ended up at Aasife Biryani, which the driver assured us had great food at a reasonable price. Some very reputable places are rarely frequented by women, but I was reassured by the sight of the first play structure I’ve seen at a restaurant in Chennai.

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Books in Chennai, part II: Kid Lit

The previous post on Indian authors principally concerned contemporary adult fiction and nonfiction on display at the Starmark bookstore in the Phoenix Mall. While there I spent a fair amount of time with the children’s and young adult books, and we have subsequently read a few of them.

So here is a sampling of what we found:

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Thali, Books, and Ice Cream

I’ve been thinking that maybe I should just dedicate this blog to finding books and ice cream in Chennai. Because most of the posts I have queued up (or circulating in my mind) seem to concern one of those two topics. More on books later.

First, a few food updates (see previous post here: Food, Glorious Food).

Last week Brianna and I went to Mylapore to see the 12th-century Kapaleeswarar temple.


These elaborately carved gopurams are typically situated at the entrance to temples, but they don’t actually seem to be where the worship takes place.

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