Let’s face it. It is going to be a while before you manage to score an invite for an elaborate wedding lunch.

Fortunately, despite the pandemic, popular city cooks have been able to cater to enthusiastic diners via delivery apps. In Chennai, of course, biryani is an emotion. It’s Friday office bonding, teamed with chicken 65. And Sunday family lunch. It comes in sleek packs as well as in plastic buckets. There is rarely a consensus on what the city’s “best” version is. Basmati or seeraga samba? Ambur or Awadhi? Mutton, chicken, prawn or fish? At least we agree on tea time: bun-butter-jam FTW.


The man who refereed the city’s biggest biryani wars has jumped into the fray.

M Mohamed Ali, who runs the Food Consulate in Velachery, has hosted a face off between the city’s most popular biryani brands for the past five years. Last year, 10 top contenders made mutton biryani, which was then judged by an audience of almost 1400 people at a buffet. This year, he launched Sahibs.

“We make Chennai wedding style dhum biryani,” says Mohamed, explaining that they deliver it in packs of 2.5 kilograms, which can serve up to five people. Sahibs currently makes three types of biryani — chicken (₹2,000), mutton (₹2,500) and prawn (₹3,000).

The pack also includes raita, brinjal thokku and bread halwa. Using long grain basmati rice, this version of the iconic dish is inspired by Mohamed’s hometown, Patemanagaram, which is about 30 kilometres away from Thoothukudi.

There is a focus on sourcing quality spices. Mohamed says that after a lot of research, he realised that high quality ingredients and simple, but responsible, processes are the best way to maximise flavour. “Our spices are carefully sourced. We use three kinds of chillies: one for colour, one for heat and one for body. Everything is stone ground in a traditional mill,” he states.

Of course, launching during a pandemic means that there is a special focus on hygiene. “Our kitchen looks like a surgery theatre, with all the cooks in PPE.” The packaging may look “rather industrial,” he states, adding however that the food is delivered hot, safe and sealed.

Sahibs delivers lunch on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Orders need to be given by 5 pm, a day ahead. Call +91 89992 66662.

Pumpkin Tales

Pumpkin Tales focusses on tomato tales this month. Chindi Varadarajulu has been using the lockdown to explore indigenous produce, and is thrilled about recently discovering heirloom Kasinapatnam tomatoes, which she is using in salads. These bright, knobbly tomatoes come from seeds preserved by tribes in Andhra Pradesh’s Arauku valley, she says, adding that she plans to visit them as soon as it is safe to hop on planes again.

Inspired by seed saver and agriculturist Prabhakar Rao, of Bengaluru-based Hariyalee farm, Chindi is using this downtime to learn about local, underused vegetables so she can incorporate them in her menus. “To me it is a history, an heirloom we have saved,” she says. Adding that she really enjoys the flavours, she admits that it could also be influenced by the awe of being able to taste decades of history.

Buttered buns and biryani buckets to beat the lockdown blues

Undoubtedly, these vegetables have more character than generic supermarket produce. Besides, bio-diversity makes food so much more interesting. While you wait till it’s safe to eat out again, this could be a good time to experiment with growing heirloom seeds in your kitchen garden: the internet is rife with suggestions on how to get started.

Also, if you’re sick of cooking dinner, Pumpkin Tales just released a range of preservative-free food to stock your freezer. There are chicken and vegetable pot pies, made with puff pastry and as well as lasagne and wheat enchiladas. While cooking can be fun, sometimes it’s a relief to do nothing more than defrost and bake for a hot meal.

Gopaul dairy

For decades Gopaul dairy (9952954965) has had a cult following, despite its tiny space in Parry’s Corner, because of the buns generously filled with Uthukuli butter.

The butter, which arrived on the night train, now travels by lorry so that there is no glitch in the mechanics set in place in 1953. Gopaul is currently run by 66-year-old V Krishnaraj, whose grandfather started the business, and his 29-year-old son, Pramoth.

Lockdown hit them hard — Pramoth says they used to serve 300 to 400 buns everyday. Now they make about 150, most of which are sold via delivery apps. I get mine via Dunzo, thanks to an alert friend, who manages to snag some before they sell out.

Buttered buns and biryani buckets to beat the lockdown blues

The buns, which have always been sourced from the same cottage industry in Mylapore, are tasty, but it is the white butter that is the star. Whipped till fluffy, it is generously slathered between the bread along with a quick smear of regular Kissan jam.

They’re delicious, and deceptively light. Eat these fresh, as soon as they arrive. Each bun, priced at ₹25, is endearingly wrapped in butter paper and then newspaper, all tied together with twine.

One of the few surprises of 2020 that is all joy.

This weekly column tracks the city’s shifting culinary landscape. Heard of a new food venture? Tell me: shonali.m@thehindu.co.in

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