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On a tiffin trail in Tamil Nadu

Where to find crispy dosas, comforting poriyal and piping hot filter coffee in Chennai, Madurai and Coimbatore

Tiffin items in Tamil Nadu comprise dosa, poriyal, idlis and vadas.
Tiffin items in Tamil Nadu comprise dosa, poriyal, idlis and vadas. (Photo by Alaap D, Unsplash)

The word tiffin is synonymous with a lunch box. In Tamil Nadu though, it is an integral part of breakfast and snack menus at age-old restaurants.

Ram Bhat, a managing partner at Chennai’s vegetarian premium dining space Mathsya, prefers to describe tiffin as ‘short eats.’ He says, “In Chennai, a tiffin menu typically has snack items like medu vada, ribbon pakoda (deep-fried, ribbon-shaped snack made with rice flour), bonda (deep-fried snack of spiced potatoes and gram flour batter) and bajji (deep-fried gram flour fritters). It varies from home to home and even restaurants. Today, gobi manchurian and paneer pakodas are served as tiffin items to cater to a cosmopolitan palate.”

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A full-fledged meal in the morning is not uncommon in a Tamil home. “We would eat a proper meal comprising curd rice or sambar rice, rasam and poriyal at 9 am or so, before going to school or work. Upon returning home at around 4 pm, we were served dosas, bajji, upma or pongal as tiffin. It would depend on what our mothers prepared. Nowadays, with more women joining the workforce, many homes make do with readymade savoury snacks too,” shares Chennai-based Lalitha Jankiraman, a forex advisory and corporate trainer.

Food historian, Rakesh Raghunathan recollects returning from school and looking forward to the early evening tiffin prepared by his amma. “We were served a meal of sambar, rasam, rice and poriyal, and sent to school in the morning. The tiffin in the evening which was served piping hot was more exciting. It had pongal, bonda, bajji and vada.”

There are multiple theories tracing the origin of the tiffin concept in Tamil Nadu. “Tiffin is a modern introduction thanks to the British. Generations of people, who used to work for the East India Company, mostly vegetarians, started eating tiffin in the morning before going to work,” explains Krish Ashok in his book, Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking. In another segment of the book, he writes, “During the 18th and 19th century people working with the British, adapted to their ways, mostly the Brahmins began to have breakfast and evening snacks. They began to have dosa, vada during the mornings, as well. During tea time it was pakodas and adai (a lentil crepe).”

But, when did restaurants start serving tiffin menus? “Around late 18th century, small restaurants started mostly by migrants from Udupi, introduced tiffin menus. It led to the availability of tiffin items outside of home kitchens,” notes Bhat.

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In the spirit of celebrating age-old food traditions, here’s a list of restaurants in Chennai, Coimbatore and Madurai that offer piping hot tiffin items.

Down memory lane
As a teenager, I remember going to Chennai to visit my grandparents. On shopping trips with my mother, we would make a mandatory tiffin stop at Ratna Café in Triplicane. A nondescript place in those days, it now describes itself as ‘Chennai’s favourite Restaurant since 1948’ on Instagram and has had a fancy makeover. The aroma of their sambar always did the trick as it wafted through the air and beckoned me from miles. Their deep-fried bajjis and vada were irresistible.
Triplicane, Chennai
Price for two: 200 approx.

Hotspot for bondas
Krishna Restaurant at New Woodlands, Mylapore, is a hotspot for tiffin lovers. They are one of the few places which serves a morning tiffin from 7-10.30 am and then again in the second half of the day between 3-6pm. Their veg cutlet, aloo bonda and Mysore bonda (soft deep-fried snack made with all-purpose flour, rice flour, curd, baking soda and spices), get sold out as quickly as they are prepared in the kitchen. For those seeking something more substantial, there is a variety of dosas, uttapam and vadas. Raghunathan recalls going there while dating his now wife. “I used to pick her up from office, go for a quick tiffin and then drop her back,” he reminisces.
New Woodlands Hotel, Dr Radha Krishnan Salai, Mylapore, Chennai 
Price for two: 350

Not just sweets
Otherwise popular for their pure ghee sweets, Nithya Amirtham in Mylapore, is a place where people make a beeline in the evening for their limited, but delicious tiffin offerings. Their hotsellers include deep-fried onion bajji, plantain bajji and vazhaipoo vada (banana flower vada made with chana dal). Paired with their strong filter coffee, one can enjoy a tasty tiffin under 200.
N Mada St, Madhavaperumalpuram, Mylapore, Chennai
Price for two: 150

Fried snacks galore
Contrary to its name, Idlies, in T. Nagar does not serve only idlis. Their mor kozambhu bonda (a popular Tamil-Brahmin wedding dish with a base of coconut and yogurt, and lentil vadas immersed in it), vegetable somasi (South-Indian style samosa) and javvarisi urundai (sabudana vadas) are hugely popular; because not too many places in Chennai serve these.
Bazullah Rd, T. Nagar, Chennai
Price for two: 100

Mini tiffins
If you happen to be in Coimbatore, Tiffin House- The taste of South, is your best bet. Their mini tiffin, comprising dosa, idli, vada, pongal and poori, is a treat many succumb to.
Singanallur, Coimbatore
Price for two: 300

Dosas and more
Apart from its varieties of idlis and pongal, Sri Krishna Tiffin Room is famous for its vast array of dosas—ragi dosa, wheat dosa, rava dosa, ghee rava roast dosa—which naturally attracts large crowds. People relish these with coffee, or hot badam milk.
Lakshmi Mills Colony, Pappanaickenpalayam, Coimbatore
Price for two: 300

Evening hub
In Madurai, Meenakshi Bhavan, known for its good quality evening tiffin is a popular place. Their uttapam, rawa dosa, podi dosa and onion bajji have many takers.
Sathamangalam, Madurai
Tiffin for two: 200

Simply tiffins
A modest-looking eatery with limited seating, KG Veg Restaurant in Madurai is known for its simple and honest flavours with tiffin dishes like, pongal, idli, dosas and vadas.
SS Colony, Madurai
Price for two: 200

Mini Ribeiro is a food writer and consultant based in Goa. 

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