Country hop with Persian saffron tea, Sri Lankan hot buttered cuttlefish and Malaysian nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaves. No mask, visor or hazmat suit required
“To tell you the truth, I am a little shattered,” confesses Nasrin Karimi over phone from her newest avatar of Shiraz. The elegant restaurant, popular for its delicate Persian food, laced with dried mint, rosewater and saffron, launched at the Cholamandal Artists’ Village in 2010, and moved locations twice after that.
Early this year, Shiraz moved again, this time to a beachside café in Neelankarai, and Nasrin was just settling into her new space when COVID-19 struck. She quickly pivoted into delivery, creating a flexible new menu featuring classics, like berry pulao, chelo kebabs and ghormeh sabzi (a comforting stew bursting with the freshness of cilantro and celery).
She also began baking cakes for lockdown birthdays: her Shiraz cake, woven with saffron, pistachios and almond, and the ‘Persian love cake,’ a fluffy sponge slathered with fresh cream, pistachios and rose water.
However, realising that a keeping a large restaurant runninng is impractical now, given current physical distancing norms, she has relocated again, this time to a small space in Akkarai.
“This Shiraz will be more affordable. And I will focus on sea food — locally caught crabs, prawn and fish,” she explains. The menu will also feature easy takeaway food: a range of sandwiches (tuna, chicken, cheese), sausage rolls, tall glasses of guava-barley slush and steamy cups of saffron tea. Ideal for picnics on ECR, now that people are slowly venturing out again on weekends.
Honestly, after six months on the couch, a sandwich in the car sounds like a delightful adventure!
Call Nasrin on 9840572126
Not surprisingly, the hot butter cuttlefish sells out. Tossed in butter along with garlic, chilli paste, capsicum and spring onion, it is a pleasing balance of sweetness and spice.
When Sri Lankan sisters Mayuri Naguleswaran and Prashanthini Ragunath decided to start Café Ceylon in Besant Nagar, where they both live, they curated all their favourite recipes, and then whittled them down into a realistic, short menu suitable for a home kitchen.
“We are very new to this,” says Mayuri, adding, “But we do Sri Lankan cooking at home, and have noticed that a lot of people like it. We also noticed that it is quite hard to find regular Sri Lankan food in Chennai. So, a few weeks ago, we decided to start taking orders.”
The sisters were surprised at the immediate, and enthusiastic, response. “I thought we would grow slowly — we only cook on Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” says Mayuri, adding however, that they are busy through the weekend.
Of course, since this is a home kitchen, following fairly laborious traditional techniques, the numbers they can cater to are limited. “We make our own coconut milk — you don’t get the authentic taste with store bought powders. We also make sambol, hand pounding it with chillies and onions everyday,” says Mayuri.
The menu includes spicy maalu (fish) cutlets, devilled prawns, crab curry and vambatu moju (spiced brinjal). For dessert, try the sweet lavaria, string hoppers rolled with jaggery and bursting with shredded coconut.
Contact Café Ceylon on 9092446222
Vishalla Vairavan’s garden is fragrant with pandan leaves. “Only now I know their worth,” she laughs, between planning how to use them in her menu this weekend. After years of cooking for appreciative friends and family, Vishalla recently launched Rusiya, specialising in Malaysian dishes.
“I travel to Kuala Lampur at least once a year, and I have a friend who caters for weddings there. I learnt from her,” she says. Vishalla adds, however, that she has tweaked her recipes for Chennai. “There is no such thing as ‘vegetarian’ in Malaysia — even spring rolls have prawn paste in them!” she says, explaining how she finds inventive ways to create vegetarian options on every menu.
Her mee goreng, for example, replaces shrimp with tofu, capsicum and bok choy. Lacy roti jala is served with eggplant sambol for the vegetarians, while the rest get the traditional version with prawn.
Since Vishalla is operating from her home kitchen, she posts her menu on Instagram and Facebook on Thursdays, and closes orders once she hits about 80 (each portion serves two). The food is cooked and delivered on Sunday.
She is trying to keep the packaging as eco-friendly and traditional as possible. “I used to wrap my nasi lemak in leaves and newspaper, now I use butter paper and palm leaf baskets,” she says.
Hailing from Karaikudi, she is also the author of 100 Chettinad recipes, and enjoys experimenting with a variety of cuisines, so her weekend menus are flexible.
Keep an eye out for the sweet treats. “I make kuih dadar, which are coconut milk pancakes flavoured with pandan leaves and filled with coconut and palm sugar. Also onde onde: rice balls stuffed with palm sugar, and corn custard,” she says.
For those of us craving a quick vacation, she makes buttery tarts, reminiscent of a day at the beach, topped with sticky homemade pineapple jam.
Call Rusiya on 9841074777
This weekly column tracks the city’s shifting culinary landscape. Heard of a new food venture? Tell me: email@example.com