As a child growing up in Coimbatore, Chitra Iyer had an after-school ritual. Every day, she would go to the nearest potti kadai or box shop, clutching a 50 paise coin. There, her eyes would find the glass jar filled with sticky orange balls speckled with white. “I have missed many a school bus in my journey to eating this thaen mittai,” said the Chennai-based illustrator.

Thaen mittai is a snack that Iyer describes as a “purely Tamil Nadu thing”. Made by grinding together idli rice and urad dal to form a vada-like batter, it has food colouring and is fried into tiny misshapen spheres which are soaked in sugar syrup and topped with powdered sugar.

“My mother remembers eating these when she was a child,” Iyer added. “The snack has travelled through the generations. Today, you can even find it in smaller villages and lesser developed areas in Chennai.”

Iyer, 27, recently created a set of 25 water colour illustrations paying homage to the city’s favourite foods and eating spaces. She shared the series online through the month of September, and is now selling the illustrations as postcards.

Thaen meetai.

“People love the fact that these are centred on food that they grew up eating, and still do – from eating thaen mittai after school to munching on popcorn at Sathyam theatre,” she said.

Iyer’s fondest memories revolve around food and art. An only child with a mother whose job meant they had to move homes every few years, she didn’t have much to do to entertain herself. “I was given colours and paper, so that I could keep myself occupied during vacations and I didn’t trouble anyone else,” she said. “A few of my aunts and cousins also draw, so I started out by copying their work.” Iyer soon graduated to copying characters and sketches from her cousins’ comic books. She said she had a particular fondness for Jughead from Archie Comics, because of their shared love for eating.

Iyer abandoned the pursuit of art to study literature and become a writer, but her gastronomic passion never went away: a dedicated cook, she would post pictures of her food that would frequently catch eyes. People suggested she share recipes on a blog, but she was not interested in becoming just another food blogger. Instead, years later, after rekindling interest in drawing, she decided to turn recipes into doodles.

Masala kadalai.

The doodle series kicked off with masala kadalai or masala peanuts, which she usually has at Elliot’s Beach.

“There’s a short, fat lady who always wears a sari with a red border, from whom I buy this snack,” she said. “There are steamed groundnuts, chopped onions, cucumber and tomatoes topped with lemon, red chilli powder, salt and coriander. If you ask for the special, she adds chopped raw mangoes. It’s a healthy and tasty snack and perfect for a walk on the beach.”

Recipes remained the subject of the series, until Iyer abandoned the idea because she didn’t like her handwriting.

One day, while she was out buying chips from one of her favourite places in Chennai, New Kerala Hot Chips, she decided to draw the store. “In Chennai, our main festivals revolve around eating – it’s one of our best relationships,” she said, with a laugh. “Everyone has their favourite dosa place, or sweet shop or street snack.”

What you see in the rest of the series are her favourite places.

Balaji Sandwich Stall.

Each drawing comes with a caption describing the food, where to get it and Iyer’s memories of the dish. There’s the murukku from Grant Sweets, the ghee-laden Shree Krishna Sweets’ staple, Mysore Pak, the flavoured popcorn from Sathyam Theatre, jigarthandai – a cooling milk-based drink with badam jelly, ice cream and basundi – best had at Murugan Idli shop, and the dosai shaped in a triangle at Sangeetha restaurant.

One illustration features Bovonto, the local cola. “It’s become very popular here after the recent ban on Pepsi and Coke,” said Iyer. “It’s a slightly grapey and very sweet drink.”

Some of Iyer’s favourite shops include the fruit shop on Greams Road, which was all the the rage when she was in school and one of the city’s favourite sandwich shops – Balaji Sandwich Stand (better known as the Alsa Mall Sandwich Shop).


“When you look at the drawing, you should get a feel of the place and why it is important to us,” she said. There’s also Aavin Booth, a milk booth that has people queue up with milk cards to get their day’s quota. “It was our morning chore, rushing out of the house, holding onto the cheap cardboard card and waiting behind all the old uncles, to get the packets, get the card punched and run home to give it to ma before getting ready for school,” Iyer said.

In the future, Iyer plans to cover the food landscape of Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad.

Dosai at Sangeetha.
Chutney Sandwich at Balaji Sandwich Stall.
Filter kappi.

All images are courtesy Chitra Iyer.