It is lunchtime on a warm December afternoon in Chennai – that period of the year when the city plays host to the annual Madras Music Season. An impressive line-up is scheduled to perform at the Narada Gana Sabha, one of the more popular concert halls. But curiously, its entrance is deserted. Instead, the crowds are congregated at a small canteen behind the hall. Women in their kanjivarams, youngsters in kurtas, pyjamas and stoles, and older men in silk veshtis sit side by side at long tables, waiting for the elai sapadu, or meals, served on the banana leaf. While some servers are busy ladling rice, sambar and payasam onto the leaf, others take orders of rice meals, sweetmeats and filter coffee from the rapidly burgeoning crowd.

The sight is common at Chennai’s music and dance festival, which is held at nearly 50 venues during the Tamil month of Margazhi. While the decades-old festival is synonymous with Carnatic music and classical dance, it is increasingly becoming known for the sabha canteens, whose scrumptious food draws music connoisseurs and epicureans alike.

“A canteen would once sell coffee and bajji (fritters),” said Balaji Pattappa, the owner of Pattappa’s, which caters at one of the oldest sabhas, the Madras Music Academy. Things began to change around six-seven years ago, when menus were made more creative and expansive. To the traditional items, such as keerai vada, vatha kuzhambu and kootu, were added new innovations like watermelon rasam and vegetable payasam. This attracted larger crowds, and seeing the footfall rise, “the sabhas too gradually began giving importance to food”.

“You cannot listen to good music when you’re not full,” declared Unnikrishnan, a music rasika, or connoisseur, from Coimbatore, who has been attending the Margazhi festival for over a decade. “Also, in Chennai, nothing runs without coffee.”

The banana leaf lunch at Brahma Gana Sabha. Photo credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.

The music season is spread over 10 weeks – from mid-November to January – and, according to Uma Srinivasan, sabha canteens make life easy for avid music enthusiasts like her during this extended period. “When you come for a kutcheri (musical performance), you [don’t have time to] cook and neither can you [head somewhere to eat something] in the break as you have to come back for another concert,” she said. “So this tradition started out as a convenience.”

Most sabha canteens serve four meals a day – breakfast, lunch, evening snacks and dinner. Though their prices may be on the higher side, most people don’t seem to mind it. “These [canteens] are very helpful, especially for people with season tickets,” said Unnikrishnan. “I normally combine [some of my] Chennai trips to coincide with this festival.” The salubrious weather in the city during the winter months also adds to the appeal of the food.

Varied treats

The canteen at the Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha is full of customers – including rasikas, office-goers and children – who are intently reading the menu board put up by the caterers, Mountbatten Mani Iyer. Dishes such as papaya roast, sweet potato vadas, badam polis and chikku pudding have made Mountbatten Mani Iyer a household name in the city. “It is our third hat trick this year with this sabha,” said K Srinivasan, with a smile. Srinivasan and his father Mani Iyer have been in the catering business since the 1960s. “People have told me that they save money for 11 months just for these 20 days at the festival,” said Srinivasan. “When you go to a hotel and have lunch, you usually feel very heavy. But our food is very light.”

The history behind the caterer’s name is as colourful as its menu. “Before Independence, Lord Mountbatten came to Madras to the government building in Guindy,” said Srinivasan. “At that time, my father was around 17, and he got an order to make a pure South Indian lunch comprising badam halwa, potatoes, sambar rice and pal payasam. As a way of praising my father’s excellent food, Lord Mountbatten conferred the title upon him.”

Mountbatten Mani Iyer caterers at the Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha. Photo credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.

While the Mountbatten Mani Iyer canteen is known for its unique spin on traditional recipes, Pattappa’s focuses on age-old traditional recipes. Ksheerannam, akkaravadisal (both milk-based sweetmeats), green chilli halwa, lemon halwa, mor kali (buttermilk upma), white pumpkin sweet raita, rasavangi (brinjal gravy), mor kootu (buttermilk gravy) and sennai sodhi (yam curry) are just some of the dishes they specialise in.

“The response for these traditional items is huge,” Pattappa said. “You do not get them anywhere else [nor do you] get these recipes everywhere. You get a sakkarai pongal (sweet pongal) everywhere but not ksheerannam.”

The menu is decided about 15 days in advance. The more popular the kutcheri, the more elaborate the menu. The food, says Patappa, has to “be interesting enough for youngsters and…light for the older crowd”. Special items are slotted for speciality concerts and the weekends, when the crowds are bigger.

Madras Music Academy. Photo credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.

Entry into the sabha canteens was once restricted to people with concert tickets. But after the canteens were opened up to everyone, the kutcheris and canteens began having their own audiences, says Patappa – now “there is no connection between the kutcheris and food”. Nevertheless, catering for the sabha canteens will always remain a “gamble”, says Srinivasan. “If we cook for 200 people and only 100 turn up, it is a loss for us. At the same time, if we get more guests, we have to make more food. No matter what, our job is to get the food going by 7.30 in the morning.”

For the hordes thronging the canteens, the experience is as much about food as it is about the sense of community and conversation. Uma Balan, who lives in Malaysia, visits Chennai every year in December to attend the concerts. “The sweets here are exotic and the waiters serve [them fresh] with pure ghee,” she said. “I also noticed that whenever I eat food in a particular sabha, a person sitting beside me will suggest a dish to try from another sabha.”

The menu board at Madras Music Academy. Photo credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.