There’s a piece of advice I received from a septuagenarian during a training workshop in Singapore in 2016. He told me to never lose my childlike curiosity and added that I would thank him for this tip when I reach his age. I’ve hung on to this advice, it has certainly helped me make fun discoveries. Sometimes these discoveries can be just a few miles down the road, like the vadacurry in Chennai’s busy Saidapet neighbourhood.
There are few dishes that are strongly linked to Chennai’s foodscape and are part of the city’s popular culture (it was also the name of a 2014 Tamil feature film) like the vadacurry. Google vadacurry and you’re likely to see recipes for Saidapettai vadacurry; this dish has been intertwined with the Saidapet area in Chennai and the spot where you get the best version of this dish in Chennai. Mari Hotel is tucked away in one of the busy streets of Saidapet. It was established in the 1950s, it’s easy to be transported to Saidapet of the 1950s in this eatery. Almost everyone who visits this eatery orders the vadacurry, like two of my fellow diners who have been visiting here since the 1970s. My friend Arun Kumar who lives just 100 metres from this eatery tells me about how his family’s Sunday breakfast ritual almost included a ‘thooku’ (A stainless steel bucket style container) of vadacurry from Mari Hotel.
The other spot for vadacurry is Motel Mamalla (most locals know it as Mamalla Hotel), a popular breakfast pit-stop at Mamallapuram, home of the iconic 7th Century Pallava era shore temple and en route from Chennai to Pondicherry. I’ve been stopping there for over a decade and it never disappoints. Kumar started as a cook at Motel Mamalla almost two decades ago; today he is the head cook. He tells me that this is a dish that has been on their menu since the day he joined the restaurant. He shared some of his tips (see recipe) to make this dish at home but admits that its tough work. His team makes this dish twice a day – in the morning for breakfast and again in the evening for ‘tiffin’ time.
The vadacurry is essentially a coarse dal mix in a flavourful gravy. It’s almost the same prep as the popular masala vada. In some ways the use of channa dal dumplings is quite similar to Besan Khadi. One of the theories that surround the origin of vadacurry is that this dish was made with leftover vada bits that are tossed into a gravy. That’s quite plausible, by all accounts this was a dish that was probably invented in a restaurant like Mari Hotel before it became a popular Sunday breakfast option in many homes.
While vadacurry is usually served as a side, I enjoy digging into the bowl with a spoon. It’s usually served in many homes and restaurants with idli, idiappam, set dosa (that’s the popular combination at Motel Mamalla) and occasionally even with poori. You can steam the dumplings or fry it like a masala vada as it’s done in the recipe based on Kumar’s inputs:
Breakfast Special: How To Make Vadacurry:
For the Vada:
• 1 Cup Chana Dal
• 1-inch Ginger chopped
• 4 Red Chilli
• ½ Tsp Fennel Seeds
• 1 sprig curry leaves
• Asafoetida: a pinch
• Salt to Taste
• Oil for deep frying
For The Coconut Cashew Paste:
• 4 Tbsp Grated Coconut
• 10 Cashew Nuts (optional)
For The Curry:
• 2 Tbsp Oil
• Whole Spices: 1-inch cinnamon, 2 cloves, 1 cardamom, 1 bay leaf, 1 star anise, 1 Tbsp fennel seeds and 1 kalpasi (Black stone flower)
• 2 Medium Onions (finely chopped)
• 2 Green Chili (chopped)
• 1 Tsp Ginger Garlic Paste
• 2 Medium Tomato (chopped)
• Salt to Taste
• 1/2 Tsp Turmeric Powder
• 2 Tsp Red Chili Powder
• 2 Tsp Coriander Powder
• 1/2 Garam Masala Powder
• 2 Cups Water
• Coriander Leaves
- For the Vada, soak the chana dal for 2 hours. Strain the water and add the dal to a mixer jar. (Avoid adding water to the mixture while grinding, this ensures a crisper consistency).
- Add fennel seeds, red chillies, curry leaves, ginger, asafoetida and salt. Grind it into a coarse batter.
- Heat some oil for deep frying and slowly drop the vada mixture like pakora into the hot oil and deep fry them till slight golden brown. Crumble the vadas (don’t shred them) into small pieces and keep it aside.
- For coconut cashew paste, in a mixer jar, add coconut, cashews (optional) and grind it to a fine paste by adding some water.
- For the curry, heat some oil in a kadai, add cinnamon, fennel seeds, bay leaf, star anise, stone flower, curry leaves, onions, green chillies and sauté till they are soft.
- Add ginger-garlic paste and sauté along. Add tomatoes and sauté, add turmeric powder, coriander powder, garam masala, red chilli powder and salt. Sauté everything well, add water and bring it to a boil.
Then add the coconut-cashew paste and mix well. Add the vada pieces and close and cook for 10 minutes. Finally, garnish it with coriander leaves and serve hot.
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