What to Eat and Drink in Chennai

The Tamil capital has an eclectic food scene, so dining out in Chennai is always going to be interesting. You’ll find opportunities to sample South Indian dishes and specials unique to Tamil Nadu, but often the cuisine in Chennai is a cosmopolitan melting pot of local and regional influences. There is something for each budget in a city like Chennai, so you won’t be going hungry! Have a look and see what to eat and drink in Chennai when you come to visit.

What to Eat and Drink in Chennai: Food

South Indian Thali

Tamil cuisine is a unique branch that often gets lumped into Indian cooking as a whole. You’ll find that the core traditional dishes in Chennai is mostly made up of rice, lentils and legumes, heavily spiced with curry leaves, mustard seeds, coriander, ginger, garlic, chilli, cinnamon, cardamom and more. While vegetarian cuisine is a big part of Indian food, you’ll also find curries and dishes that have meat in them in South India.


A traditional Tamil meal, called a thali or ‘meals’, is often a conglomerate of dishes served on a banana leaf. The banana leaf is a tradition stretching that is not only rooted in religion, but is also said to draw the toxins out of the food.

Tamil meals consist of rice, served up with a curry or a sambar, accompanied by salad, pickle and chutney.

Idly, Sambar & Chutney

Common dishes from Tamil Nadu and Chennai are:

  •      Dosa – crepes made from fermented batter of rice and “urad dal” (black gram). This is often served up with a Sambar and chutneys.
  •      Sambar – is a thick stew made from lentils and a mix of spices.
  •      Idli – are steamed rice cakes, not too dissimilar to dosai in that urad dal and fermented rice batter are used. This usually accompanies a portion of sambar with a side of chutney.
  •      Rasam – a lentil soup made with pepper, coriander and cumin seeds.
  •      Puliyodarai – a popular Tamil dish which combines a mixture of fried tamarind paste and cooked rice. Often the tamarind paste is fried with spices and herbs.

What to Eat and Drink in Chennai: Coffee            

South Indian Coffee

Coffee plays a huge role in Tamil culture. In South India, coffee is dubbed as Kaapi or simply as a filter coffee. It’s made from a mix of around 70-80% coffee beans with the rest of the mix being made up of chicory. Coffee beans are grown in the Western Ghats mountain range in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and has become a fixture in South Indian culture.

The coffee is prepared in a metal device containing two cylindrical cups, where one is pierced at the bottom and then nested into the ‘tumbler’ cup. The coffee is filled in the top cup and hot water dripped through into the bottom cup. This brew is very potent, and normally consumed by adding a couple of tablespoons of the coffee to a cup of boiling milk and sugar.

The coffee is drunk out of a tumbler and usually cooled with a wide metal saucer called a ‘dabarah’, where the coffee is tipped forward and back between the two receptacles to cool it down.

Coffee is huge in Chennai, and you’ll be offered a cup in any household. You’ll also come across cafes around the city too.

What to Eat and Drink in Chennai: Other Drinks

Sugar cane juice

  • Chai – this sweet and spicy milky tea can be found on every street corner in Chennai. It should be creamy, frothy with an accent of spices and be deliciously sweet. Perfect for any time of day.
  • Lime soda – a refershing drink made from freshly squeezed limes, soda water and flavoured with either salt or sugar. Make sure you specify how you take your lime soda, just incase you want medium sweet and not salty or overly sweetened.
  • Coconut water – you’ll see people on the street corners with piles of young coconuts. When you buy this they will lop off the top and give you a straw so you can directly drink it from the coconut. Once you’re finished, you can ask the seller to cut the coconut open so you can eat the young flesh.
  • Raw sugar cane juice – another popular drink found on the streets. Long raw sugar canes are put through a juice press, which extracts the juice and discards the wooden parts the cane. The juice is then ready, and you’ll find it’s quite a refreshing drink when it’s hot.

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