Sundari akka, famed for her Marina Beach stall, has been invited to take over the Westin Chennai kitchen!
It’s not every day that a 53-year-old who cooks on Marina Beach gets a VIP invitation — to take over a five-star kitchen. So of course, Sundari akka, who has been flipping fish slices and dishing out prawn masala for close to 20 years now, was a tad apprehensive. At the time, she couldn’t have known that the team of chefs at The Westin Chennai Velachery led by Executive chef Ganesh Teli were just as nervous — fingers crossed.
“We’ve never done anything like this,” says Lakshmanan Ramanathan, the hotel’s General Manager. Over Thala Curry (straight out of Sundari Akka’s popular store front menu) —Ramanathan shares that this festival, Flavours from The Grand Marina Beach, is the first of many in an effort to infuse contemporary plates with beloved local appeal. In this case, literally straight off the streets.
There is an addictive Lamb Liver Curry (Attu Eeral Kozhumbu) to be had, the hottest crowd-favourite closer to the waves, Prawn sukka (cooked with handground spices and coconut) and the dish we can’t stop raving about — Para Meen (Barracuda fish, fresh off the live grill).
Licking our fingers from the heady spice mix on that Para Meen masala, we are introduced to Sundari akka, who is as cheery by the grand buffet set up at Seasonal Tastes, as in her natural habitat by sand and surf. “The kitchen here is super,” she beams. For starters, she contrasts with glee, “I am used to beach breeze but now I am cooking in a kitchen with AC!” She proceeds to marvel at the myriad burner sizes, a far cry from her single burner with a giant kadai as well as the prospect of cooking one dish multiple times a day, as opposed to a bulk batch — to keep the plating as fresh as the catch.
What else is in store
• From the live grill section, expect Sundari akka’s home marinades on lady fish, crab, squid and king fish
• Vegetarians can look out for Avarakkai kara kozhumbu (broad beans in a chilli and tamarind gravy) and Palakottai Podimass (jackfruit seeds stir-fried with gun powder)
• Finish off with traditional desserts like Elaneer payasam (tender coconut payasam) and Poosinikkai halwa (ash gourd halwa)
Incidentally, Sundari does everything short of actually catch the fish herself — waking up at 2 am to head out to Kasimedu, picking the best of the lot, cleaning and of course grinding the masalas with recipes passed down by her mother.
Will her shop by the beach be closed during the 10 days of the Westin festival, we wonder? She pauses and stares at us in mock horror. “My shop can’t even be closed for 10 minutes!” she responds, with business acumen that might be sharper than a fish bone on your tongue. Her son who studied hotel management will be manning the kadai on the beach till she is back.
Meanwhile, you can get a ‘meen’ selfie with Sundari akka if you’d like, you’re going to want one we predict. One serving of her tangy Mother’s Style Fish Curry (Amma Ven Meen Kozhumbu) — and you have no choice, but to become a fan.
February 7 to 16. For dinner only. 7 pm to 11 pm. INR 2,299 inclusive of taxes per person for the buffet.