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Vegetarian variety at Chennai Tiffins

Diwali means feasting-time in Little India

Bright young things from Qualcomm. Chennai Tiffins has South India tastes they crave.
Bright young things from Qualcomm. Chennai Tiffins has South India tastes they crave.

“Imagine Christmas,” says Trivikram, “but in India. That tells you what Diwali is like.”

Trivikram (I have to ask what his name means. It means “Triple Victory”) and his buddies (Anupam, Sahana, Sindhu, Nikhil) all work at Qualcomm. They are doing dinner here at Chennai Tiffins, in Little India, up Mira Mesa way, for a taste of home.

It’s about eight at night, so no time to fool around. I’m heading for the wild blue yonder north of here when I see something about an annual Indian festival coming up over the five days around this Thursday, November 4th. And — incredible for a festival that I have never heard of — so many different Indian cultures share it and make it part of their story. For all of them, Diwali is the celebration of good conquering evil. And it involves lots of feasting. You might call it the Mardi Gras of the Indian world.

Place

Chennai Tiffins

9484 Black Mountain Road, Suite H, San Diego

So I jump off the bus at Black Mountain Road and Miramar on the edge of Little India and am soon walking past groceries and eating-places like Biriyani King and, hey hey, Chennai Tiffins.

This is a Tuesday, but Chennai has quite a crowd in there. I head in to a white-tiled, blond-wood room with green booths. What with the State Bank of India, the Shri Mandir temple, and the Surati Indian grocery store around the corner, this is as Indian as it gets in San Diego. And here inside Chennai Tiffins, with its red brick and shiny white tile walls, you can just imagine this quartier being part of some tropical Indian or Sri Lankan city. 

Maria: will guide you through the menu.

“Still open for dinner?” I ask the gal, Maria. With the name “Tiffin,” which the Brits took to India (I think it relates to “tipple”), you expect light food, fun atmosphere, early closing.

But we’re good. “Till 9:30,” she says. She also says they are vegetarian here and don’t serve beer. “But they do at Biriyani King. You’d have time to go there first if you want.”

Hmm. Generous idea. So I do. I cross over the little road to Biriyani King and order up a large bottle of Taj Mahal beer, cold and delish! Not unlike a Coors, actually. Costs $8.99.  And to help it down, I order up a couple of roasting-hot potato samosas ($3 each), fresh cooked. They’re big, but I have been running on empty, so these plump babies are good for starters. Nice crispy-thin pastry shells. But it’s not long before I’m back across at Chennai Tiffins. Maria — she’s from Guatemala but has worked here long enough to know her Indian food — says to expect southern Indian food only.

“So lots of dosa — fermented crepes — curries, rice, uthapam — thick crepes,” she says. “Or you could try our lunch special. We still have it, our South Indian thali, for $14.99.”

One of four Indian beers at Biriyani King. Nine bucks, but worth it.

Thali turns out to be the name for this platter that carries a whole bunch of small bowls of different food. It is a common Indian way of eating, and also works well in a celebration situation like Diwali, where Hindis, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and people of other faiths all eat and celebrate together. Way to go, India! I see dishes I have never heard of, like rasas wada: deep-fried lentil donuts immersed in rasam, a spiced soup from the south with tamarind, tomatoes, other spices and herbs, mustard, cumin, fenugreek and black pepper. It is supposed to be good for your gut if you drink some every day. Definitely makes the dipped lentil donut taste more interesting. 

Or we can enter the endless world of dosas, the huge thin crepes made of fermented batter that are at the center of southern Indian cooking. Palli podi dosa ($10.99) is a crepe topped with a spicy peanut mix. The spinach paneer dosa ($12.99) is topped with spinach gravy and stuffed with cottage cheese mix. The Mysore masala dosa is stuffed with potato masala.

I can see Maria and the staff of Indian women are keen to get this show on the road, what with the clock ticking towards nine, so what the heck: I go for the thali, and pretty soon this wide circular tray arrives with a dozen little stainless bowls filled with everything from mor kalumbu (a delicious yellow buttermilk-based curry with lots of sweet potatoes) to chana masala - a spiced garbanzo (chickpea) snack. Plus you get a row of orange, green, and creamy chutneys. Have to say, this whole thali display for $14.99 is an incredible deal.

Turns out the Diwali festival (“Diwali” mysteriously means “a series of lights”) is about the Hindu avatar Rama’s victory over the evil spirit Ravana, and celebrates his return home, mainly through fireworks, feasts, and culintary extravagances like kaju (“cashew”) barfi (“sweets”) that you can get best at the Surati eatery and grocery store across the way.

What $14.99 buys. Two curries, lemon rice, fried lentils, dal fry, sambar lentil soup, lentil donut, chana masala garbanzo, beetroot poriyal, dosa, papadam, three chutneys.

Man, I could definitely get used to this. Haven’t tasted half the flavors of these curries, let alone those sweets. Yes, there’s a lot of deep frying going on, but tons of veggies too. So, pretty healthy overall.  But what really gets me about this display of vegetarian power is how they can make such tasty combos of seemingly tasteless elements, like avail, beans, carrots and potatoes cooked in coconut milk ($11.99), or that paneer butter masala, which is cottage cheese cooked in heavy cream and spicy sauce ($13.99). Come to think of it, I should’ve tried it, just to see how da heck they could make something tasty out of it. Guess I’ll have to do this again.

Meanwhile, I head out into the night. Only the Shri Mandir temple is still open. Now, all I have to do is see if there’s still a bus to take me back down to the world. Happy Diwali, everybody!

  • The Place: Chennai Tiffins, 9484 Black Mountain Road, Suite H; 858-566-7300
  • Prices: Sambar idly (rice patties in lentil soup), $7.99; medu wada (deep-fried lentil donut, $5.99; chili bajji (peppers in chickpea fritter); masala dosa (potato-stuffed), $10.99; chettinadu dosa (onion gravy, $10.99; palli podi dosa (spicy peanut mix, $10.99); spinach paneer dosa ($12.99); Mysore masala dosa (potato masala, $10.99)
  • Hours: 11:30am-2:30pm; 5:30-9:30pm
  • Bus: 31
  • Nearest Bus Stops: Black Mountain Road and Miramar Road
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Bright young things from Qualcomm. Chennai Tiffins has South India tastes they crave.
Bright young things from Qualcomm. Chennai Tiffins has South India tastes they crave.

“Imagine Christmas,” says Trivikram, “but in India. That tells you what Diwali is like.”

Trivikram (I have to ask what his name means. It means “Triple Victory”) and his buddies (Anupam, Sahana, Sindhu, Nikhil) all work at Qualcomm. They are doing dinner here at Chennai Tiffins, in Little India, up Mira Mesa way, for a taste of home.

It’s about eight at night, so no time to fool around. I’m heading for the wild blue yonder north of here when I see something about an annual Indian festival coming up over the five days around this Thursday, November 4th. And — incredible for a festival that I have never heard of — so many different Indian cultures share it and make it part of their story. For all of them, Diwali is the celebration of good conquering evil. And it involves lots of feasting. You might call it the Mardi Gras of the Indian world.

Place

Chennai Tiffins

9484 Black Mountain Road, Suite H, San Diego

So I jump off the bus at Black Mountain Road and Miramar on the edge of Little India and am soon walking past groceries and eating-places like Biriyani King and, hey hey, Chennai Tiffins.

This is a Tuesday, but Chennai has quite a crowd in there. I head in to a white-tiled, blond-wood room with green booths. What with the State Bank of India, the Shri Mandir temple, and the Surati Indian grocery store around the corner, this is as Indian as it gets in San Diego. And here inside Chennai Tiffins, with its red brick and shiny white tile walls, you can just imagine this quartier being part of some tropical Indian or Sri Lankan city. 

Maria: will guide you through the menu.

“Still open for dinner?” I ask the gal, Maria. With the name “Tiffin,” which the Brits took to India (I think it relates to “tipple”), you expect light food, fun atmosphere, early closing.

But we’re good. “Till 9:30,” she says. She also says they are vegetarian here and don’t serve beer. “But they do at Biriyani King. You’d have time to go there first if you want.”

Hmm. Generous idea. So I do. I cross over the little road to Biriyani King and order up a large bottle of Taj Mahal beer, cold and delish! Not unlike a Coors, actually. Costs $8.99.  And to help it down, I order up a couple of roasting-hot potato samosas ($3 each), fresh cooked. They’re big, but I have been running on empty, so these plump babies are good for starters. Nice crispy-thin pastry shells. But it’s not long before I’m back across at Chennai Tiffins. Maria — she’s from Guatemala but has worked here long enough to know her Indian food — says to expect southern Indian food only.

“So lots of dosa — fermented crepes — curries, rice, uthapam — thick crepes,” she says. “Or you could try our lunch special. We still have it, our South Indian thali, for $14.99.”

One of four Indian beers at Biriyani King. Nine bucks, but worth it.

Thali turns out to be the name for this platter that carries a whole bunch of small bowls of different food. It is a common Indian way of eating, and also works well in a celebration situation like Diwali, where Hindis, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and people of other faiths all eat and celebrate together. Way to go, India! I see dishes I have never heard of, like rasas wada: deep-fried lentil donuts immersed in rasam, a spiced soup from the south with tamarind, tomatoes, other spices and herbs, mustard, cumin, fenugreek and black pepper. It is supposed to be good for your gut if you drink some every day. Definitely makes the dipped lentil donut taste more interesting. 

Or we can enter the endless world of dosas, the huge thin crepes made of fermented batter that are at the center of southern Indian cooking. Palli podi dosa ($10.99) is a crepe topped with a spicy peanut mix. The spinach paneer dosa ($12.99) is topped with spinach gravy and stuffed with cottage cheese mix. The Mysore masala dosa is stuffed with potato masala.

I can see Maria and the staff of Indian women are keen to get this show on the road, what with the clock ticking towards nine, so what the heck: I go for the thali, and pretty soon this wide circular tray arrives with a dozen little stainless bowls filled with everything from mor kalumbu (a delicious yellow buttermilk-based curry with lots of sweet potatoes) to chana masala - a spiced garbanzo (chickpea) snack. Plus you get a row of orange, green, and creamy chutneys. Have to say, this whole thali display for $14.99 is an incredible deal.

Turns out the Diwali festival (“Diwali” mysteriously means “a series of lights”) is about the Hindu avatar Rama’s victory over the evil spirit Ravana, and celebrates his return home, mainly through fireworks, feasts, and culintary extravagances like kaju (“cashew”) barfi (“sweets”) that you can get best at the Surati eatery and grocery store across the way.

What $14.99 buys. Two curries, lemon rice, fried lentils, dal fry, sambar lentil soup, lentil donut, chana masala garbanzo, beetroot poriyal, dosa, papadam, three chutneys.

Man, I could definitely get used to this. Haven’t tasted half the flavors of these curries, let alone those sweets. Yes, there’s a lot of deep frying going on, but tons of veggies too. So, pretty healthy overall.  But what really gets me about this display of vegetarian power is how they can make such tasty combos of seemingly tasteless elements, like avail, beans, carrots and potatoes cooked in coconut milk ($11.99), or that paneer butter masala, which is cottage cheese cooked in heavy cream and spicy sauce ($13.99). Come to think of it, I should’ve tried it, just to see how da heck they could make something tasty out of it. Guess I’ll have to do this again.

Meanwhile, I head out into the night. Only the Shri Mandir temple is still open. Now, all I have to do is see if there’s still a bus to take me back down to the world. Happy Diwali, everybody!

  • The Place: Chennai Tiffins, 9484 Black Mountain Road, Suite H; 858-566-7300
  • Prices: Sambar idly (rice patties in lentil soup), $7.99; medu wada (deep-fried lentil donut, $5.99; chili bajji (peppers in chickpea fritter); masala dosa (potato-stuffed), $10.99; chettinadu dosa (onion gravy, $10.99; palli podi dosa (spicy peanut mix, $10.99); spinach paneer dosa ($12.99); Mysore masala dosa (potato masala, $10.99)
  • Hours: 11:30am-2:30pm; 5:30-9:30pm
  • Bus: 31
  • Nearest Bus Stops: Black Mountain Road and Miramar Road
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