Our guide to places across the globe that celebrate all things Tamil will ensure you don’t miss home on your next holiday.
WITH the holiday season around the corner, foreign shores and exotic new locales are definitely on the cards. While exploring the various cultures and cuisines is a big draw, discovering a slice of home in far-off lands can be delightfully gratifying, too. Of course, that won’t be too difficult to achieve, considering Indians are the largest diaspora population in the world (16 million and counting, according to a 2015 UN survey), and everywhere we go, we are known to recreate the familiar. So we decided to get a bit pickier. We set up a challenge for ourselves: to find a Tamil element in all the popular destinations across the globe. Like a restaurant in New Zealand that is sold out on Saturdays because it serves the best ghee roast in town and a bar in Malaysia where you can dance to Tamil hip-hop into the wee hours of the morning. There are even places to pick up idli batter and steamers (in case you are living in a serviced apartment) and a Nalli silk sari. So here’s where you should head if you are missing home.
In the city of the Merlion, you don’t need to go far to experience the bustling streets of Mylapore or enjoy a hot serving of rice and sambhar. During Deepavali, stroll down Serangoon Road to take in the lights and catch Thimithi, the fire-walking festival (where men walk across burning coals) at the Sri Mariammam Temple. Though there are Saravana Bhavans and Banana Leaf Apolos, we suggest you head to Tan Teng Niah for masala dosas and biryani, washed down with piping hot chai or even a bottle of India-made Knock Out beer. And if you are lucky, you might even catch a local playing the veena. For a spot of shopping (though saris may not be on your must-buy list), how about dropping by the local branch of Nalli Silks, if only to see how they’ve adapted designs to suit the local palate. “It is one of my favourite go-to stores. Their collection almost matches the original store in Chennai, which is pretty impressive,” says Namra Bano, a Singaporean civil servant.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
A visit to Brickfields is a must if you are in Kuala Lumpur. With its rows of restaurants serving banana leaf meals and roti canai, you can pick up everything from strings of jasmine flowers to made-in-Chennai appalams. Speaking in Tamil could also get you a discount! And if you would like to party like the locals, head over to Chakravartty Pub in Jalan Dang Wangi. “Chakz is renowned for its remixed and original versions of classic Tamil songs and for its selection of Tamil hip-hop. It is something you won’t find even in Chennai,” exclaims Imran M a research consultant with Ipsos, who spent five years in the city. “Most of Kollywood cinema makes it a point to visit Chakz when they are in Kuala Lumpur. I’ve seen Jayam Ravi there and Ajith. Oh, and if you stick around until 3 am, you are guaranteed a bar fight, much like in the movies!” Details: chakravartty.com.my
Auckland, New Zealand
Every Saturday, Saffron, the Indian restaurant on Ponsonby Road in Auckland, has long lines of people waiting patiently to get in. It’s the day they serve their South Indian buffet and the star of the show is the ghee roast. “While they also serve uthapams, rava dosa and meals with rasam and kootu, I always load my plate with the ghee roast. It’s crisp and comes with all three chutneys (plain, tomato and tamarind), very similar to what we get back in Tamil Nadu,” says Shalini Joby, an adaptive technology specialist who teaches the blind. Post lunch, she suggests you sign up for a heritage walk (iloveponsonby.co.nz), drop by the popular Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop or browse at the Indian stores. Details: saffronindianrestaurant.co.nz
When Bindu Rajendran, a Mohiniattam dancer and product scheduler in the gas industry, visited Sydney, one of her favourite days was spent walking through Harris Park. “It is peppered with eateries selling Indian cuisine from the South, like dosas, and the North, like chaats. With boards in Tamil and Hindi, the stores sold everything from Haldiram’s to idli batter and steamers. It was like a time-warp, as if I’d been transported to a street in Chennai.”
Musée du Louvre, check. Eiffel Tower, check. Escargot, maybe not. By now if you are craving a whiff of Chennai, head to Gare du Nord. On Faubourg-Saint-Denis street, you can join locals and tourists as they sample the thalis, buy spices at Vs Co Cash & Carry, and offer hibiscus garlands at the Ganesha temple. During Deepavali, catch the temple procession, with dancers, drums and colourful floats. Another fun afternoon outing can be to Arass de Charme (+33 146070184), a boutique where they
conduct workshops on how to drape and fold a sari. However, if the narrow streets are a little confusing, give
resident Poonam Chawla a call (chalindia.blogspot.com) for a guided tour of the neighbourhood. Finally, for an interesting souvenir, drop by Ambikâ, the only Parisian bookshop dedicated to Indian culture.
In sunny California, locals make a beeline for Artesia when they want to pick up Tamil groceries. But it’s also the place to catch dance and Carnatic performances. Bharatnatyam dancer, Ramya Harishankar, conducts classes and small workshops that you can sign up for. Details: danceramya.com
East Ham, London
You might be forgiven to think that London by itself offers a slice of India, considering how many of our fellowmen we find there. But 30 minutes outside the city, East Ham checks all the boxes when it comes to a desi connect. Besides streets lined with spice shops and eateries, it also has the Tamil Sangam Library, the largest Tamil library in the UK, with more than 5,000 books on various subjects. The sangams are quite active, organising concerts and Tirukkural classes regularly. Also check out the London Tamil Friends Association (ltfa.org/jo) to find local events.
Colombo, Sri Lanka
With its sizeable Tamil population, it is not difficult to get an authentic Tamil experience in Sri Lanka. But a few places are better than others. Thangaraj Arjuna, a respected director and producer, says you should check out Wellawatte and Kotahena. “In Wellawatte, there is a shop called Karpagam which sells palmyra products. You must pick up the odiyal kizhangu, nungu and pannankatti. They also serve meals for lunch,” he says. The Kathiresan Temple is popular for its Vel festival (during aadi maasam), and the nearby Vivekananda Hall hosts dance and music performances. “The Mathura Madras Woodlands (+94 112556889) is popular, too. It is a joint venture with Chennai’s New Woodlands Hotel,” he concludes.
In an area marked by dramatic beaches, wine trails and great nightlife, the Bay Area can be a feast for the senses. So why don’t we add a few more things to your itinerary. The local Tamil population stages plays frequently (the last was a spectacular light and sound show, Avathara Purushan – classicalevents.org). There is a lively Tamil FM channel that you can tune into (tfmpage.com) and if you want to catch up on all the movies you are missing out on back home, swing by Towne 3 Cinema, which plays the latest flicks (Rekka, Devi and Remo are on right now – towne3.com). But we love food blogger and recipe developer, Vijitha Shyam’s pop-up dinners. Serving Tamil food with a modern twist, check out her site, spicesandaroma.in, to see if she has anything planned when you are in town.
You can’t get away from the dosa wherever you go, not even in South Africa. Serving 16 kinds, besides other favourites like uthapams and a lamb Chettinad, for many Tamils—like Aishwarya Kumar, sports reporter at The Star and IOL—Dosa Hut is a “home away from home”. “It’s a quirky restaurant that makes you feel like you’re back in Tamil Nadu. They serve jeera and lemon rice, but I love the tomato—very authentic and tangy,” she says. For a sweet refresher, there’s also The Juice Den, which serves fresh sugarcane juice, reminiscent of our roadside stalls. Details: +27 711474811
Long Island, New York
Inderjit Anand, a financial adviser at Astoria Bank, gets her idli fix at House of Dosa. “We love the flavours. My family and I go there at least once a month, to get our dose of podi idlis, sambar vadas and thali. We always savour filter coffee at the end of our meal,” says the 61-year-old.
By Surya Praphulla Kumar