Chennai is famous for quite a few things, however one of its major attractions are the beaches. Flanked by the Bay of Bengal on its eastern edge, the Chennai coastline is marked with a number of beaches that serve as not only tourist attractions for outsiders, a respite from heat for the locals, but also, are often associated with landmarks of social change, gatherings and monuments.
However, no visit to the beach can be complete without a bite of the local flavors that are spread out deliciously on the sand platter. Just a word of caution for those who think that south Indian cuisine is limited to idly, dosa and vada, you will be pleasantly surprised to see what the make shift stalls on the beach have to offer.
For starters, as soon as you park or walk up to the beach, you will be welcomed by a line of hand stalls selling ice creams, puffed rice mixes, green mango slices sprinkled with chili powder and salt, fondly called Manga and buttas(roasted maize). Whether it is the Gandhi Beach, Marina Beach or Beasant Nagar Beach, this pretty much is how the front line view looks, scattered in between by balloon sellers, peanut sellers squatted on the pavement and traffic policemen on a holiday evening to manage the over swelling crowd.
Photo by arnabyk5
Once you enter the beach and take off your chappals for a cool walk on the sand you are greeted with myriad noises, visuals and smells. Unlike many beaches that you may imagine in your get away dreams or in foreign locales, most beaches in the heart of the cities of India are very different in texture, nature, and population. Clear blue waters and clean golden sands are not so much their forte, as are people interactions, livelihood, laughter, and food. Food somehow permeates into the fabric of everything here and adds a dimension which is unique yet commonplace. To be honest, I go to the beach to enjoy the sand, breeze and water, as much as to munch on bhajjis(fried vegetables in gram flour), eat the bhuttas, as much as to surround myself with the sharp upbeat music of the merry go rounds, the intrusion of the hawkers selling coffee and candy floss. Yes, sometimes you want to visit the beach for some ‘me’ time and in those times the noise and hustle can be overbearing, however, if so be it, then early mornings and early evenings are the times to try. During the peak evening and night times, especially on holidays, when the city swarms towards its eastern shores, the beaches come alive with light, sound, animals and people.
Photo by JohnSeb
Tinned shops line up on beaches, where you will find a range of items such as, biryani, non-veg starters, fish pakodas to bhajjis, papads(Apalam) and chat items( pani puris, chana bhatura and so on).
Photo by kkalyan
From somewhere near the shores you will see sparks of bright orange flying in shimmers as the sellers roast the maize and pump the stove by hand, or hear the tinkle of the bell of the cart selling the white threaded sweet or watch the children running behind the balloons left off by the balloon shooter at the end of the day. Sitting under red pandals behind an array of potatoes, onions, cauliflowers and bananas are couples selling their fried pakodas. The female fries the batter in large pans as the man hands them in plates and collects cash. Adored with a string of scallops of green chillies and vegetables the garlanded stalls scatter the beach with plastic stools outside occupied by families, friends and kids, all enjoying a hot spicy snack.
People come specially to renowned stalls such as The Titanic to try the chicken fry and noodles. It is a different feeling where you sit on backless stools dug into the sand and eat away as the wind ruffles your hair and there is absolute no sense of privacy with crowds all around.
The beach does become mellow and empty during the day when the scorching sun shines down and healthy and with bitter gourd juices and fruit sellers catering to early walkers and joggers in the morning. However, it is at its desi best during the late evenings and that is when a visit is a must.