Hotel Chennai's internet was growing increasingly burdened under the impact of having more than 1 computer tethered to its paltry thrust. I managed to get the address so that I could run the 4 meters from reception to a waiting air conditioned Grab Taxi. As is often the case, my driver was 2 minutes away, then decided to park by the side of the road and have a nap.. the minutes ticked from 2-3-5-7. By the eighth minute mark I lost my sense of decorum and cancelled. Five minutes later a new driver picked me up in a spotless car and chuffed off to unknown pleasures.
The roads were bleached by the torrential downpour of heated rays. Everyone scattering for cover the minute the clouds were breached. I imagined their lives from the confines of my passing vehicle.
25 minutes later we pulled up to the famous backdrop, one that I had seen in Anthony Bourdain videos and more recently, one by Mark Wiens who seems to be the born-again version of Bourdain (and I mean that religiously, not metaphorically). The ordering process was as painless as a haircut, an old woman held up her finger: 1 bowl? I nodded, she placed me at a table with a local man glued to his phone screen. Moments later an old lady finished her bowl so I slid onto my own table to save us both the awkwardness of "shared table dates with a stranger".
I stared at the bowl for a full second. Murky waters giving way to slight uproots of noodles pushing to the surface, glued to fresh mint leaves and red chili slices floating atop like edible coracles. There was a mass of brown effluence to the north-west side of the bowl, and some needle thin shavings of red onion. Armed with chopsticks and a metal spoon I mixed them all together and took my first sip.
Reserved only for those brave enough to grab an angry cobra, sink your teeth into it's neck, shove it down your pants and run around the block without blinking. This took fishiness to the level beyond next. I have to admit I struggled the first few spoons, almost fighting back nausea. However, I like to force myself beyond my threshold and after a few more sips I actually started to enjoy it.
At more than one junction I put down my spoon with the intention of leaving it there, but after a few more laboured breaths, and the stare of the old lady so sad and wanton, I pretended I was only checking my phone and up again the spoon went delivering intensity beyond measure to my tongue.
With almost all of the goodness drained, I paid my bill, waved "Thank you" to the chef, and walked out into the setting calm of late afternoon. Shopkeepers were out stretching their legs after pulling down their metal shutters, night stalls were busy firing up their charcoal grills, plastic chairs were dispersed in empty areas ready for accommodating bottoms. I walked down past the stores, past some temples, until the road became wilting plant-growth. Out with my phone once again, and bingo! 3 minutes away was another taxi ready to take my confused palate back to Little India.
That being said, I doubt I would ever order a bowl again, but i'm glad I tried it once.
Watch Mark Wiens crushing a bowl here:
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.
"Sadness is tempered by umami, grief by the motion of slurping, hope restored by the ladling of glistening, fatty broth"