The A - Z of baking supplies & where to find them


If you are a home baker in Chennai, you would have made several visits to NS Mani Distributors on Walltax Road by now. From cooking chocolate to canned and dried fruits, butter paper to wafer paper, fondant and fondant tools and even stand mixers, there's very little that a baker will not find on the shelves of this store.

The old address of NSMD

But first, a little history. 80 years ago, on December 1st, 1938, Mr. NS Mani set up a store selling "carbonic acid gas" (soda water in local parlance), imported synthetic food materials to make syrups, essences and ice creams, citric acid and saccharine. "Cool drinks" were popular thirst quenchers for the tropical heat of the city and business was good.

Sprinkles and seasonal decor

Around the 1990s, the soft drink segment was dominated by two cola manufacturers and the synthetic drinks market took a nosedive. Distributors like NS Mani diversified into the bakery business; they started catering (pun intended) to bakeries and cafes, supplying them with ingredients like margarine, cocoa powder and icing sugar. This was the time when many foreign companies set up shop in Chennai, expats took up residence in the city and there was huge demand for pasta and passata, black bean and hoisin sauces and of course breads.

Quite a range of sauces

NS Mani took up distributorship for Calpro bread mixes and soon enough, bakeries, both standalone and those attached to starred hotels were churning out specialty breads. Those were exciting times when mass-produced breads became less popular and words like ciabatta and focaccia rolled off everyone's tongues and everyone's shopping basket was filled with multigrain, Italian herb, seed breads and baguettes. Instant yeast and gluten became available and we could finally get around to experimenting on a variety of homemade bread. 

Glazes and cake decor

By 2005, the firm started stocking cooking chocolate, chocolate chips and home bakers started frequenting the store. The year 2013 saw dairy products like butter and cream cheese being added to the inventory. Also around this time, cake decorating tools from China flooded the market; you no longer had to bug friends and relatives going abroad to get you the much coveted fondant modelling tools, chocolate moulds or flower cutters - they were all there in the store!

Local & imported nuts and berries

Over the years, the variety of products kept increasing, keeping in tune with emerging market trends and while essences are still the mainstay of the business, the growing bakery and confectionery market saw newer products line the shelves.  It is one of the fastest growing industries in the world, recording a 16% growth, the benchmark being standards in Europe and Turkey.

Squashes, syrups & chocolate

Today, NS Mani's original shop has been converted into a supermarket model where customers choose items displayed on the shelves and have them billed at the counter. Quite different from the old days when one stood behind the counter and yelled out the shopping list to one of the harried staff.

Modelling tools and cutters

Food colours

From a shop selling essences and synthetic syrups, today, it's a treasure trove for any home baker looking for the Chefmaster range of food colours, sliced almonds and almost the complete range of products from Bakersville. You can even get edible photo prints done at the store.

Helpful staff

On a friend's recommendation, I first visited the store in the mid-1990s to pick up cake boxes, got sidetracked by the essences sold in 500 ml bottles (never seen such large bottles of essence). Soon, my shopping list at NS Mani Distributors grew longer and Mr. Mahesh, the present owner and grandson of Mr. NS Mani, would give me catalogues of the new products he was stocking. The store was a veritable Aladdin's cave and buying stuff at wholesale rates was an added incentive to shop there. If something was not stocked in the shop, they would make the customer wait while someone ran to the "godown" nearby to fetch it. Today, the godown has been converted into an office-cum-store from where larger orders to commercial establishments are dispatched.

Cupcake liners

Apart from starred hotels, cafes and restaurants located within the city, NS Mani Distributors, being a direct importer and distributor, has customers from Thoothukudi, Nagercoil, Kanyakumari, Pollachi and even the Andaman and Nicobar Islands! One of his oldest customers is Vijaylakshmi Bakers and Sweets from the Island.

Meeting the demand for essences

While many restaurants and businesses have opened and then shut shop for lack of patronage, it's good to see a store that has survived 80 years. Anticipating and meeting the needs of customers is the key here.

Reach N.S. Mani Distributors at
145 Walltax Road
Park Town
Chennai 600003.


Thanksgiving at Focaccia, HRC


If it's Thanksgiving, there's got to be turkey and pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving is an American tradition, one that is celebrated in many other countries as well. At Focaccia, Hyatt Regency Chennai, the day was celebrated with a fine dinner that included roast turkey.

Focaccia with a tomato dip 

Smoked duck breast salad

The appetiser that Chef Sakeer Hussain's created for us had slices of smoked duck, poached pears and salad greens. Perched on top was a fried quail egg. The dish was fresh, light and wholesome, a beautiful balance of smoky meat, sweet fruit and piquant dressing.

Bartender Jiten's cocktail with lychee &basil infused vodka

Porcini mushroom soup with mascarpone foam

Porcini mushroom soup looked dull and boring and that's why you should never judge a book by its cover. It had oodles of flavour, slices of mushroom for texture and drizzles of olive oil for a gleaming finish. The mascarpone foam added an ethereal lightness.

Soft cheese risotto with sweet paprika, pumpkin and rosemary

Risotto is a difficult dish to perfect, this one was bland. The pumpkin too was bland and even the soft cheese failed to lift the flavours. A pretty plate, no doubt, finished with rosemary and a flower.

Roast turkey with sauce and veggies

The main course was sliced turkey served with a deep and dark leek and button mushroom sauce, buttered vegetables and stuffed potato. The turkey was tender and cooked with  the skin on which helped keep the meat moist. What came as a relief was that there were no bones to deal with. Even the roasted potato, with its topping of cheese, was delicious.

Mascarpone pumpkin tart

There's something about many elements on a dessert plate, even better when they are bite-sized. There was a whiff of strawberry sponge cake which had to be eaten quickly or your breath could send it across the plate! The other was with chocolate and cardamom and, of course, a slice of pumpkin pie. And ice cream on a crumb base with a berry compote.

Alley shooter

Jiten brought us a couple of Alley Shooters in a martini glass --- because you can't fit ice cream in a shot glass. With half the rim dipped in chocolate sauce, the glass held a concoction of vodka infused with coffee, Baileys, a shot of Jameson and a scoop of ice cream. What an apt nightcap!

*This was an invited review 

Healthy options at Fabcafe


 At Fabcafe, you can order momos and papdi chaat, parathas with Punjabi-style saag and follow it up with a walnut tart for dessert. So what's new you ask? Well, just that the momo wrappers are made with jackfruit flour hence gluten-free, the paratha is made with 6 kinds of grains and the tart shell, with almond flour and the filling is sweetened with honey and gur.

Fabindia is well known for its range of handcrafted textiles, jewellery and home furnishings. There are two Fabindia Experience Centres in Chennai, at Besantnagar and at Alwarpet. When hunger strikes in the midst of shopping, it's Fabcafe to the rescue. Described as an inspired Indian bistro, it has an all-day dining concept and serves quite a range of healthy food.  So here's the kicker - you can have a guilt free meal at this cafe as they have paleo, vegan, dairy free and wheat free options on their menu. Oh... they do not use refined sugar, not at all.

Ajwain croissant

Chef Sunil Chauhan's menu is quite innovative, a lot of R&D must have gone into it as the range of organic and healthy ingredients form the core of the dishes. So you can have biryani, one made with brown rice or red rice uttapam. Or even the croissant flavoured with ajwain; it wasn't flaky like croissants usually are but more like bread and slightly dense. The little bursts of ajwain were a nice touch.   

Glow Hydration (coconut water, aloe vera, orange, pineapple & chia seed); Vanilla Lemongrass soda (delish!)

Chicken momos

The wrapper for the momos is made with jackfruit flour and root starch. Skillfully pleated, what gives the game away is that it is chewy. There's a generous amount of filling stuffed in and it is quite a tasty dish.

Mutton Galouti on mini kuttu bread 

The mutton galouti kebabs were delicious, the meat was smooth, the spices, in perfect proportion. The kuttu bread, however, was quite limp; there was hardly any difference in texture between the meat and the bread. Crisper bread would have been a better choice.

Veggie crisps with cashew cheese

Everyone's dehydrating their fruits and veggies now. On Fabcafe's plate, it was the ladies' finger that took the ...err...cake. It was crisp and had a beautiful lightness. The beetroot slices too were crisp around the edges with a bit of a snag in the middle. The cashew cheese with the hint of mint was lovely and a perfect dip for everything.

Shakarkandi Chaat Salad

Shakarkandi chaat salad was stunning, the sweetness of the roasted potatoes was beautifully balanced with the tamarind sauce and pomegranate arils. The missing arugula would definitely have added another dimension to the dish.

Punjabi Saag with Paneer

If it's a hearty meal you want, order the Punjabi saag with paneer and like us, you'll find the flavour of ghee adding to the creamy mouthfeel. We had it with 3 kinds of breads.

Coorgi Pandi Curry

Coorg pandi curry! Now how often would you find that on a Chennai restaurant menu? The meat could have been softer; the taste of kokum was too subtle. However, the well-toasted spice mix was very nice and infused an earthiness to the gravy.

Indian breads made with quinoa flour, jackfruit flour, 6-grain flour & mattar paneer with cashew cheese. The jackfruit chapati was a little bitter, no complaints about the rest! 

In a pickle - chilli; green papaya; beetroot

Home-made icecreams

After all those healthy options, it would have been a shame to skip dessert. We watched the group at the next table try the ice creams but it was the cheesecake that we went on to order.

Baked Strawberry Nolen Gurh Cheesecake with strawberry compote

As cheesecakes go, this was a very nice one. They didn't stint on the cream cheese and yup, no wheat in the crust either. The compote was very nice though the flavour of the gurh was quite dominant. Still, it was a very nice cheesecake.

Caramelised Banana Cake

We let our friend devour this cake since she loves bananas. Made with banana flour and ripe bananas, I think she was in banana heaven for a while.

Fabcafe locations at Chennai:

New 390, Old 225, 3rd Floor, TTK Road, Alwarpet, Chennai.

T-25, 7th Avenue, 3rd Floor, Opposite Santosh Hospital, Besantnagar, Chennai.

Pub fare at Watson's


Food at pubs is usually a tame affair - nothing out of the ordinary, nothing sensational and mostly fried. However, newer pubs and gastro pubs are taking the trouble of coming up with food menus that can put those of standalone restaurants in the shade. Twists on comfort food ranks high on that list.

Watson's The Grub Pub is at T'Nagar. Renovations are going on and except for the name board at the entrance to the driveway, there was no signage to show where one was supposed to go. Even the open foyer was deserted but at that exact moment, a friend showed up and saved the day.

String art

The pub is on the 5th floor, a framed string art ship hangs on the wall; it's been so long since I've seen one of these. Sepia tinted prints hang on the wall, giving a vintage feel to the foyer. 

Watson's bar

There's seating around the bar counter; since we were there for a review, we went upstairs to the mezzanine floor. Where the stairs begin, there's a cosy corner with a sofa and books in the bookshelf - good place for a private chat.

Cosy nook 

Corporate Chef Ashley D'Souza

Ashley D'Souza, Corporate Chef of Shilton Hospitality was on hand to welcome us. While Watson's has a presence in both Goa and Bangalore, it opened in Chennai only earlier this year.

Watson's has a huge appetiser menu. The original menu had something like 150 items, in the new one, it's been whittled down to about 115 dishes. They have retained around 15% of the original menu and for review purposes, they were going to serve us about two dozen!

Spicy podi idli; Schezwan sauce idli 

They've taken the humble idli and turned it around on its head with 2 variations. The podi idli was spicy, fried crisp, redolent with the flavour of ghee and served with a wonderful chutney while the other, with a Schezwan twist, was not as impressive.

Spicy mayo rock prawns; charcoal grilled prawns - easy to shell and the prawns were juicy...yum!

Pastry perfect - Kerala beef triangles; galangal chicken patties; mince samosa. Galangal patties were a standout.
There's bruschetta and then there's chicken ghee roast bruschetta - a winning combo with the chunky, spicy pieces of meat

Tawa grilled chicken

Pull-apart bread with sauteed mushrooms and cheese. Needs to be eaten hot!
Cheesy chilli bhajis - simply yum!

Cutlet for the vegetarians

Beef teriyaki - didn't taste of teriyaki though the meat was tender

Thai golgappa with a Thai-spiced filling and lemongrass infused tamarind sauce. Nice fusion.

Ribs vindaloo - tender pork rib with a yummy marinade

Watson's chilli fish. Stunning!

Mediterranean flavours - hummus, baba ganoush and pita bread
Pomme Tini; Martini de Paan

Sitting in a bar and no sign of a cocktail? Watsons does have a few interesting ones. Pomme Tini with vodka, apple and rose petals looked inviting in its simplicity but was disappointing - the rose flavour was  too dominant. Martini de Paan, on the other hand, was vodka-based, delicious, fragrant and could well pass off as the liquid version of paan, complete with gulkand, dates and vark. They use natural syrups in the cocktails and the drinks are mixed with fresh fruit juices, not the packaged variety.

A variety of flatbreads

Laal maas & onion flatbread

Some folk find comfort in eating bread and Watson's flatbread and pizza will fit the bill perfectly. My favourite was the laal maas flatbread with onion and coriander which had a thin crust, was  packed with spicy mince and onion rings and delightfully cheesy.

Main courses - biryani and rice with Thai veg curry

Main courses included  an aromatic, moist biryani served with raita. Also, steamed rice with a Thai veg curry, somewhat lacking in Thai flavours.

While Watson's menu is certainly enthusiastic, some of the flavours, while familiar, need to be amped up. The variety is mind-boggling, justifying the gastro pub tag and it's pocket friendly. 

Watsons is at 90, Gopathi Narayana Chetty Road, T. Nagar.

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