Those who have migrated out of Bangalore will eternally argue about the merits of the benne dosa as served in Vidyarthi Bhavan over those served at Central Tiffin Room. Others will slurp with nostalgia when speaking about the idli their father got for them from Veena Stores.
Whatever the debate, at least one thing is certain: those lucky to have eaten in such temples as Brahmins Tiffin Room or Central Tiffin Room know what a good idli is—or for that matter, a dosa, whether plain or masala.
Ratna Rao Shekar, editor of Housecalls, the “longest running magazine for doctors“—and “a connoisseur of the idli just as some are of wine and caviar”—in her quest for the perfect idli and dosa finds her way to Bangalore’s old eateries where idli and dosa have their own geography, chemistry and mathematics.
By RATNA RAO SHEKAR
Just as we are eternally looking for that approximation of our first love—that girl in pigtails on the bus, or the boy with long eyelashes who sat in the back bench of the class but shone radiantly like a sharp ray of the sun—we, it turns out, will for the rest of our lives be looking for that perfect dosa or idli that we ate when we were children in a small street in Malleswaram or Gandhi Bazaar in Bangalore.
Since this is oftentimes only an ideal, like first love which is more imagination than reality, every idli that you eat later falls short of expectation. Either the idlis are like rocks that could be flung at an enemy, or the dosas are more like the ‘choppaties’ of the north, chewy and rubbery.
After a recent eating binge in Bangalore accompanied by those who know about these things, old-time friends who have grown up and aged in these parts, I am now convinced that the best idli and dosa can be had in the Silicon City. And the surprising thing is that this can be done at no great cost.
At Rs 6 an idli and Rs 20 a dosa, you do feel they would at least save on the paper on which such bills are scribbled.
I would like to call these places restaurants, but restaurants require certain standards to deserve their qualification. Some of the eateries like the old Central Tiffin Room (CTR), now called Sri Sagar, in 7th Cross of Margosa Road in Malleswaram are so dark and dingy that you need a torch to see where you are going.
Vidyarthi Bhavan in Gandhi Bazaar has scaled its lighting in its efforts to modernize, but to bright tubelights. At 6.30 in the morning, when the first acolytes are arranging themselves on the narrow benches in anticipation of that dosa that is to die for, that light is rather harsh on the soul. Even if the dosa and potato sagu is heaven on the tongue.
The seating has simple wooden tables and chairs with marble or formica tops and there is no maître here to usher you to your tables. AT CTR and Vidyarthi, it’s best you make your way to a table as fast as you can, or you will be standing until eternity watching all those dosas flurrying past you.
In fact, courtesies of any kind are to be dispensed with in these places.
At CTR, for instance, we stood near the cashier—who sat with an array of gods in the background and a simple cash book in front of him—and kept a hawk’s eye on those on the verge of finishing their dosa or puri and sagu so we could swoop in on the table even before they finished paying the bill.
Worse, in these eateries that seat no more than 50 people at a go, there are no such things as exclusive tables for a group or family. We were eating our dosa and rava idli silently (there is no room here to conduct conversations on current topics of interest such as terrorist attacks or rising prices) when the head of a family seated his oldest child next to us, while he sidled to an adjacent table loudly ordering a plate of dosa for his daughter and piping hot coffee for himself.
In Vidyarthi Bhavan we were lucky to find a table quickly, and waited anxiously for our dosa. Since the bill of fare itself is just dosa (plain and masala), vada, khara and kesari bhath, coffee and tea, the waiter does not even need to repeat your order after taking it down. He knows that most people come to Vidyarthi for the dosas.
It is practically understood that you have arrived here at this early hour (we were there at 7 a.m.) for the Vidyarthi dosa. And the dosa arrives, after a good 15 minutes, not only for us but for a whole lot of others around us who are salivating by this time.
The waiter, a veshti-clad gentleman who comes with a stack of dosas neatly balancing himself and the plates, flings a dosa each on our plates and on those of others sitting at tables around. The accompaniment is just a liquidy yellow-dal chutney that flows across the plate and submerges the dosa.
The dosa is crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, the potato sagu unobtrusive on the tongue without too much of chillies or garlic. And it is made with ghee (or benne, as Kannadigas call it), not Saffola or any other oil that heart doctors recommend!
I was waiting for sambar as in other restaurants, when my companions, having already eaten half their dosa, urged me to start eating without further delay, as sambar was an alien concept at Vidyarthi and an import from neigbouring Tamil Nadu (with whom they were currently at war over language, water and other issues).
Vidyarthi, as its name suggests was started to cater to students in 1943 by two brothers Venkaramana and Parameshwara Ural from Udupi. In the 1970s it was taken over by Ramakrishna Adiga whose son Arun Kumar now oversees operations.
The who’s who of the country have eaten here, from scientist Sir M. Visvesvaraya, actor Raj Kumar, playwright Girish Karnad to cricket’s leg-spinner B.S. Chandrashekar. It is said that filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt was so impressed with the eatery that he made a two-minute documentary for BBC on the dingy hall called Vidyarthi where at one time, when short of space, they would seat you in the kitchen itself!
How many dosas in a day do you serve, we ask the cashier.He tells us reluctantly (these are matters of some secrecy) that he serves around 1,000 dosas in a day on weekdays, and on weekends it goes up to at least 2,000.
In fact, when I arrived here on a Sunday I was literally told to go home as it was already 12 noon, and didn’t I know that Vidyarthi closes at 12 on weekends (and in fact by 11 on weekdays)? No, I did not, though many others who looked suspiciously like Kannadigas from Santa Clara and Palo Alto seemed to know both timings and the menu, from the satisfied look on their faces at having consumed their Sunday’s worth of dosa and coffee.
The interesting thing about these eateries is their timing, which can even put the precise Germans to shame. They open without fail by 6.30 or 7 in the morning, and by 11 or 12 are ready to go home.
S. Pradeep of Veena Stores on Margosa Road in Malleswaram wants to offer us something when we arrive at 11.30, but is unable to give us anything we ask for, whether idli or mere coffee, as everything has been sold out like tickets of a Karan Johar film. He does finally give us coffee, but says with an apology that it’s only Bru instant.
“Come tomorrow in the morning,” he says, sad that he could not offer any of the items from his famous store that has men in Malleswaram rushing here in the mornings to fill their steel tiffin carriers with idlis and chutney.
Fine dining as such may be a newer concept that really took off in Bangalore after it turned IT and hi-tech. For years, 43 years and eight months to be precise, as Radhakrishna Adiga of Brahmins’ will have us know, students and working people have stood at a street corner in Shankarpuram in Basavangudi just for their idlis.
In a recent survey conducted by a local newspaper, Brahmins’ idli was voted the best in town. Let me tell you—and I am a connoisseur of the idli just as some are of wine and caviar—Brahmins’ idlis, that are neither too hard nor too soft, but just right as in the Goldilocks story, are the best in the world.
As I have just one idli that Radhakrishna gives me for ‘swalpa’ taste, I think, if there are perfect moments, this must be one of them, as when Ustad Bismillah Khan touches the high notes with his shehnai. But I won’t let the moment be, and try instead in my wily way to ferret the recipe out of Radhakrishna.
“The idlis are still made at home under the supervision of my mother,” explains Radhakrishna, firmly refusing to let go of any family recipe.
Brahmins’ Coffee Bar is a small eatery that started out as a bakery serving biscuits and condiments. Here you have to first take a token, and then go in for the idli or khara or kesari bhath. Since you cannot be expected to go in again for another round of chutney, a kindly gentleman standing at the threshold of the eatery serves (or should we say, pours) chutney when you want that extra helping. And everything is so hygienic that my friend Ravi, who has lived in these parts since he was a child, remembers consuming these idlis even when he had typhoid. “These idlis are made so hygienically that they even beat those made at home,” he insists.
The Adigas hail from a village near Udupi where most of the Kannadiga food and restaurateurs originate. Radhakrishna says with some pride that his family (which now runs the equally popular Adiga restaurants across Bangalore) was the first to bring such food served on the footpaths (literally) to Bangalore.
‘Eat and go’ seems to be the motto of these restaurants which offer no place to sit and enjoy your khara bhath or coffee. French wayside cafés may all be rage elsewhere, but here at Brahmins’ it is all about having your one or two idlis with vada (again no sign of any sambar) and moving on to the Basavangudi temple, or nowadays to your IT job at Wipro or TCS.
Whether it is Brahmins’ or Vidyarthi or even Veena Stores in Malleswaram, all of them started off three and four decades ago to cater to the always-in-a-hurry office and student population.
“Yes, we do have a lot of students from MES College,” says Pradeep, owner of Veena Stores that started off as a bakery almost 31 years ago. His father started the eatery but has since retired, and though Pradeep is academically qualified he decided to chip in and help run the eatery.
When you ask him management questions such as what about expansion plans, or innovative ideas like why not take over an old quaint house in Malleswaram and expand business, his answer is a definite no. He says, like Radhakrishna, that they want to continue with the tradition of having people come for their food and nothing more.
It’s true that (at Brahmins’) from a mere eleven paise the idlis have gone upto to Rs 6 for a single idli and Rs 11 for a double idli, but for the rest they will remain what they were. “After all the old timers come for what they ate many years ago,” says Pradeep. He seems to say that in a world full of novelties what you finally want is your idli from Veena Stores and your dosa from Vidyarthi, just as they were made when you were eleven years old. Consistency in quality is what they offer.
One eatery that did introduce plate meals was the Janata in the popular 8th Cross in Malleswaram, but they have since abandoned the idea as they realized most people came here only for tiffin. The eatery that has expanded somewhat was started by two brothers from Kundapur in Udupi to cater largely to the Malleswaram mamas and mamis who come here shopping for flowers and vegetables and appalams during the late afternoons.
As the names themselves suggest, whether it is CTR or Vidyarthi Bhavan, most of them stay with the tiffins, which comprises mostly idli, vada, dosa, and that favourite of the Kannadiga, the kesari bhath, whose add-ons include not just saffron but pineapple! Afternoon tiffins, however, include bajjis and rava idli.
Apart from small changes in prices, nothing has changed in these tiffin rooms. They still serve food in banana leaves, or a steel plate at the most. Coffee is served in a steel tumbler and you are welcome to split with a friend. ‘By-two coffees’, these were called. There is always a washbasin and you are requested not to wash your hands on the plate.
An old newspaper, Praja Vani or Deccan Herald, is torn neatly and given in place of a paper napkin. As for the attitude, it is still haughty—the dosa or idli is brought to you with the take-it-or-leave-it look. In most cases, the dosas and idlis are so good, you take it, eat it, and leave.
Even if love is a thing of imagination, at least the perfect idli and dosa is not!
Photograph: A waiter brings up your order and others around you at Vidyarthi Bhavan in Gandhi Bazaar, Bangalore (courtesy Dr M. Vivek/ Housecalls)
External reading: Khaleej Times on the modern mud house of Hyderabad