Everybody loves a good, cheap, vegetarian thali

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When the average worth of each MP in the current Lok Sabha is Rs 5.1 crore, when the average assets of each minister in sadda Manmohan‘s team is Rs 7.5 crore, a good question to ask is if crorepatis can really relate to the woes of the crores of people they represent.

The flip side to the argument is provided by the Indian Express today, which asks if the honourable members of Parliament (MPs) who are worth so much can understand the travails of ordinary Indians whose backs are bent double by soaring prices of essential food items if they eat for so less.

Reason: the astonishing subsidy that MPs—and others including, yes, media people—enjoy at the canteens at the Parliament House complex that it can almost cause you indigestion.

Vegetarian thali: Rs 12.50

Non-vegetarian thali: Rs 22

Sada dosa: Rs 2.50

Masala dosa: Rs 4

Dal (assorted): Rs 1.50

Soup with one slice: Rs 5.50

Four chapatis: Rs 2

Boiled rice: Rs 2

Churumuri: Free

OK, not the last one.

How much do you pay for your dosa and thali?

Read the full article: Why soaring prices don’t worry this House

Also read: Did Marie Antoinette really say “let them eat cake”?

* Photograph used for illustration purposes only. Actual parliament thali may differ depending on the day of the week.

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Julie & Julia, Betty Crocker and “Premila Lal”

Sourish Bhattacharyya uses the release of Meryl Streep‘s latest film Julie & Julia to talk about India’s best known nom de cuisine, in Mail Today:

“Many years ago, when a journalist working with a leading newspaper in the country was asked to write a cookery column, she chose the name “Premila Lal” because she did not want the column to impede the progress of her career as a serious writer.

“Little did she know that her pen name would take over her life and Premila Lal, the acclaimed cookbook writer, would become an essential part of the trousseau of every newly wed woman at a particular point of time.

“Premila Lal’s story is somewheat similar to that of Betty Crocker, the big difference being that the name that has sold many million copies of the American cookbook is purely the invention of a publisher. There has been no Betty Crocker—it’s not even the pen name of a real person.

“But Julia Child (played by Streep in Nora Ephron‘s film) was real and she made French food a fashion statement in the US after the publication of her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1981. [And so is Julie Powell] for her blog where she recounted her adventures in the kitchen with Julia Child’s recipes.”

So, who was Premila Lal?

Kiki Watsa.

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Satanic Curse upon you if you ogle at this maami

There are three good reasons why we are forced to shamelessly steal such a hot picture of Padma Lakshmi from the website of a truly great paper, The Sunday Times of London, using Google™.

Reason No. 1: Because she is South Indian, a Palghat Iyer, a single-child, who has managed to capture the world’s attention (and Sir Salman Rushdie‘s for a while) with a name like Padma Parvati Lakshmi.

Reason No. 2: Because by steaming up camera lenses like this, as a model, as an actress and as a TV host, she is truly a bad miss in our list of The Sexiest South Indian South Asian Woman♥, for which we beg her apology.

Reason No. 3: Because as the author of Tangy, Tart Hot and Sweet, and as the host of the American reality show Top Chef, Padma, who was brought up as a vegetarian, has put some much-needed intellectual spin on the lazily uttered cliche, “Food is the New Sex“.

“Food is very tactile and sensual. If you think about it, it’s the only way you can get into another person’s body without actually touching them.”

As a website named after a food item, that likes to sing in praise of masala dosas, mavinakaayi chitranna, Iyengar bakeries, haalu khova, Maddur vade, kodu bale, and thair-vade, we wholeheartedly agree.

Get the picture?

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Photograph: courtesy The Sunday Times, London

Also visit: Maami’s Weblog

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Can Maddur Vade bring peace to the subcontinent?

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RAMYA KRISHNAMURTHY writes from Bangalore: For the better part of the past month, one of the questions that has been bugging me is a food-related one: who made the first Maddur Vade, and why did he make it in one of the more unremarkable places on the Bangalore-Mysore road?

(It’s so artless in its looks, it has to be a he, right?)

Sexist stereotypes aside, there are two reasons—three, if you include the inclusion of Our Man from Maddur to head the external affairs ministry—why I have been thinking about the Maddur Vade—or Maddur Vada or Vadai to irritate the semantic chauvinists.

Firstly, as my husband (age 41) keeps teasingly insisting these days, food is the new sex: there is some kind of voyeuristic pleasure to be had in reading about it; in thinking about it; in publicly imagining its myriad private possibilities.

And secondly, how can any self-respecting foodie in Bangalore not think of the Maddur Vade?

I mean, Mysore has its pak; Mangalore has its bajji and gadbad; Dharwad the peda; Davangere its benne dose. Even tiddly Bidadi has its “thatte idli“. If the identity of these small towns can be defined by food, just what accident of history deprived “big” Bangalore of its culinary claim to fame?

And what accident of history gave Maddur its pride of place on the gastronomic map?

The answer could be geography.

The fact that Maddur lies almost exactly mid-way (70 km) between Bangalore and Mysore could well explain its birth and growth as the must-have mid-way snack.

Back in pre-liberalised India, when the trains were metre gauge and private cars were few and far between, “Non-Stop” buses was the way to go. The buses halted for a few minutes underneath amid the coconut orchards for the men to amuse themselves.

Was that when the Maddur Vada made its brave incursion?

These days, for some 40-50 km on the 140-km stretch, from somewhere after Ramanagara to somewhere before Mandya, Maddur Vade stalks you like those picture postcard sellers do at the Taj or Gateway of India.

In a way, though, the Vade could be Maddur’s picture postcard except that you view it through your mouth and quickly eat up the evidence before the next town nears. But since the flavour of burnt onion is the defining characteristic of the Maddur Vade, the memory lingers long after.

So, you wonder who made it first and why?

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download2If you are on an express or shuttle trains, the vendors haul up the buckets stuffed full with the Vade at the various stations and “crossing” points. These Vades are of varying quality, slightly thicker and a slightly more expensive than the Vades that the young boys produce at your bus window.

But it is only when you are in your own car or on a bike, that the full magic of Maddur Vade can be properly exploited and appreciated.

Reason: on public transport, the Maddur Vade is a heartless, no-fuss, commercial transaction.

On the train, for instance, the vendor serves it to you on 1/8th of a newspaper sheet and rushes off because there are 14 other compartments to serve.

If you are on the evening Chamundi Express heading to Mysore, the vendor might even affectionately persuade you to pick up a packet of three or five in a plastic cover for the family but that’s just “stock clearance” before he closes shop for the day and gets off in Srirangapatna.

If you are on the dreadful Shatabdi Express, god help you.

On the bus, the Maddur Vade is a victim of logistical inconsistency. Different kinds of bus services stop at different kinds of places, and some like the Volvos don’t even do that. Result: you don’t know where, if at all, your next Maddur Vade is coming from.

It is only when you take an express bus that you can be sure that at least in the place of its birth, the Vade will materialise at your window.

On both the train and the bus, the Maddur Vade is a functional experience. The Vade and nothing more. It’s bone-dry and convenient although the train Vade has been calculated by scientists of the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) to be on average 2.3 times thicker than the bus Vade. (The Defence Food Research Laboratory has put the figure at 2.35 times.)

Downside: the vintage of the Vade is hidden by the speed of the transaction.

However, it is when you stop by leisurely at the highway restaurants—Maddur Tiffany’s on either side of the highway, the “MTR” Shivalli restaurant, Kamat Lokruchi, etc—especially when the sun is dipping, that you get to savour the experience of a warm-to-hot Vade with chutney, followed by strong coffee.

Only those who have newly bought a white elephant called the tread mill can stop at just one.

(Café Coffee Day, I am certain, is never likely to soil the muffin-coated mouths of its clientele despite its founder’s conjugal links with Maddur.)

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The strange thing about the Maddur Vade despite its reasonable reputation is that there are few claimants to its discovery.

The Moti Mahal in Delhi will lay claim to dishing up the first butter chicken; Bombay’s Nelson Wang to the gobi Manchurian. But who lowered the first Maddur Vade into the boiling bandlee? We will never know.

There is a museum in Shivapura but there are no statues hailing the maker, the master-chef. Yet.

My own first memory of Maddur Vade is when I was seven or eight. Our family was proceeding to Bangalore in our old Morris Tiger early one morning. Shortly after Maddur, my father swung the car into a narrow lane which deposited us in front of the railway station. Magically, a vendor appeared and served us the goodies on l’il banana leaves.

Even now, the Maddur Vade at the railway station commands a small premium over other Maddur Vades, and old faithfuls still swear by it, resisting all overtures from the vendors on the trains, till the stop nears. But this could just be good old nostalgia.

For me, the Maddur Vade has held its charm for one key reason: it was the rebel among vades in our joint family kitchen. My mother, Sharada, now 75, never ever made or attempted to make it at home. Uddina vade she did, masala vade she did, but Maddur Vade was a strict no-no.

There was something “street food” about it.

So, falling for its charms not only became a matter of the stomach but an expression of the heart. Nothing about it suggests good health. Not the oil, not the semolina, not the deep fried onions.

But the fact that they didn’t make it at home was reason enough to hog regardless of the time of day. A deep fried vade first thing in the morning on the way to work may not be what the doctor prescribes, but what’s medicine got to do with the palate when geography beckons?

Speaking of which, will Prema Krishna put Maddur Vade on the MEA menu  when the “dialogue process” begins with Pakistan? And could it usher in peace between our two countries in our troubled subcontinent?

If the shortest route to a man’s heart is through his stomach, can even Asif Ali Zardari resist the Maddur Vade‘s naked attraction that has melted millions from different parts of the country?

It’s pure fantasy, of course, but you can almost hear S.M. Krishna sitting at the high table, nodding in agreement with himself as he delicately pushes a plate of Maddur Vade towards his guests from across the border: “Here, try some of these with some gatti chutney….”

Photographs: Karnataka Photo News

Also read: How V.G. Siddhartha built the CCD dream cup by cup

Once upon a time, shortly after the lunch break

A good dosa is like your first love: unsurpassable

By-two badaam haalu for the lambu leggie, please

Mane Adige recipe: Maddur Vade

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A good dosa is like your first dovvu: unsurpassable

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: that having eaten in such temples as Brahmins Tiffin Room or Central Tiffin Room, Bangaloreans 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 mathematics.

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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.

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The harder it is to pronounce, the more authentic?

K. JAVEED NAYEEM writes: Star of Mysore editor K.B. Ganapathy wrote recently about how an unreasonably expensive glass of fruit juice at an exclusive hotel only turned out to be a bitter experience both literally and figuratively.

The juice served to him not only turned out to be bitter and undrinkable but it still had to be paid for in full despite not having been consumed at all.

Contrary to what we naturally expect for having paid for them through our noses, it is indeed true that some five-star experiences can turn out to be memorable for their bitterness rather than for their pleasantness. This holds good to the comforts or the unique but very real discomforts of staying there and also to their exclusive cuisine.

Although having travelled a lot, I will comment on the travails of staying there at some other time and restrict myself to the vagaries of their cuisine here.

These days almost all exclusive hotels without any exceptions whatsoever promote what they call traditional Indian cuisine, taking great care to include in it representations from every region of our vast country.

It is as if they are trying to make sure that their guests, especially the foreigners among them, get a chance to sample the best of our cuisine at one watering hole with expert guidance without having to travel over the full length and breadth of the country.

Every regional item on the menu is touted as being the handiwork of a well-trained chef of that region, from a lineage of ancestors in the same field, brought and retained by them at great expense, just to give your taste-buds the authentic experience.

I have found that very often the biggest players in this very paying playing field are the biggest liars in this respect. The same holds good for most of the continental and Chinese dishes that are on the menu.

They remain faithful to their countries only as long as they remain hard to pronounce and harder to understand names on the menu before they are dished out to you only after a long wait that leaves you so hungry and impatient that you are in no mood to ask or even see what you are eating.

On more than one occasion I have been to some of the best hotels in the country only to experience at great cost the worst kind of disappointment both with their food and the quality of their service.

The biggest culprit is the consistency and the authenticity of what they serve.

When you get very impressed with a particular dish and at a subsequent visit, especially when you are accompanied by someone important whom you want to impress, when you order the same dish, you are in for the worst kind of disappointment. You will find the dish you are served is not even remotely close to what you had liked the last time.

I have also found that sometimes when the rush is heavy or when a particular chef is overworked or on leave, the dish you order and the dish you get are not the same although when you complain, the steward, the waiter, the captain, the restaurant manager and even the stand-in chef, perhaps believing that strength lies in numbers, reassure you in smiling unison that it indeed is.

The dim lighting that can make all dishes all people look alike and the fact that you are the lone complainer in a crowd of satisfied customers can only go against your grouse. You may even be made to feel happy for next time’s sake that they will modify the dish to your liking but it usually does not help as the improved version is still not what you expected. But the courtesy has to necessarily end here as you cannot be right twice and they certainly cannot be wrong twice with all their knowledge and experience.

On many occasions, just to avoid unpleasantness, I have pleasantly acknowledged their fake reassurance with an equally fake smile and swallowed spoonfuls of Chicken shreds dunked in a sticky Shezwan sauce from a distant and unseen country across the Himalayas, mentally recalling the rich tangy taste of the truly Indian Chettinad Chicken which I love !

The logic behind the five star dining experience is very simple. If you have ordered a dish which the Moghuls or the Rajputs or the Nizams ate a few centuries ago, how can you lay a claim to knowing how it tasted unless you dined with them? And if you had dined with them, you certainly would have died with them too !

Very recently on a Saturday evening, when every eating place, high-end or low-down, even in drab Mysore, on weekends looks and sounds like the Chatrapathi Shivaji (aka Victoria) Terminus in Mumbai (aka Bombay), I was served what was unmistakably Palak Chicken in its trademark green gravy, which I abhor, as Chicken Hyderabadi. The waiter was so adamant that he was right and I was wrong and the service was so slow in the first place that like most doctors, I decided against a second opinion, let alone a second order.

A couple of years ago, some Chinese doctors were on a month-long training programme in cardio-thoracic surgery at a very reputed hospital in Bangalore. Although quite impressed with our state of progress in medicine, since there is a great deal of difference between what people eat in China and what was being served to them day in and day out in the hospital cafeteria, they were visibly uncomfortable with the food.

After two weeks of their rather busy stay my friend who heads the department there, with the intention of ending their home-sickness and also perhaps to show them the genuineness of our faith in the ‘Panchasheel’ agreement, decided to take them out to an exclusive Chinese restaurant at one of Bangalore’s best known five star hotels. As each dish arrived, borne by authentic smiling Chinese speaking waiters, albeit of Indian nationality, the Chinese guests somehow failed to share the excitement of their Indian hosts.

When my now slightly crestfallen friend asked them for their lack of enthusiasm in enjoying what they had been missing all along, they very hesitantly told him that none of the dishes served so far were Chinese !

Wizened by some very expensive learning experience, I now make sure that unless it is unavoidable, I always go to an eating place where I know someone who knows me as well as he knows his cooking and still believes in the ancient saying that customer satisfaction is what brings more customers. Bon appetit!

K. Javeed Nayeem is a practising physician, who writes a weekly column in Star of Mysore, where this piece originally appeared.

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By-two badam haal for the lambu legspinner, please

S.R. RAMAKRISHNA writes from Bangalore: Iyengar bakeries must be Karnataka’s culinary gift to the world.

The Iyengars of Tamil Nadu don’t run bakeries. The Iyengar bakeries in Madras—a friend tells me that city has at least two dozen—are called Bangalore Iyengar bakeries.

How this orthodox Tamil-speaking Brahmin sect got into the business of making English-style buns, puffs and biscuits is one the biggest puzzles of Karnataka’s cultural history. A couple of bakery owners tell me they don’t eat the cakes they make because they are vegetarian, and can’t have eggs.

Among the Iyengars, only the Vadagalai sect is associated with the bakery business. All bakery owners hail from Hassan district, which has also famously produced a prime minister in H.D. Deve Gowda.

The Tamil spoken by Hassan Iyengars is Kannada-flavoured, and sounds suspect to the ears of their clansmen in Tamil Nadu. But if you were to hold a baking and confectionery contest between the two, the Kannadiga Iyengars would win hands down.

Every corner in southern Bangalore has an Iyengar bakery, although some newer enterprises, like Butter Sponge, have dropped the caste prefix. Most have names like LJ (Lakshmi Janardhana) and SLV (Sri Laksmi Venkateshwara).

For working couples and their children, the Iyengar bakeries were a godsend. Then the darshinis happened, Malayali Muslim bakeries arrived with their egg puffs, pizza outlets mushroomed, and Bangalore became, in the language of the metro supplements, hip and happening.

The Iyengar bakeries haven’t really vanished, but their ’70s glory is gone.

Anil Kumble was reportedly fond of dil khush and dil pasand, two sweets that most bakeries added to their menu in the late 1970s, when he was a student of National High School in Basavangudi.

In an ad, the Test captain appears against a Mediterranean backdrop with a wine glass in his hand and some fancy dish on his plate. Mistaken branding! He would have been a more convincing brand ambassador for the Iyengar bakeries, with a veg puff and a glass of badam milk in his hand.

My bakery favourites are the special bread (called ‘special’ because it has sugar, as against ‘ordinary’ which is bland), the spicy khara bun, the unbearably sweet benne biscuit (butter cookie), and the sunflower yellow-coloured badam burfi (a VB Bakery speciality).

I also used to like the apple cake, which I now understand is made from breadcrumbs and the previous days leftovers.

Iyengar bakeries offer good variety, but each item is a carb feast. The icing on their cakes, for instance, is too sugary. Their syrupy flavours are particularly attractive to the taste buds of school and college students, but many graduate to grilled sandwiches and gobi manchurian, which the Iyengar bakeries don’t make.

The best time to eat bakery stuff is three in the afternoon, when the stuff comes hot out of the Iyengar ovens. The bakers would do most of their work manually till 15 years ago, but machines have taken over now even for simple chores like slicing the loaves.

Growing up on bakery stuff is probably a nutritional disaster.

I have frequented an Iyengar bakery since I was in school, giving them steady business for their breads, buns (sweet and stuffed) and what they call pups (puffs). The bakers, who won’t eat what they make, remain young and fit, but I’ve greyed!

(S.R. Ramakrishna is the editor of MiD Day, Bangalore, where an earlier version of this piece originally appeared)

Photograph: courtesy Vikram Chadaga

Cross-posted on churumuri

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Zen and the art of eating the (Mysore) Masala Dosa

ARVIND SWAMINATHAN writes from San Francisco: Everybody has their own, unique kink. The kink may be disgusting to some, obnoxious to others, but to the owner of the kink, it is his trademark trait, the calling card of his personality, his USP. A brave few show it off; most sheepishly hide it from the world.

When the cell phone became a status symbol, my SWE-brother’s stated mission in life was to gauge the owner by looking at the size of the instrument. The smaller the gizmo, the bigger the a******, was his execrable line till, horror!, a New York Times reporter wrote a book using a similar analogy: the bigger the sport utility vehicle, the bigger the jerk behind the wheel.

An extrovert colleague, who shall go unnamed (wink, wink), would play a guessing game whereever we went. He would inspect the posture, clothes, spectacles, hairstyle, bags and shoes of those around him to arrive at their profession. If one of those happened to come and sit near us, he would strike up a conversation and ask point blank. (Hate to say this, Mr Smart was right many times.)

Collegial stuff like this might seem trivial and thoroughly judgmental in the context of churumuri‘s obsession with the “big picture”. But fun, harmless, time-pass activities like these reassure us that there is a life beyond corruption, secularism, communalism, casteism, criminality, elections and such like.

And it is only idiots who do not have any such idiosyncracies.

All this is by way of a preface for my own little kink: which is to watch members of the human species tackle the Masala Dosa on the sly, and to make mental notes of how they are likely to approach “similar situations” that they will unfold in life. (As you can see, I am couching my words to evade the stern editor!)

Of course, you might say that it’s not good table manners to watch other people eat. But, hey, it’s my kink, you can choose yours.

(Disclaimer: I do not have any interest in supervising the fate of the Set Dosa, Plain Dosa, Rava Dosa, Onion Dosa, Ragi Dosa, or any dosa any chef anywhere can whip up at the hands of aficionados. The only dosa that pulls my pop-psychological antenna up is the Masala Dosa.)

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To me, the world is clearly divided into Masala Dosa-eaters and potential Masala Dosa-eaters, and praise be unto both of them. (There are, as you will have no doubt noticed from your own culinary observations, no former Masala Dosa-eaters, and praise be unto the Masala Dosa for that.)

There are two clear reasons why the Masala Dosa makes for such a rivetting visual experience, even if it sounds weirdly voyeuristic. One, the fold. Two, the aloo gedde palya—the “lightly cooked filling of potatoes, fried onions, and spices”—which lies beneath the fold.

(In some parts of Andhra Pradesh, the masala of the dosa comes sacrilegiously separately in an open-top katori, like the chutney and sambar. And on Ibrahim Sahib Street in Bangalore, behind Commercial Street, Tamil families used to stuff the Masala Dosa with shavige (vermicelli) baath and some or the other rice baath. But we are not talking of the same thing.)

We are talking of the genuine article here: the Masala Dosa.

The genuine Mysore Masala Dosa gets even more interesting because there is an additional bit of suspense built into its wafer-thin architecture. Namely, the coating of red or green chutney on top of which sits the alloo-gedde palya. Like the girl in the picture (above) there are some, not many, who just cannot wait to see just what lies below the dark to golden brown crackle.

Two further caveats here. One, we are not taking into account the “Set Masala Dosa” where instead of one Masala Dosa folded on both sides, we have two smaller Dosas with a single fold. In some restaurants in Mysore, they serve palya in one and saagu in the other as if to heighten the suspense. And two, we are not talking of those silly pyramid-like vertical Masala Dosas that were the rage in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

So, by virtue of having watched countless Indians, non-resident Indians, and foreigners in several cities and countries dig into the “rice pancake with a lightly cooked filling of potatoes, fried onions, and spices” in restaurants, weddings, dosa camps and other public settings, I believe I have the requisite authority vested in me by long years of fermentation, to decree that there are exactly five kinds of Masala Dosa eaters in the world.

1) Those who start at the top

2) Those who start from the bottom

3) Those who work at the sides

4) Those who pierce the middle

5) Those who open the fold

We could argue that all these five positions depend on the angle in which the dosa is placed. But, generally speaking, the Masala Dosa seems to settle down at a 30 to 45-degree angle in most plates, with a clearly identifiable top and bottom.

**

In my book (and I am unanimous about it!) those who start at the top of the Masala Dosa are mostly middle-aged men and women, and those older. These are the well-settled, organised lot, who have cracked the big mysteries of life. If they weren’t dealing with something so serious as eating a dosa, they would be sending off rockets into space. They believe in sequencing, they believe things must be done in a particular way, they believe the Masala Dosa must be eaten in a particular way. They have seen enough Masala Dosas to know what they will meet when they get in. And they have the patience to wait.

Those who start at the bottom are slightly younger, slightly more adventurous. These could be men or women. Young adults in their first or second jobs. They will effortlessly take a couple of bites from the bottom and won’t hesitate to break the sequence and try the top either. And then come back to the bottom to start all over again. There is no recognisable pattern. They believe it is still too early to decide either way. They will take it whichever way it comes.

Those who work at the sides of the Masala Dosa are usually, but not always, younger boys and girls either in love or on a fitness spree. They nibble tenderly at the roasted edges of the dosa, while they look meaningfully into the eyes of their partner or while they while away time. Each tiny crust takes an eon to melt in their mouths. This accomplishes two things for them. They spend the requisite time in conversation and they create the perception in their own minds of having eaten. Since the dosa is only incidental to their core objective, it is not unsurprising to see them leave midway.

Those who pierce the centre, delve into the middle, and wolf down the palya straightaway with the first bite are mostly young boys and teenagers. They have done the dosa in the past, they know where their sustenance for the tennis game will come from, they are hungry, and they get down to business without much ado. It’s a no-fuss relationship.

The guys who open the fold have little poetry in their hearts. They are matter-of-fact types. They know that the palya is just a small little thing in the middle. They know that if you start at the top or bottom and make your way in, there will be very little dosa left to deal with the palya. So, we might as well open the damn thing and spread it across. This demographic is also most likely to pour the chutney on top of the palya, and order a fresh katori of chutney before taking the first bite.

So, how do you do the Masala Dosa, and what does it say about who you are?

Photograph: courtesy BBC

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Look who’s hopped on to the great brand wagon!

SHRINIDHI HANDE writes from Madras: We are already used to Australian apples, Californian grapes and other more exotic fruits from foreign shores sporting a small, slick sticker, branding themselves against others. Buying them and being seen to be buying them has become a small matter of status and prestige.

Would we react the same way to fruits grown in our midst?

Roadside sellers on the outskirts of Pondicherry have started slapping a sticker on tender coconuts and toddy palms that they sell on ECR (East Coast Road). The label, in Tamil, advertisers the brand name of the coconut, and has empty slots for date, weight, and price.

That set me thinking: Can we trust such labels? Is this smart marketing to woo a new class of consumers—or just stupid imitation?

I can understand that if we do some kind of processing (cleaning, purification, packaging, preservation, etc) on a food item, to some extent we can justify branding them (for example, buttermilk). But just because you grew it in your own farm, with your preferred choice of fertilisers, plucked it from the tree, and brought it to the market (read roadside), can you justify affixing a sticker on a natural product and calling it “my brand”?

Is branding tender coconuts suppose to evoke “instant recall”? Will it bring a loyal set of consumers who go around looking for the same brand whereever they go?

Does it bring additional value to a consumer?

The Greatest Bottler up above doesn’t specify an expiry date for his products—so what date are they planning to mention there? Date of plucking from the tree? Or “best-before” date? Anyone with any experience in downing tender coconuts will be able to judge them by looking at the visible freshness of the fruit. (If there’re lots of wrinkles and dark spots on the surface, then it is over ripe.)

Ergo: dates don’t make much sense.

Ditto the weight of the coconut.

For most of the other fruits, measuring by weight makes sense but in the case of tender coconut, it is an irrelevant parameter. I don’t think there’s any mathematical relationship between the weight of the unit and quantity of water inside.

A visibly huge and heavy coconut can have an equally thicker shell and very little quantity of liquid inside while a small-sized one can be full of fresh and tasty water. So trying to reach at some conclusion based on weight would again fail.

In fact, it is extremely tough to predict the taste and quantity of tender coconut and coconut gravy. A vendor usually asks if you prefer to have only water or water with kernel (coconut meat). But even seasoned vendors cannot assure you that his pick will be 100% accurate, though by sheer experience he might manage to pick an appropriate one.

You could argue similarly for Toddy Apple.

The only advantage of branding, if any, is that it might convince certain customers (probably techies and international tourists, provided they are not much familiar with the fundamentals of tender coconuts) to believe they are going to have something of a better quality.

Photograph: Shrinidhi Hande

Cross-posted on churumuri

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Once upon a time, shortly after the lunch break

RAMYA KRISHNAMURTHY writes from Bangalore: While the boys of churumuri let their tongues flap around for kodu bale and Kingfisher, may I, on behalf of the party of the other part, unwrap a small packet of sepia-toned memories, one of the simple joys of days long past: the humble haalu khova.

To the undying gratitude of my dentist Dr B.K. Chandra Mohan, my sweet tooth, all 31 of them actually, has since gone on to discover something netherworld about the Mysore pak from Guru Sweet Mart (Mysore) and the obscenely shaped gulab-jamoons from Bhagat Ram (Bangalore); about the dumrot from Ramakrishna Lunch Home (Bangalore) and the badam halwa from Ramya drive-in restaurant (Mysore).

(Feel free to pick your weakness and salivate here: badam burfi/ badushah / basundi/ champakali/ chiroti/ dharwad peda/ gajar halwa / holige/ huggi/ kadubu/ kajaya/ kheer/ kunda/ ladoo / mishti doi/ payasa/ peni/ rasogolla/ rasamalai / sajjige/ shira/ shrikhand / unde/ vobattu.)

While, those forbidden fruits of human toil have their own allure, the haalu khova is at the very apex of personal favourites for me, almost 30 years after I surreptitiously (and innocently) let one of them dissolve in my mouth in Ms Celine Rodriques’ class in the first period after lunch at Nirmala School in Vontikoppal.

(Sorry, Ms Celine, but we were popping a piece of paradise.)

Each one has one, but there were a few reasons why I fell head over heels in love with haalu khova.

a) Because it was not an organised “adult” sweet.

b) Because of its unbelievably low price.

c) Because it had stamp of “local” all over it.

d) Because it was such a cute, portable product.

e) Because there was a small tag of rebelliousness strung around it.

Like many “middle” middle-class families in the 1970s, my father too used to bring home a small packet of doodh peda every now and then from Indra Bhavan on Sayyaji Rao Road. And there was the odd packet of sweets that arrived courtesy of some maduve, munji or tithi.

But haalu khova was a different story. No cook ever claimed it was his speciality. No sweet shop shouted that it was world-famous for it.

It was made without fuss; it was sold and consumed without fanfare.

It was a sweet you bought from the Rs 20 that was your monthly allocation of “pocket money”. It was a sweet you bought (mostly) without your parents’ knowing. It was a sweet you ate off the street, off Jayamma‘s gaadi that was wheeled into 2nd main road, Vontikoppal.

Above all, it was a friendly sweet that wouldn’t give you away in class; it was so silky soft that it would melt without even your trying. And It was a sweet that you consumed while Ms Madhura and Ms Ponnamma were looking at the blackboard, giving you a bit of a cheap thrill, as the boys looked on in envy.

The families in Agrahara which (I later learned) put haalu khova on the gastronomical atlas of India probably didn’t know, and probably didn’t care, but in their own way they were making their own contribution to female emancipation every afternoon through their enterprise.

***

As memories go, there was nothing fancy about the haalu khova. It was light to dark brown, depending on which bylane of Agrahara it came from. It had no great shape or elaborate icing. It was just a small cube of what cookbooks call “whole dried milk” (khoya or mawa in Hindi) laden with sugar that in our time was precut into nine smaller cuboids.

But the real pleasure was in the geometry of its cottage engineering.

Every consignment of haalu khova was packed with absolute precision in butter paper, not a crease out of place. And then artfully tied with cotton thread, two rounds going this way and that way, with a small, seductive knot at the end.

Untying the knot gave the same pleasure that a diamond smuggler got while revealing his booty.

And untie we would after slipping in a packet or two into our skirt pockets after the lunch break, one little piece after another.

Long after our gang—Ashitha Shetty, Kavitha K.S., Kiran Shenoy, Manisha Modha, Preeti Attavar, et al had outgrown the haalu khova—I made my way one dark power-cut evening to the little lane in Sunnadakeri, where the old Iyengar’s Mess was situated, to see the place where the haalu khova was said to have originated.

A bare-breasted, cross-belted man sat on the jagli outside as he protected the “secret formula” like John Pemberton.

Haalu khova, he said, invented 61 years ago in that very home by his father Gopal Iyengar. Its original name was Delhi burfi. It was made to give the children of the house something more nutritious than the biscuits they craved. And the original packet, eight times the current size, apparently cost 3 paise.

A packet of four slices (in picture) today costs Rs 5. “But, remember, a gram of gold cost Rs 30 in those days.”

“One packet is enough to sustain you for three-four hours,” said Iyengar junior, who it turned out had opened the batting for RBNCC. “Javagal Srinath once gave an interview in the beginning of his international career where he said he had played entire matches on nothing more than a packet of our haalu khova.”

If it was good enough for Babu, it was good enough for us.

Photographs: Prashant Krishnamurthy

Cross-posted on churumuri

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