Archive for February, 2009

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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