An Idli is a South Indian rice cake eaten with chutney and lentils. They have become popular all over the country and in Bangalore, you can get them in every market. But an old Bangalorian took me to taste the best idlis in the city at Brahmin’s Coffee Bar near Shankar Math Road. The shop offers only 4 dishes along with tea and coffee. It is a small shop. Décor is non-existent and venue only has standing room. Yet despite these inconveniences, on any day at any time, you will see the crowd spilling outside.
A dish of idlis with chutney and sambhar
On the way, I learnt the history of the place. The founder had graduated as an engineer in the 1960s but could not find a job. In desperation, he opened a tiny stall where he would sell idlis his mother prepared every morning.
As business grew, he grew his shop, but only the bare minimum he had to. The prices also grew little, an idli will cost you Rs. 16 (about 25 cents). Yet he has done extremely well. I was assured his family owns several Mercedes cars. His mother’s recipe remains a closely guarded secret within the family and of the thousands of chefs cooking idlis every day in Bangalore, no one has been able to replicate its flavor or lightness (I can attest to that).
There are several other such examples all over Bangalore, for instance Central Tiffin Room in Malleshwaram is famous for its masala dosa which tastes different than anywhere else in the city and MTR near Lal Bagh is known for its Rava idli. Every city in India has its share of family run ‘old shops’ known to all the locals which have been around for decades and have never expanded. Instead, they have developed deep expertise sometimes over generations in perfecting a few dishes.
This was one of the shocks on my first trip to the US. I couldn’t find any such places. In the US, if you have a good idea, you will expand it through franchises till you cover the whole country. On a TV program, a couple who owned a restaurant were interviewed. They had a special kind of potato chips they were serving there and they were looking at how to package them and sell them over mass market.
Underneath these business models, I believe there is also a difference in the way food is viewed. In India (and many other parts of Asia), good food is considered a labour intensive craft which requires skill and experience to execute. Anybody can make a dosa, but to make a truly great dosa and to do so again and again flawlessly requires something special. Yet it remains curiously devoid of snobbery.
Colourful legends surround the history of food. For instance, in Delhi, it is said that they spicy chaats the city is famous for were developed by Mughal doctors who believed they would help stave off water-borne disease. Also, it is said that at the Mughal court, the princesses were never allowed inside the kitchen. It was feared that after they were married, they would take the secrets of their cuisine with them to foreign lands.
Compare all this with the proverbial “flipping burgers at McDonald’s”.