Chennai and the Art of Eating Idlis

Written by Gitanjali  |  Updated: April 23, 2013 11:49 IST

Chennai and the Art of Eating Idlis
All eyes are on a small pile of gunpowder. And a tiny rivulet of ghee snaking through it, threatening to flood over the edge of the banana leaf.
It is my meal. But I am staring transfixed, not very sure what I do next. The elderly woman sitting next to me is staring too. As is the man, her husband, sitting opposite her. They are grinning.

I am somewhat mortified. But my usually unerring instincts are in hibernation. My gallant companion sitting across me - and till now politely trying to smother his smile and gently egg me on to mix it with my forefinger - finally reaches out and does it for me. Just stopping the spill on the very edge.

I can almost feel the urge in everyone around to applaud. I would certainly want to if I were not busy trying to hide in a single room about 15 feet by 15 feet and crammed with tables and chairs and people filling them faster than they get empty. There is no place to hide.
The elderly couple -  the woman resplendent in a bright silk sari and gold ornaments, the man in a simple white cotton shirt - are delighted. They have clearly lost interest in their meal of vadas, dosas and idlis as they wait for the next episode in a North Indian woman's attempts to eat idlis in Chennai.

But I do get ahead of myself. The context first.

It is the middle of January 2011, and I am delighting in the warm Chennai afternoon having just left bitterly cold Delhi a day before. A few hours more and I shall be back in the cold. I intend to make the most of my day out in Chennai.
I am at the Murugan idli shop for lunch. Do not ask me which one and on which road of Chennai. I believe there are many of these. This one is strongly recommended by the taxi driver, who has also helped me through a hurried pilgrimage of sari and jewelry shops before firmly driving up to this tiny joint adjacent to, hold your breath, a Something da Dhaba. The dhaba is aggressively in your face next to the rather reticent idli shop, as though suggesting that I just step in and do the usual butter-chicken-naan routine.

But nay. I am here here for the Chennai experience. And authentic idlis I must have.
My companion, who shall soon be my hero for sparing my gunpowder blushes, and who knows the city and its ways much more than I do, assures me it shall be a memorable meal. I begin to believe that as we are asked to wait to be seated. Idly, I wonder if it is a very idli-dosa thing. Waiting to eat. (In Defence Colony, Delhi, where I live, Sagar is the only eatery that has a crowd outside any time of the day, people dressed to kill and happy to wait till they are summoned as mere numbers and then hustled inside to eat dosas cheek by jowl with other enthusiastic dosa-eating strangers.)

Ten nice minutes soaking in the sun (My friend assures me that I got lucky and that usually the heat would be unbearable) and we are led to the table that already has the elderly couple having lunch.

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Banana leaves are slapped on to the table and an array of chutneys are poured on to it in perfect circles. I want only idlis. My friend, dosa and vadas. As I wait, I can feel curious eyes on me. Perhaps because hunger, anticipation and plain interest in people and their plates have had me staring unabashed at what others are eating. My eyes feast before I shall.
My friend is very amused, both at my wide-eyed interest in the food on every table and at the curious looks my curiosity is drawing. It's not every day that a strange woman looks straight at your banana leaf plate to check out your dosa. But equally, I have never been in such close proximity of dosas that smell so heavenly.  

The idlis arrive. A freshly steamed batch thrown into a steel vessel that a busy man picks out two from and drops on my leaf. I have eaten idlis all my life and am partial to them, but never have they been so right. A hint of moistness, fluffy and they melt in the mouth.
If the mixing of the ghee and gunpowder was a singular act of sensuality, then eating these idlis is pure hedonism. I am sure most idli joints here, and in fact every Chennai household, serve idlis exactly like these, but in Delhi, the best has been nowhere near this. I ask for some more.

CommentsSomeone please get the real idli to Delhi.

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