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MTR cafe
Vaangibaath steeped in spice and tradition
... Lunch at Mavalli Tiffin Room

M D Riti. Photographs by K Venkatesh

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Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, the 75-year-old restaurant that is almost as much an icon of Bangalorean culture as the adjacent Lalbagh park, is situated in a small, old building bang in the middle of Lalbagh road. It seems almost like a reflection of the changing face of Bangalore that MTR, as it is known, is dwarfed by its newer and bigger neighbour, the MTR Department Stores, which stocks a range of biscuits and sweets.

Traditionally MTR was only a breakfast and teatime snack place. As we sped through the streets of Bangalore in an autorickshaw, memories of uncles and grandfathers talking about taking a brisk walk through the park and stopping by at MTR for a mouthwatering breakfast ran through our minds. Snippets of information that we had picked up about its history at various times also came to mind.

We knew, for example, that this eatery had been started by the present owner Sadanand Mayya's father, a cook turned hotelier, in 1924. Sadanand was an engineering student when his father died, and he took over the restaurant and ran it, while simultaneously working elsewhere as an engineer. It was not making big profits, but Sadanand wanted to keep it going as a landmark showpiece.

Then, during the Emergency in the mid seventies, when the hotel found it impossible to maintain its very high food standards at the ridiculously low prices enforced by the Food Control Act, Sadanand got into the instant food business, and now has a successful range of sambar and rasam powders, instant idli, dosa, chutney and other mixes.

We had decided not to drive up by car, as parking is quite impossible on Lalbagh road, which is a very busy, one way main road. The driver thought that it was quite strange, being Bangaloreans, that we had never undergone the ritual of eating even once at this famous institution. We explained to him that it was the ever present queue snaking its way along the pavement outside the eatery -- a true testimony to its popularity -- that invariably put us off. Not to mention the woeful tales of visiting NRI relatives who had returned home disappointed after waiting for two hours.

But we were smarter. We had decided to try the special lunch menu instituted by MTR about a year ago, which was reportedly delicious, and at a time when the crowds were very manageable. We played it safe by reporting at the restaurant 15 minutes before the lunch hour, which commenced punctually at 12.30 pm.

MTR cafe We found that we were not the only people with that particular idea. As we walked through the old, painted doors, into the dark ante room, we spotted a middle-aged, bespectacled cashier sitting within an old-fashioned grill enclosure. The day's lunch menu was leaning against an adjacent wall, written in chalk on a black board.

It said:

Vegetable Gravy
Masala Dosa
Sweet pongal
Gojju Ambode
Curds Rice
Fruit Salad

Regular, wholesome Karnataka Brahmin fare. And all listed clearly upfront, so that if it did not appeal, you could walk into the 'tiffin and snacks' room just beyond and make a meal of the rather heavy snacks like dosas, idlis and rice baaths. This was a new one: the snacks usually closed down at 10 am.

Anyway, we opted for the lunch, since that was the new programme on their schedule, paid for it in advance (Rs 75 per head for the multi course fixed menu listed above!) and walked up an old, dark but clean staircase. As we climbed to the first floor, we were confronted at every turn with framed black and white photographs of various famous men eating at long, white-covered tables. None of them looked less than 25 years old.

We eventually emerged into a waiting area which looked like the waiting rooms at the Tirumala temple. There were long benches fixed to the floor along which you sat. The accent everywhere was on basic utilitarianism and hygiene, with no great concern for ambience or decor.

There was another small waiting room inside with a sign reading 'Family.' There were mostly small families of grandparents, children and grandchildren, waiting with us, adding to the family eatery kind of atmosphere. We whiled away our short waiting time looking around, entertaining ourselves by studying a small blue washbasin in a corner of the waiting room, the old light fittings hanging from the ceiling and old laminated pictures of Bangalore landmarks adorning the walls. The windows were hung with yellow plastic curtains with a floral design.

At 12.30 on the dot, a white dhoti-clad hotel worker beckoned to us. We gathered around him eagerly, and he examined our receipts, jotted us down on a clipboard and waved us into the eating area. Here, we saw red plastic chairs drawn up to black stone topped tables. Drinking water came from a huge purifier in a corner, beside which were large tables bearing rows of clean glasses and bowls.

Ancient fans creaked away quietly on the ceiling, cooling the old, high-ceilinged dining room quite effectively. More of the ubiquitous dhoti-clad men, with clean shirts, walked about amidst us, plonking shiny steel plates with cup-shaped indentations before us.

MTR cafe They reminded us of the origins of MTR's kind of food, which is the Udipi Brahmin cuisine of Dakshina Kannada, the coastal area of Karnataka. This kind of cuisine is said to have originated in the famous Krishna temple at Udipi, and the taste of the meal we ate there some years ago still lingers on our palates.

Fresh, sweet grape juice, served in heavy, old silver tumblers, came first, brought not on trays, but in clusters by waiters, whose fingers dipped gently into the liquid. Then came glasses of water, thankfully on trays this time. As is the done thing in conventional South Indian sit-down banquets, the kosambri or salad came first, served into one of the cup-shaped indentations on the plate.

This whole meal is finger food, so the diner who is not comfortable eating with his or her hands would be well-advised to ask for a spoon right at the beginning.

Then came two kinds of simple palya, cabbage and beans cooked and the fried lightly with mustard, dal and coconut, again served into the indentations. A fresh, spicy green chutney was followed by crisp masala dosa, with a delicious potato and onion filling, made rather thick, in the old Karnataka style, and not thin and crisp, like the modern commercial variety.

The vegetable gravy never made its appearance, but nobody felt its loss. Then came the brown flavoured rice vangibaath, with crunchy pieces of brinjal. A small vada covered in a thick coconut gravy called gojju came next.

"Rice for rasam only," intoned a white dhoti. What he meant was that the plain white rice he was serving was meant only to be eaten with the rasam that followed, and so you should ask for whatever size of helping you wanted accordingly. Normally, you take a large helping of the white rice that comes at the beginning of a South Indian meal, store it in a corner of your plate and mix it in small quantities with dals and gravies as they follow.

Hot, spicy rasam followed, ladled liberally onto the rice, with a spoonful of ghee going right on top, and some thick potato chips as accompaniment. (This rasam can also be drunk, so ask for a cup if you like.)

The savouries and sweets were alternated well enough to ensure that we always had a sweet on hand to nibble if any of the food proved to be too spicy, as sometimes happened. However, as Udipi cuisine is rather mild, the seasoned Indian tongue might not find the spice level uncomfortable. After the rice and rasam, there was sweet pongal, a rice sweetened with jaggery, quite different in colour and flavour from its counterpart across the border in Tamil Nadu.

Small, yellow jilebis, which melted in the mouth almost instantly, followed. A thick, white rava payasam, ladled directly on to our plates, called for some skills of scooping up in handfuls into our mouths. The novices would do well to ask for cups here again.

The last two items on the menu came suddenly and almost simultaneously: a light, delicately seasoned curds-and-rice, a spicy hot lime pickle, and a cup of dessert: a rather bland fresh fruit salad with a scoop of obviously home-made ice-cream, decorated with a small cherry perched right on top.

As we wondered whether that was the end of this many course meal, anotherdhoti diplomatically placed a paan in a plastic bag before us with a polite smile.

We washed up at the small, clean wash basin down a narrow, dirty corridor just outside the dining room, and made our way downstairs to find out whether the juice glasses were really solid silver. They were!

We asked to walk through the kitchens, and were waved in quite readily. There we saw huge wet grinders making dosa and idli batter, cauldrons of thick, creamy milk, and right in the innermost cavern of this dark, clean space, two thin, elderly cooks wearing sacred threads across their bare chests, making piles of sizzling dosas.

My companion insisted on asking them for their secret recipe for dosa batter, and they were soon engaged in an intricate discussion of dals and types of flour, to be mixed in at various times of the process. We emerged rather dizzily from the vast kitchens, and found the diners heading in a steady stream next door, to the department store.

MTR cafe We followed them, and found ourselves in a bright shop with shelves full of a dazzling array of sweets and savouries, many quite unheard of elsewhere, like the Pizza Bun and pineapple halva (Udipi is famous for its innovative use of the pineapple.) Watching everyone snacking on these items, we could not stop ourselves from sampling a few.

The pineapple peta, which was rather like the famed Agra peda, was light and crisp. The savoury mixture was delightfully munchable. Cashew biscuits, shaped like the huge cashew fruits of the Dakshina Kannada region, were quite unusual.

To our dismay, we found that we had run up a far higher bill here than at the restaurant. Deciding that we should leave before we began regretting our over-indulgence, we stepped out into the afternoon sunshine and into a conveniently cruising autorickshaw.

Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, Lalbagh Road, Bangalore. Phones: 080-2220022. Open daily. Lunch served from 1230 hours to 1430 hours. Dinner served from 2000 hours to 2130 hours. Alcohol is not served. Credit cards not accepted.
Rediff rating -- Food: 7/10 Decor: 2/10, Service: 5/10, Value for money: 8/10.

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