Of “outside food” and elephantine humour!

And a brilliant guest post today from the creator of this whole “new look” website – Narayan Kumar – over to you, SN.
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Question: Why are elephants big, grey and wrinkled?
Answer: Because if they were small, white and smooth, they would be ‘idlis’.
Growing up in central Chennai, I knew it in my bones that outside food was fantastic. A certain Hotel Suprabhath in the vicinity was holy proof. They served a divine ‘barota-kurma’, bisi bele bhath, Mysore masala dosa among other delicacies that are cruel-to-oneself to remember now. The only inconvenient detail was that after you ate, they wanted money.
Money in my pocket was a constant: zero. I envied the neighbouring boys who took a bus to school. They got bus fares. They handled real money. You could tell the bus kids from the way they ran on premises – they had a hand over their shirt pocket to prevent the change from spilling. Sometimes, the smart, good boys did the hard yards from home to school and back by foot and saved their fares for a treat to the movies or eats. The smart, bad boys “forgot” to pay the conductor. They must have had a fulfilling life too. I, on the other hand, was put in a school so close by I walked to it daily from LKG to final year.
It is in the nature of things that Life presents penniless boys with glorious visions of restaurant food. I learnt to live by one’s wits, to make it all happen somehow. I befriended all the charlies who boarded a bus to school and avoided the buffoons who walked to school. I was nice and helpful to random uncles and male relatives who came home. With a committed lifestyle like that, many hotels nearby sprung to life.
There was this one guy, much older to me, who was rich and also liked me. For the sheer pleasure he took out of talking serious philosophy, he fed me in quite a few places – including the ultimate Kutty’s Corner, known for its delish egg curry with ‘barota’. To a Brahmin boy, this was about the giddy limit there was. To have Plato, Kant and Nietzsche spouted at you while you were enjoying a meal was hardly an issue, as long as you nodded and made a stray remark now and then. It somehow led him to spread the word that I was precocious for my age.
And there was another boy, closer in age and richer in money, who took me to a restaurant every time I told him a joke. The schoolboy joke at the top of this piece was the kind of obliging stuff I came up with. Replacing ‘aspirin pills’ from the original joke with ‘idlis’ didn’t seem like much effort. He kept his promise each time. “Make me laugh now and I’ll get you idlis in Suprabhath”, he said. Cheapskate, of course. Of all things in the greatest hotel of my childhood, he picked idlis. Truth be told, even the idlis of Suprabhath were springy soft, jasmine-white, steaming hot, perfect… 
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, er, my Chennai household, things were churning. The elders had had enough of sundry family members strolling in and refusing meals with vaguely muttered, “Oh, I’m full” and “I’ve eaten already”. And the campaign against eating out began in full earnest. Outside food is bad for health. Have you seen the state of their kitchen? Doctor Kuppuswamy says main cause of illness is eating out. Dorai Uncle got malaria/dysentery/jaundice/cholera/typhoid after eating at that Suprabhath saniyan. And so on. The one that caught my attention particularly: They put baking soda in idlis! That’s why you feel hungry so soon. That’s why you burp so much. They may or may not have mentioned other sounds from other parts of the body, I do not remember.
There was at least one beautiful result of such campaigning. I got served something astoundingly delicious that I asked what it was. My much slighted mother rightly told me to shut up and eat it. After due cajoling and praise, she gave in and said: “Idli upma”. “Don’t be silly. Which one is it?” It turned out that the uneaten idlis of yesterday were magically transformed into the hybrid, slightly sour, souped-up idli-upma of today. Fantastic stuff. In my own home!
Heathens that some of my brothers were, they drowned their idli-upma in sambar, if not the god-knows-what-resides-down-there bottom portion of rasam. Royalty that I was, I graced it immaculately with curd. To this day, I can grace anything with curd.
No doubt, as one of today’s online deliverers of hungry souls, our venerable Anu Chenji will have her own suggestions of accompaniment. And of course the main thing itself: the humble, yet soul-satisfying Idli-Upma. A return to simplicity. A paean to yesteryear. A work of ingenuity. The revenge of slighted mothers. Ok, you get the picture. Over to Anu.
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And Anu agrees wholeheartedly that putting stuff on, into or along with the idli-upma is a desecration! Sambar and idli-upma – shivery horrors! Rasam dregs – straight out of Stephen King!! 
Jus’ eat it!
Idli upma
Left over idlis (for some reason no one ever makes this with fresh idlis! 5-6 – crumble them with your fingers. If they’re the sticky variety (meaning the earlier idlis have been a flop!), cut them into small pieces with a knife
Molaga podi – gunpowder – 2 tbsp
Curry leaves – 2 sprigs
Mustard seeds – 1/2 tsp
Urad dal – 1/2 tsp
Asafoetida – a generous pinch
Sesame oil – 1 tbsp
Coriander – chopped – 1 tbsp – optional.
Heat the oil in a pan add the mustard. When it pops (hmmm….i think the Telugu word “popu” meaning tadka or baghar came from the popping of mustard seeds in oil?? pop-pop-pop-u??), add the urad dal and the curry leaves and the asafoetida. Then add the molaga podi and stir about. Add the crumbled/cut idli and stir till the podi coats everything. Sprinkle a few drops of water on the top, cover and cook for 3-4 minutes – this tenderises the idli again. Add some chopped coriander on top.

6 Replies to “Of “outside food” and elephantine humour!”

  1. love today’s piece for obvious reasons…..love this upma – i fry some onions in the tadka, at times some peanuts also thrown in with flair – its quite yummy anyhow!

  2. Word has it that Hotel Suprabhath still exists. If true, it’s one more reason why Chennai rocks. Nothing changes there, except over centuries. And even then not.

  3. If this is the famous ‘Super bath’ in Nungambakkam, I am not sure it exists. My sons used to enjoy the ‘Bbarotta, kurma too!

  4. Oh what a pity. The one I had in mind was on village road, about 100 m from the police station. And yes, on the ‘barota’-kurma thing, glad to learn I wasn’t the only one under its spell!

  5. Here is an idly lover in any shape or form. On one of my visits ( truly , there were many ) I spent a few days with.
    Hanu my dear cousin when he was in one of his forced bachelorhoods, that is with Kanthamani out of town. He surprised us the first morning that we are having hot idlis with podi ( not podii in thamil). He pulled out frozen idlis.
    from the freezer, resteamed them and we all enjoyed a great SI -BF in that great country. We now follow this tric.
    even today as my dear Vidya is reluctant to say bye-bye to her service to other deserving humanity. In fact I am now adept in preparing the batter, steaming and preserving the great white SI pancakes.

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