Back to the Basics… A. Rama Nayak’s Udipi Idli House, Matunga, Mumbai

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When I walked into the tiny garage sized Spartan place with three shared tables and no aircon, little did I expect Idli House at Mumbai’s King’s Circle to be one of the most forward thinking of Indian restaurants that I have come across.

Let me make my case.

I had heard of Idli House from friends and readers who drive down to Matunga for South Indian food. I must admit that I am not crazy enough about idlis to make the trip all the way across to Matunga from Bandra for it. Of all the places that I have had idlis, there’s only one that stood out before this as far as I am concerned. That’s Chutney’s at Hyderabad. I can’t claim to be the biggest fan of these steamed rice dumplings otherwise.

The other day I was at King’s Circle, Matunga, and thought I will try out something South Indian. King’s Circle is famous for its South Indian joints. Raj suggested idli House and I thought that I will check it out since I was there and since I heard so much about it.

The restaurant was packed when I went in at 1 pm. All three tables were occupied but a gentleman made some space and I managed to become the 12th customer eating there and thereby packing the restaurant to its gills. They also have a stand on the side where you can eat your idlis if the tables are full. The tables work on a sharing basis and of course is far away from the world of restaurant reservations. This is one of those places where you sit, you order, you eat, you move on. Importantly, though small, the mood was calm and pleasant and there was none of the stink of rancid oil which you get in some small South Indian restaurants. They run a neat and clean ship at Idli House.

I placed my orders with the enterprising waiter. The menu has idlis and just that to eat. Many types of idlis though. More than you could imagine exist.

The good thing is that you can order them by the piece and try out many varieties

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I first went with Raj’s suggestion. I started with the sanno khotto or the masala idli. This is steamed in jackfruit leaves. The taste was very similar to sambar. I guess the spices are similar. The texture wetter than normal possibly because of the masala. The idli was pretty filling. There were shreds of cabbage in it. Apparently they put onions back home in Mangalore but the food in Idli House is Jain friendly I was told and hence they avoid onions here.

I got to know about the cabbages from the manager, the genial Mr C S Kamath. He has taken this job up after retiring from service. It’s from Mr Kamath that I got to know more about Idli House and what I learnt made me realise that it’s owners are quite forward thinking.

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Idli House, Mr Kamat told me, is a 7 year old place. It is the brain child of the owners of the 70 year old Rama Nayak lunch home down the road. The owners felt that there is an opportunity for a restaurant serving light food for people who are on the go and depend on junk food otherwise. That’s when one of the owners came up with the idea of a restaurant dedicated to just idlis. Steamed rice dumplings which are light and nutritious.

Idli batters are often fermented overnight in restaurants which can cause acidity. To avoid that, I am told that in Idli House they ferment the batter for a lot less time thereby making it healthier.

Now you would  typically associate such diet conscious offerings with fancier places that Idli House and at far higher, ‘fat free pay more’, prices than the 90 odd Rupees (less than USD 2) that I paid for 3 idlis and a brilliantly robust filter coffee.

A filter coffee with an admirably strong point of view.

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To make idlis attractive to the youth the owners decided to go beyond the simple white steamed idli to a menu that runs into two columns.

Are these varieties of idlis new creations? Mr Kamath tells me that these are idlis traditionally made in the house of the folks of the GSB communities. The community that ran the first South Indian restaurants in Mumbai, Mr Chandrashekhar tells me, before the Shettys took over.

I just feel that this idea of drawing into one’s traditions, using modern equipment (they have electronic steamers here), using modern health concepts (cutting down on the fermentation), expanding a menu to go beyond their own community (the Jain friendliness) to make the restaurant universal are all signs of a very progressive mind.

The staff too are quite competent. The head waiter expertly took my order in Hindi and then got the gun powder spice mix to the table and mixed them with coconut oil and told me to have it with my idlis. Whether he does this with everyone or whether it was my DSLR at work I wouldn’t know but he did suggest nice angles for me to shoot the idlis and coffee from.

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Could Idli House with its multiple steamed idlis be the answer to the Chinese dimsum houses and YumCha menus that are so popular world over? I would like to think, yes.

You want to know about the other idlis that I had? Well I tried the yellow coloured Mysore upma (semolina) idli which was tightly packed and was faintly sweet, had cashews in it and combined very well with the red chutney that came with it.

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I had my first two idlis with sambar so had the third one with a very nice rassam. This idli, my favourite, was the pepper idli. It’s a basic white steamed idli bedecked with crushed black pepper which added a slight bit of heat to the airiness of idli. This was the lightest of the three and the most delicate in textural balance. Definitely the one which appealed to me the most. The one I would go back for.  

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A short while back someone asked me if I knew of any new Indian restaurant in Mumbai. I couldn’t think of any.

Greek, Italian, Japanese, confused Asian, Spanish, Chinese all of that yes…but when was the last time that you heard of anything interesting happening in the Indian restaurant scene in Mumbai?

I am all for a global palette, dinners at our house often have Asian and European Influences. It’s great to see cuisines from all over coming into Mumbai.

What I would like to see more of though is people showing the gumption which the Rama Nayak folks did. Chances are then that we are going to comes across then is food that stuns and delights. Attempts to import cuisines with Indian chefs and local produce will at the most leave us with overpriced second hand fare.

As Idli House shows us we need to look inwards to innovate and if we do so the meals that come out will be pretty good.

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