I can proudly say that I love idlis more than the South Indians do. For the South Indian, idli is a matter of habit, and habits are often without emotion. For example, brushing your teeth every morning is a part of habit, but you never look forward to brushing your teeth. But I have always looked forward to idlis, ever since my long childhood in Kanpur.
On a Friday evening every two or three months, my mother would soak rice and urad dal. The next afternoon, my father, after his half-day at work, would take the mix to a local grinder. Impatience began soon after he returned with the batter. Mother insisted that the idlis would not come out nice if the batter was not left overnight to ferment, so we waited for the morning of Sunday -- a holiday, the day of morning serials, the day of the evening movie on TV. It used to be idli breakfast, idli lunch and idli dinner.
The first 16 idlis (that's what a regular pot can hold) I would devour without any accompaniment, for the sambhar would still be cooking and I would have no patience. Once the sambhar was cooked, 16 more. And if any batter was left, then 16 more for dinner. I was so selfish about idlis that I didn't quite care how many others in the family -- mother, father and younger brother -- ate. My hunger would be even more aroused by the spluttering of mustard seeds and freshly-plucked curry leaves in oil.
Then one day I left Kanpur and went to Delhi, the land of tandoori roti and daal makhni. But still, my lunch would often be idli and sambhar, at a restaurant called Sona Rupa on Janpath. That was the safest food to have, even though the price was steep: Rs 25 or Rs 30 for a couple of idlis. (Irony: Sona Rupa shut down a few years ago, and it has been replaced by Saravana Bhawan where, I am sure, idlis come for much less). Eventually I found a very decent South Indian stall near Jantar Mantar off Parliament street. A plate of idlis for Rs 10.
And then one day I migrated to the land of idlis: Madras. The first few days I went berserk. Every time I saw I saw steaming idlis, clad in a white cloth, being offloaded from aluminium pots in roadside stalls, I stopped and had at least two. As long as the idlis were hot, you didn't care about the quality or, at least, the quality of the sambhar. Wisdom dawned only months later when I began to distinguish between good idlis and bad idlis.
Today, a highly popular chain of idli shop in Tamil Nadu, Murugan Idli Shop, has opened outlets in Madras. Both the outlets are a stone's throw from my T. Nagar home. I went there once, twice, thrice... but no more. Murugan Idlis' idlis are soft no doubt, but soft in a very leathery way. And the service can be pretty bad. Sad to see so many people -- including quite a few tasteful people I know -- pining for their idlis.
My favourite is the Triplicane-based Ratna Cafe, which has, fortunately, opened more outlets in the city. Their idlis are soft too, but in a very grainy way -- just the kind my mother made back in Kanpur years ago. And the boys there keep pouring sambhar from aluminium mugs the moment they sense the idlis are getting dry. And the sambhar they make is the best in the world. That's the idli and the sambhar Ratna Cafe has been making since the 1940's. I can spend a lifetime watching their sambhar getting soaked by the porous idlis: eating them all would require another lifetime.