Wednesday, March 18, 2009

An Idli Brain (Part 2) : Idli Accessories

For me the best Idli flavor is that of unaided Idli. Pure virgin Idli shorn of the gimmicks of different chutneys or powders that add something and at the same time take away its unique taste.

If you think you have never experienced this taste, just pick up a straight-off-the-oven Idli. Mind that it should not be soggy. It should be fluffy and soft and steaming hot.

Talking of the accessories, first thing that comes to mind is Sambhar. Idli-Sambhar combo is often sold as, well a combo. This means serving a couple of Idlis in a bowl of Sambhar.

I was thinking of making this point in a separate post, but let's take this issue here itself. Sambhar brings out the difference in Tamil Idlis and Telugu Idlis. (I am not much acquainted with Kannada or Malayali Idlis!). All through this and previous posts you have been reading the word 'Fluffy'. Well, this applies to Telugu Idlis only. They are fluffy and can ABSORB the Sambhar. Tamil Idlis are quite stiff in this regard. The liquid doesn't peneterate inside. My colleague Hari, who has worked in Chennai for few years told me the reason. Tamils have this habit of squeezing the Idli in Sambhar before eating, unlike Telugus who dip Idli in Sambhar while eating. Also, I found Tamil Idlis a little wet, and not as soft as Telugu Idlis. (For the record, I ate 'Tamil Idli' in Murugan Idli Shop at Adyar in Chennai which according to Shishir and Sunil is the last word in the world of Idlis!)

Now I have nothing against Tamil food and actually their Sambhar is better than Telugu Sambhar which is quite often sweet. Tamil Sambhar is what I think an ideal Sambhar should be like. Having lots of vegetables and tasting like Sambhar, not like liquified Sambhar powder! The best Telugu Sambhar that I remember eating was in Vishakhapatnam and best Tamil Sambhar was in Mamallapuram.

For me the best Idli accessory is not Sambhar, it is the peanut chutney. Yes the peanut Chutney and not the coconut. I actually don't much like coconut chutney,which to me tastes a little, ummm weak, and hardly able to give any peculiar taste to the main dish. Peanut chuney on the other hand is thicker and stronger. You may disagree, each to a taste of his/her own!

Reddy tells me that in his family they make six varieties of Chutney. I have had three or four at 'Chutneys', a popular Hyderabadi restaurant known for its South Indian vegetarian fare. I liked Ginger Chutney.

I have never tried Karampodi (or Podum) which is a powder often used with or without ghee. Some people like ghee Idli. I haven't tried this as well due to obvious health reasons.

I want to talk about Fried Idli and Button Idli as well, but they are Idli variants and not exactly accessories. I would love to hear more from you about Idlis or anything else about food!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


When Sunil told me that his flat is in Adyar, I couldn't help but accept his offer of making a stopover at his place for that day. Adyar is the place in Chennai which is sort of a gateway to Mahabalipuram (or Mamallapuram as it is locally known). Mahabailipuram is just 60 km from Chennai and the buses going there either start from Adyar or pass through it. Sunil got in touch with his colleague and put me on the 21H to Kelambakkam from where I had to get a connecting bus (568) to Mahabailipuram. It wasn't required since from Adyar you can get direct buses to Mahabalipuram (like 568).

There are two routes for Mamallapuram, you can choose from. Either you can take East Coast Road which overlooks Bay of Bengal and is undoubtedly one of the most scenic drives in the country. Or you can take IT Toll Road (also known as Old Mahabalipuram Road or OMR). For going by ECR, look for buses marked ECR. I had best of both worlds, as I went by OMR and came back by ECR.

It was about 12 and I was extremely hungry when I got down from the bus at Mamallapuram. There are small restaurants near the bus stand serving typical Tamil food, nothing great about these. If you care to look around you may find some other serving different cuisines. This cusine business reminds me of Hampi, where you can get everything from Continental to Thai to French to Israeli to Italian to God-knows-what-not and ofcourse Chinese!

Like Hampi or Kodaikanal, in Mahabalipuram too, you can either choose to walk around the entire place or hire bikes. All the major attractions are in close vicinity and on a pleasant day you can take a stroll. It wasn't too pleasant day as sun was out but I still chose to walk.

First destination was the Shore Temple. It is a UNESCO protected world heritage and rightly deserving too. . While I was there, a group of school children along with their teachers also visited the temple. It was a short visit and they were definitely not interested in a dilapidated stone temple and ran away after making a customary round. The ASI guide and the Bihari guard discussed this event after which the guard discussed his plans to visit his hometown.

The Mahishasur Mardini Cave Temple near the old lighthouse is very popular since it is the highest place in this area and gives an amazing view of the surroundings. You can spot the sea at a distance and the coconut tree capped landscape nearby. The lighthouse completes the scenery! I was specially taken aback by simplistic beauty of lighthouse and this joy was surpassed only by the shock caused by horrible design of new lighthouse at Santhome beach in Chennai.

I didn't mention the carvings on the inner walls of the cave (which is not exactly a cave) because you can see such carvings in many other temples and palaces. At some places you can find carvings on open rocks, just besides the road. Mahabalipuram was an important city during the reign of Chola kings who built all these temples and palaces.

The image of Mahabalipuram is incomplete without Five Rathas. These are 5 buildings of different shapes, sizes and styles supposedly each of a different Pandava (5 brothers in Mahabharata according to Hindu mythology). Each building is carved out of a single stone. In this campus, there is a bull (supposedly Nandi), a lion and an elephant, which is most clicked animal of all. Every tourist poses with this guy. There is a shopping complex, which also houses ticket counter for Five Rathas. Note that your ticket for Shore Temple is also valid here, you don't need to buy another one here. I saw this only after buying the ticket!

Thirukadalmallai temple is a Lord Vishnu temple and it has a golden statue of the God resting, which is perhaps the most amazing idol that I have ever seen. Even if the temple seems a non-descript structure, please do not miss it. Just beside this temple, there are few more smaller temples. Varah Cave temple also has some paintings on the roof, which my guide said is similar to those found in Khajuraho. Actually this old man, supposedly an ASI guide made me poorer by 75 Rs. promising me of showing 10 places, which were hardly there! One of these was a giant spherical rock which is known as Krishna's Butter Ball.

I didn't visit Arjuna's Penance which leaves just the beach. The beach on the left side of Shore Temple is perhaps the best beach I have ever seen. (Coincidentally my interaction with sea has been only on the Eastern Coast of India. Not that I am complaining!) But I visited the beach on the right side of the temple and here I saw the shops selling fried fish on the way to beach. The fish looked so good that for the first time I regretted being vegetarian!

Mahabalipuram is a remarkable place because even though it is so near to Chennai, it has not lost its character and despite being a world famous tourist destination and being flocked by so many foreigners, it is not grossly commercialized. And for a backpacker like me, it was cool and convenient!

Loved it!