Wowed by the fluffy, pillow-like steamed concoction of rice and lentils, Marie McEvoy plunges into gastronomic ecstasy at the last word for idlis: the Murugan Idli Shop. Delighted that it is quite contrary to the artery clogging Western junk food, she confesses that she is tempted to pack an idli pan in her backpack!
I adore idlis. I’ve had many a discussion with fellow volunteers over whether they love or hate them. Personally, I believe those fluffy, pillow-like discs of steamed lentil and rice batter should be eaten for any meal, not just as a traditional breakfast food.
The Murugan Idli shop, on the West Masi Street, therefore, felt almost like a place of worship. When I walked in at around 3.00pm on a weekday afternoon, the ground level of the restaurant was already buzzing with devotees, using their oothappams and dosas to mop up banana leaves awash with a range of chutneys.
There are three branches in the city, which have been satisfying Maduraiites’ needs for tiffin for over 15 years, serving, “Traditional recipes from our grandmother’s heart.” Their reputation for creating delicious South Indian dishes has led to a worldwide appreciation of items such as idli and vada, with 12 other stores in Chennai and even Singapore. The largest store is on the North Usman Road in Chennai, where up to 150 people at a time can sample the idli experience.
S. Manoharan, 53, has been managing director for 20 years, taking over from his parents, Shanmugasundaram and Nayagathammal, who set up the company 45 years ago under the banner Murugan Coffee Nilayam. Originally, they served coffee and nothing else. Then, in 1992, once his parents decided they were too old to continue working and closed the shop, he took the reins and started it up again. “It is my passion,” he said. The chutney recipes are all his own, and he believes that the company has come so far due to one thing: “The softness of the idli, and the small onion oothappam, which you cannot get anywhere else,” he boasted. When in Singapore, he noticed a large Tamil population, which inspired him to open two stores to cater to their desire for a taste of home. “They’re going really well,” he told me.
The former Union Minister Dr. Subramanian Swamy said, “The taste of food served in Murugan Idli is high and incomparable.” With testimonials like that, I was expecting big things as I sat down to the two satisfyingly fat, spongy idlis set out in front of me, with a selection of freshly made chutneys served from silver pails by attentive staff, dressed in red polo shirts emblazoned with the company’s logo.
The chutneys, deliciously hot from the kitchen, consisted of mint, tomato, coriander, coconut, and the traditional sambar. Originally, only sambar and tomato chutney were available, but the range has developed over the years, much to the delight of clientele. For an extra charge, I sampled its famed concoction of oil and chili powder called ‘oil podi’ – extremely popular with customers, I am told, but I found it to be an odd, almost earthy-tasting mix. Whilst it did complement the slight sourness of the idli, I much preferred the mint.
Manager Johnson, 62, has been in the food industry all his life, and the manager of this particular shop – the very first of the chain-for 20 years. He said that the secret of its success is high standards of client service and of course, the taste. It is “very homely food, done neatly and hygienically.” Looking around, tables were constantly being wiped, and the surrounding white tiles were always clean.
“Not every shop gives hot idli at any time,” he went on. They sell over 1,000 idlis a day. Although onion oothappam is the most popular, each customer will only order one, whereas they usually order three or four idlis at a time. The same menu is served from 7.00am until midnight, with standard breakfast fare in the mornings, and a selection on rice dishes come lunch time, but his personal favourite is the oil dosa.
I then went on to taste the sublime oothappam—crisp underneath, with small sweet onions nestled in its soft exterior. It is easy to see why it is well loved. They serve no coffee or tea at all nowadays, although creamy Jigarthanda, which originated in Madurai, is offered. Manoharan has no plans to change the already thriving menu, which is, as he said, “Well and good,” but he has set his sights on opening 300 shops in total throughout India.
Almost as quickly as the shop filled up with hungry customers, it had emptied again. This is fast food, but not in the greasy, artery-clogging sense that I, as a European, am used to. The idli was very pleasant – light, an extremely generous portion – but a rather straightforward meal. I would visit again, if just for the chutneys alone. The recipes are available on the Murugan Idli website, so now I just have to figure out how to fit an idli pan in my backpack so that I can continue my love affair with one of my all-time favourite South Indian dishes.