Many homes in and around the Fort area supply lip-smacking ethnic eats at affordable prices. Meet some of the people who make these places a cache of flavours in the city

Tripping down eat street in the heart of the Fort area is a mouth watering exercise on a hot afternoon. The narrow, densely populated agraharams that run along the sides of the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in the capital city is a gourmet’s dream destination of ethnic eats.

Almost every house bears a homely painted sign that hints at the cornucopia of delights that await customers. ‘Idli/dosa mix, ada dosa mix, appam mix’, ‘Long wheat halwa’, ‘Valsan ready’, ‘Sambar podi, rasa podi, parippu podi…’, ‘chappathi-veg curry’, ‘Mami’s Palada’… Enough to set the salivary glands into overdrive!

There is no hype in the signage, in the ambience or in the food. In fact, some do not even have a board to announce what their speciality is. You have to know or be willing to knock on doors to discover where to find what you are looking for. Inside the houses, people and their possessions jostle for space, with stoves, grinders and large cooking utensils taking up most of the space.

This is not meant for footloose tourists but for busy denizens of the city who want wholesome food, three times a day or more, at rates that do not burn a hole in the pocket.

Right near the Western entrance to the Padmanabha Swamy Temple, there is Seethalakshmy. For the last 40 years, her dough comes from dough for idli and dosa and also cooked idlis and dosas. “We have clients who leave containers for the batter on a daily basis. Our idlis are ready by 7 a.m., and if there is leftover batter, we start making dosas by around 7 p.m. Our idli podi is equally famous,” says Uma, Seethalakshmy’s daughter-in-law, who manages the business along with her sister-in-law Amuda (Ph: 9746982273).

Elsewhere, near the Ananthankadu temple, Kumar and his wife, Padmini, roll out their hotsellers – chappathi and poori with vegetarian curry in the mornings and evenings. In the afternoon, they dish out lemon rice, tomato rice and curd rice.

In the next house stays Radha who makes ghee-smeared scrumptious bolis. Another neighbour’s house sports a simple board, ‘Mami’s Palada’. And, near SP Fort Hospital, is the house where Rajam and her husband, Subramaniam, serve soft hand-made sevais, mor kuzhambu, pappadam and piping hot bhajjis.

At Vazhappilly junction we meet the mother-son duo of Rajalakshmy and J. Manikandan who run Omkar Caterers (Ph: 9809657790). They also sell batter for idli, dosa, appam and ada dosa, and make sweets. In addition, they also provide lunch for office-goers, senior citizens and family members of patients. Manikandan proudly says: “I’ve been trained by Ramachandra Iyer, who used to be the cook of former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.”

In the same row stays Kerala Lakshmi Ammal, who, we are told, enjoys a monopoly when it comes to preparing sweets for Brahmin weddings. She shows us the ‘parupputhengai’, cone-shaped structures filled with sweets (such as manoharam, boondi, athirasam, laddu, chana, groundnuts, cashewnuts, chocolates…) ready to be delivered. The 85-year-old has been in the business for the last 40 years. “We make some 51 varieties of sweets. We also cater to other festive occasions,” she says. In the rear of her house, we meet a woman making varagarissi, a special dish for pregnant women (Ph: 2452881).

Each tries to make her product and her name stand out. In fact that is why Lakshmi Ammal added ‘Kerala’ to her name. “When I came to live here there was another Lakshmi Ammal from Mumbai who also used to make sweets. In order to differentiate between us, people started calling me Kerala Lakshmi Ammal and her Bombay Lakshmi,” she explains. Also in the vicinity is Balaji hotel, famous for their long wheat halwa. By evening, the menu changes to valsan.

Our next destination on the food trail is Puthen Street. We strike gold immediately. On First Puthen Street we run into 72-year-old Gomathy Ammal and daughter-in-law Kala, who’ve been serving ada dosas, idlis and dosas every day for the last 30 years. Plump idlis in the morning get replaced by crisp dosas and spicy ada dosas from 7 p.m. onwards (Ph: 9400736892).

Rani and Kannan who stay on the same street, prepare idli/dosa dough, idlis and dry masalas for sambar and rasam, idli podi and parippu podi and uzhunnu (urad dal)/ tapioca appalam. “We’ve customers who take the masalas abroad,” says Rani (Ph: 9400867908).

Just in the next street are N. Subramaniam and Revathy. The couple make idli-sambar and karavada. On Saturdays and Sundays, they prepare machine-made sevais (Ph: 6581468). In the neighbourhood is Sivaraman who serves lunch at his home, and another place where you get bolis. Many of the households sell idli/dosa batter.

Then there are experienced cooks like Gandhimathi and Ambujam who specialise in making murukku and tapioca appalam, respectively.

Gandhimathi’s USP is the half-cooked murukku, which is meant for the elderly! At her home near Attakulangara junction, she also makes laddu, maladdu, thenkuzhal and other sweets to order, along with her daughter Jayanthi (Ph: 2472179).

Circumstances and the chance of supplementing the family income motivated many of them to fall back on their ability to dish out tasty eats.

Too many cooks do not spoil the batter but it does intensify the competition. “Branded ready-to-make batter is available at every nook and corner. That has badly affected our business,” say Manikandan and Kannan. However their trusted clientele, from far and near, keep them in business.

The culinary trip does not end here. With your nose as your guide, any visitor could unearth more such places. Bon appétit!