The Southern triumvirate idli-dosa-filter coffee now comes to you in a new avatar

It’s the eternal Chennai cliché. Idli-dosa-filter coffee: the triumvirate representing our comfort food. So it’s intriguing when entrepreneurs and avant-garde chefs reinvent with these basics, tweaking and tinkering to find them new avatars. Admittedly, sometimes they fail. But sometimes, they come up with ideas that have the potential to go global. Here’s our pick of the best new ideas.

Turning around the idli

How do you put an idli in your handbag? Turn it into a Madras Bar. “I like to say, the idli has been a-round for too long,” chuckles R.U. Srinivas (“but call me RU”) and Rajan (“Just Rajan”). A successful banker, RU always secretly wanted to work with ‘comfort foods.’ When he realised his colleague Rajan had the same idea, they quit their jobs and started eating idlis.

“At a popular South Indian restaurant in T. Nagar I ordered two idlis for Rs. 77. And that’s ridiculous,” says Rajan, adding, “I know I’m giving away my age now, but I have to tell you — I remember a time when an idli cost 5 paisa.” Discussing how food gets expensive when it’s served in a restaurant because “a huge number of other costs are passed on to customer,” he says “The truth is, the customer doesn’t care about rentals. He just wants clean, safe, tasty food to eat.”

The answer was to design a product that could be efficiently churned out in a central kitchen, then smartly packaged. “We needed a flagship product. Something people could relate to. Something that could be enjoyed without having to be heated.” Their solution was Molaga podi idlis. “They’re perfect for people on the go… That’s what my grandmom and mom used to eat when they travelled from Chennai to Delhi by train.”

When the Idli Factory began, the first challenge was finding a perfect podi. After tasting hundreds, they finally found a recipe they liked. “We wanted something authentic — and the recipe we are now using has been passed down in one family for five generations.” Next came the idli. “We tried over 300 different kinds of rice. Different proportions of urad dal. What we use now is a mix of two types of rice and dal. And it’s awesome.”

Designed to fit into a handbag, this new age idli comes in the form of bite-sized bars. “It’s convenient to hold, light and healthy,” says RU, adding that they’re currently approaching airlines, super markets and caterers. “We target anyone who doesn’t have the time to sit down and eat a meal.” Based in the city, the central kitchen currently has the capacity to make 400 boxes of Madras Bars an hour. The five member team behind the Madras Bars is, meanwhile, experimenting with new flavours. “Garlic, Kanjeevaram idli and we’re even thinking of a chocolate flavour coated in nuts.”

Wrap it up with a dosa

Perhaps a good idea was inevitable. When serial entrepreneurs Jawahar Chirimar and Sam Subramaniam came to Chennai to meet serial restaurateur M. Mahadevan last year, they sat around a dosa. Correction. A lot of dosas.

Jawahar has a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, after which he worked in various financial institutions, from Lehman Brothers to Citibank. Sam graduated from IIT-Madras, after which he got an MBA from the University of Chicago, and then worked with the likes of Goldman Sachs and American Express in New York. They both agreed one thing: The time for the New York dosa has arrived.

Although Saravana Bhavan is successful abroad, thanks to a 90 per cent Indian clientele, the trio was convinced that America would embrace a healthy customisable dosa, made in the style of a burrito or sandwich. After one year of relentless experimentation, their restaurant Soho Tiffin Junction opened recently in New York’s trendy Greenwich Village under Chef Naveen Ramakrishnan. Enthusiastic reviewers seem united in their opinion: this is “quick Indian, done right”.

Admittedly this dosa hybrid will raise eyebrows in South India, with its baked egg white stuffing, kale chips and sprouted moong sambar. Similar in spirit to a burrito, the ‘dosa wraps’ bear little resemblance to those ghee roasts most of us grew up eating. Yet, they seem to be working.

“We give customers options. They first pick their base — a dosa wrap, lemon rice or lettuce. Then they can choose a filling. We do pulled pork in a vindaloo sauce; Chettinad baked egg whites; Kale and vegan cheese sautéed in garlic and roasted cumin; Shredded beef in a Mangalorean sauce…” says Sam. The customer can then top it all off by choosing a chutney. “Spicy, medium or mild. We do mango, chillies and chow chow chutneys.” Finally, there’s mango lassi or turmeric-spiked masala chai to end the meal.

A chilling decoction

Filter coffee can be strong. Filter coffee can be weak. But there’s one rule you cannot break. Filter coffee must always be hot. Steaming hot. Unless it’s made into an ice-cream.

After doing an MBA in Madrid, Deepak Suresh was working in the U.S. as a consultant. A couple of years ago, convinced that there’s a growing market for good Indian artisanal ice cream, he decided to start work on creating his own brand — and hence Amadora (a now popular ice cream boutique in Chennai) was born. Determined to forge a new path in a rather predictable industry, Deepak worked on creating a new line of flavours rooted in India. So far the list includes Nimbu pani sorbet; masala coke popsicles; and garlic- jackfruit ice-cream.

However, being based in Chennai, one flavour was obvious: ‘Mami’s Filter Kapi Flavour a.k.a. Madras Filter Coffee’.

“We believe it’s only right that we celebrate operating in the home of filter coffee by making an ice cream out of it,” says Deepak, adding, “Coffee is a very personal drink so it’s impossible to please everybody with one particular brand. This was quite a difficult flavour to get right but after discovering two-three fantastic coffee estates from the south of India we believe we are on our way…”

Citing his latest Five Bean Vanilla with Jalebi and Saffron Cream Foam, Deepak adds, “The whole point is to train ourselves to innovate and be inspired by local flavours rather than international ones. Your reference point with a jalebi, for example, is probably larger than your reference point of using wild strawberries because the former you gave eaten tonnes of times while the latter maybe twice or thrice.”