Co-owner, Seena Bhai Tiffin Centre

In the crush of George Town, I find the crowded Seena Bhai Tiffin Centre easily. Santhanam is manning the oothappam counter, ladling ghee over 18 oothappams, browning side-by-side on the same tawa. He then flicks them over, their toppings in tact, and serves them to the waiting customers, on plates covered with plantain leaves.

“For 37 years, we’ve been selling just two items – ghee oothappam and ghee idlis, at the same spot in George Town. No advertisement, no change in the menu… you do all that only if sales drop, isn’t it?” Santhanam asks me, seated on a spare gas cylinder. I nod, sitting on a plastic stool, in the narrow space between two shops, my notebook balanced on my lap. “My father, Srinivas, started this business in 1977 on a pushcart. My mother helped him sell idlis and oothappams right here, on NSC Bose Road. Customers – mostly North Indians – used to call him Seena Bhai, and that became the name of the shop!” he smiles.

In 2000, the shop moved to the current premises. After Seena Bhai’s demise, his four sons – Sivaprasad, Deenadayalan, Raghupathy and Santhanam -- continue the business. To cope with the demand, 18-36 oothappams are cooked simultaneously on a 2.5’ by 1.5’ tawa; and a round idli cooker, the plates covered with cloth, steams 250 idlis in a batch. Why cloth, I ask. “Idli softa, ottaama edduka varum… 250 spoonla edduka mudiyuma?’” he laughs.

Santhanam’s easy laughter punctuates our conversation. “We sell two oothappams or ten idlis to a plate, for Rs.35; pudina-coriander chutney and onion-mint chutney are kept in self-service buckets. Some people manage to eat four or five plates of food!” Laughter again. If a weekday sees a few hundred plates being sold, weekends tend to be busier. “We’re open everyday from 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. But preparations start at 6 a.m. The batter is ground – 250 gm of urad dal for every kilo of rice; 20 kg of onions are chopped manually. We get the ghee, always, from Madanapalli, in Andhra; and we use plantain leaves. When hot food is served on it, it smells appetising!”

Customers reach over my head for paper napkins placed on the wall; smoke from the tawa hisses and curls; and Santhanam tells me about his growing up years.

“I remember my mother used to come home at 3 a.m.Then, they had permission to keep shops open till 2 a.m; many times, we have fallen asleep here!” Though he and his brothers discontinued schooling, their children (the brothers and their families live together in Sowcarpet) are keen to arm themselves with degrees before setting up Seena Bhai shops around Chennai.

Customers mill around the counter, calling out orders in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu; two of Santhanam’s older brothers man the counters; one makes oothappams. Bubbles poke through the batter, the edges sizzle; onion, coriander, mint and coconut are sprinkled on it. Podi is spread, ghee drizzled; and soon the aroma rises. “We keep accounts in our head. I can manage ten bills, simultaneously,” says Santhanam.

“Tell me your secret ingredient,” I ask. “Magic!” he laughs. “And your nod to modernisation?” I persist. “This apron. My wife got tired of washing ghee stains from my outfits. She insisted I wear an apron.” More laughter. And I happily join in…

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)

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