From one outlet in Madurai to a chain of restaurants in Chennai, S. Manoharan has taken the ubiquitous idli places. Priyadarshini Paitandy gets his recipe for success

When S. Manoharan tried his hand at making idlis for the first time, little did he know that this unassuming South Indian speciality would make him famous. Now, 20 years later not just idlis but every other dish on his restaurant's menu is a hot seller. No points for guessing. Yes, it's the Murugan Idli Shop.

“Forty-five years ago my parents started the Murugan Coffee Nilayam in Madurai. It was a small-scale affair and the place served only coffee and snacks. And, then my mother started making idlis which became very popular,” says Manoharan.

In 1991 he took over the business from his parents and added to the menu. “I introduced sambhar and four varieties of chutney, ghee pongal, sakkarai pongal, vada and jigarthanda,” he says. And in 2003 on the request of people in Chennai, he expanded his business, introducing the city to the taste of his fabulous idlis. “Before launching I did a survey as to what I should name the chain of restaurants. When I told my friends it will be called Murugan Idli Shop, they advised me not to use the word ‘shop' and instead replace it with ‘restaurant'. But I went ahead. It has a touch of simplicity and uniqueness to it. And now people ask me where I got this catchy name from,” he says.

The G.N. Chetty branch was the first to open, followed by the one on North Usman Road, after which a new branch has come up every six months leading to the total tally of 10 in Chennai and three in Madurai. Soon, as word spread, people from all over the globe made it a point to taste Murugan's idlis on their visit to the city. “We have COOs and business executives coming from Delhi, Nagpur, Pune... Sometimes their secretaries call a day in advance and book a table,” smiles Manoharan.

The global story

He has a few interesting tales to tell. “Once somebody came from Germany. His flight landed at 2.30 a.m. He took a cab and the first thing he wanted to do was to have idlis here. Unfortunately, we weren't open. So he came back again after a couple of days and narrated this story to us.” And the next thing, Manoharan opened two branches in Singapore in 2008, and is now looking to set shop in Mumbai and Delhi as well.

What is the secret of his fluffy idlis? Without divulging much he says, “It is prepared in a traditional Chettinad way. We carefully select the variety of dal and rice, and have our own secret proportion. The batter is left to ferment for ten hours.”

Once in a while there are also complaints from customers about food not being up to the mark. “This happens when the variety of the ingredients change. It is important to alter the proportions depending on the variety. That's why even when I am travelling abroad my staff calls me to ask for the right proportion.”

This shop's onion uthappam and sakkarai pongal are extremely popular too. Only a few know about the monotonous work that goes into delivering the perfect uthappam on your plate. “We use only small onions for the uthappams. Peeling them is quite a task. So we have around 20 people in Madurai who just peel onions and send them across,” informs Manoharan.

So, in a day how many idlis do they make? “10,000 idlis. We have an idli master who specialises in that. We get nearly 3,000 diners a day and for that we prepare 500 litres of sambhar and use up 400 kilos of rice for the batter.” Judging by the queues outside any of the outlets, that isn't hard to believe. Want to know who the biggest connoisseur of Murugan Idlis is? Manoharan himself! “I just cannot do without having idlis here, at least once a day,” he beams.

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Priyadarshini PaitandyJune 28, 2012