Shonali Muthalaly and Anusha Parthasarathy join the queue at an Amma Unavagam in the city and sample the fare as early as seven in the morning

We are in the queue at 6.30 a.m. That’s if you can call this a queue. Three people stand around sleepily. So much for our mental image of waiting in a hungry Oliver Twist-like queue for idlis! Two more people saunter into the Alwarpet Amma Unavagam. There’s a sociable silence as we wait for the gates to open.

Once the gates open at 7 a.m., everyone falls into a neat line. In front of us is Tikkanath Sharma, security guard, who says he begins work at a nearby house soon after breakfast. As he chats with us, an impatient man in a faded tee mutters, “Ponga, ponga.” He’s an automan in a hurry to finish breakfast so he can start his day. He needn’t have worried. We reach the billing counter in seven minutes flat.

Breakfast — two idlis and one plate of pongal — comes to a grand total of Rs.7 — one rupee per idli and Rs.5 for pongal. We give our tokens to a woman who hands us two plates of steaming food, pouring a generous quantity of thin sambar in each plate. Since there’s no place inside, people eat sitting cross-legged under a tree in the compound. The rest stand around three tall tables.

The idlis are soft, and the pongal liberally speckled with cumin. Although there are around 50 people eating now, it's still quiet. Everyone concentrates on the food, stopping only to ask for a second and third helping of sambar.

In the kitchen

Inside the kitchen, it’s just as disciplined. But much more cheerful. Six women in festive saris, embellished with sequins, work diligently to dish out around 1,800 idlis. Making and serving the food simultaneously not only ensures it is fresh, hot and tasty, but also requires meticulous planning and coordination. As one batch of idlis cooks, two women, working in tandem, fill a pile of cloth-covered idli trays with batter. Each tray holds 25 idlis, and as six trays fit in each of the two steamers, around 300 idlis are made at a time. “Twenty minutes for each set,” they smile, their demure hair nets an incongruous contrast to their flashing nose rings.

Customers come in waves here. The first wave is around 7 a.m., when the canteen opens. Then at 8.30 a.m., it gets packed with office-goers who eat breakfast before starting work. But even in between, the canteen is invariably busy with a number of hungry customers.

By 9.45 a.m. the food is over, 15 minutes before the canteen closes. By now, it is empty except for a lone auto driver who enjoys the last of the idlis. In the kitchen, three massive 20-litre vessels are filled with water and rice. While two women scrub the breakfast dishes and mop the floor, the rest are engaged in preparing lunch, which is served at 12 noon. One of the women takes tomatoes out of the storeroom, filled with massive sacks of rice and dal. She tells us that a consignment of vegetables from Koyambedu arrives every day at 11 a.m.

Another group of women arrives for the afternoon shift. Half of them settle in a circle inside the kitchen. Peeling onions and putting them whole into a bright orange bucket filled with water. Dicing potatoes, brinjals, green chillies. Gathering ingredients for lunch: cardboard boxes filled with packets of chilli powder, mustard seeds, rock salt, dry red chillies and turmeric. A generous amount of curry leaves. And three packs of asafoetida. The lunch menu follows a pattern. There is sambar rice and curd rice everyday. The third item is either lemon rice or curry leaf rice. Today it’s lemon rice, hence the big jar of lemons, steadily being squeezed into a pan.

Outside, the rest sift the rice in the bright sunlight, under a cool, thermocol-lined roof with such concentration that the only sounds we can hear are their glass bangles and the patter of rice grains on the traditional woven sieves.

The aroma spreads

By 10.30 a.m., two pressure cookers filled with dal whistle merrily beside three huge vessels of furiously bubbling rice. The air is fragrant with the scent of frying chillies. Along with ginger, garlic and a freshly washed fistful of curry leaves, this tempering is quickly mixed into the sambar rice bobbing with diced cabbage, brinjal, onion, radish and drumstick. As one cook starts mixing in the tamarind, another pours a bucket of dilute curd into a pot of hot rice, and then sprinkles handfuls of grated carrot and mango in it. We’re wondering if the hot rice would cause the curd to curdle but the women assure us that it will be served and finished in a couple of hours. At the Amma canteen, there are rarely any leftovers.

Meanwhile, the hot rice from the third vessel is being distributed on six large plates, so it cools before being mixed with a hearty seasoning that includes channa dal, mustard and three handfuls of red chillies. Finally, a jug of freshly squeezed lemon juice. The lemon rice is ready to serve.

Five minutes to go before the gates open at 12 noon. The token dispenser takes her place at the table outside the kitchen. The cooks position themselves at the service window. The crowd starts lining up. Three more hours of service. After which the women will wash dishes, clean the kitchen and prepare the batter for the following day’s idlis before winding up at 6 p.m.

But first, “a photo”, one squeals in excitement. They line up hurriedly under a picture of the Chief Minister, (“See, Amma”) and pose for us delightedly. Then the first customer enters, and they rush to their posts. It’s business as usual.