My wife, daughter and son-inlaw help me run the shop; they dice and clean and we don’t have a free moment all day. Our regulars keep coming back only because they’re happy with our quality

The signboard outside E. Jayaraman’s food shop is unique. It says ‘Iyarkai sathunavu maiyam’ (Natural health-foods centre). That, it seems, is all the promotion it needs — because, whenever you drive past his shop, there’s a big crowd milling around, to eat his salads, soups and sandwiches. I meet him at 11.30 a.m. on a weekday, when he’s just opened; four customers are eating bread omelette; and while Jayaraman sits down for a chat, his daughter and son-in-law man the counters.

“I’ve run a food shop in Chennai since 1970,” says the cheerful, 65-year-old. “The first few years, I made regular North Indian items. But there was too much competition in that, so I decided to specialise.” Drawing from his experiences in Nepal — where he earned his keep as a kitchen hand — he opted for health foods, as that’s what the foreigners he’d met were particularly fond of. The idea took off immediately; people from all over Chennai began to flock to eat his colourful salads — rich in sprouts, and finely diced vegetables. They love his omelettes — two eggs, mixed with vegetables, and cooked with very little oil; and his soups — made from scratch.

Travelling all over North India as a young boy taught Jayaraman about various cuisines. His journeys, however, were unplanned; he quit formal schooling in class III, and with romantic notions in his head, of wanting to explore the North India he had seen in films, he simply boarded a train (ticketless) and went away! “And now, I can speak seven languages; and read and write five,” he says with a wide smile. His informal education, in the kitchens of the North, taught him to play around with ingredients, and develop his own recipes. “You know, soups should not be filling, which is the case, if you add corn flour. My customers enjoy my soup, because it’s more of an appetiser.”

Everyday, Jayaraman serves five different kinds of soups in his shop, among them a few made entirely out of greens (ponaanganni, manathakali or valaarai). “Our food is very healthy; no oil, so office workers in the area eat here everyday. They know it won’t affect their health. Also, take the salads — you need to chew them well, as it is raw vegetables, with sprouts. What a workout that is for your facial muscles! It will give you a good glow!” Jayaraman also believes in serving food on plantain leaves and shuns plastics. “Very hygienic, and what an aroma, when hot food hits the leaf! However, the educated ask for paper plates,” he says.

But to maintain his standards, Jayaraman works hard, and keeps long hours. “I’m up at 5a.m, and go to sleep at midnight. Everyday, we buy fresh vegetables. My wife, daughter and son-in-law help me run the shop; they dice and clean and we don’t have a free moment all day. Our regulars keep coming back only because they’re happy with our quality. And when parents take home packed soups or sandwiches, the children will find out if it wasn’t bought here in ‘thatha kadai’,” he says.

His hard work has evidently paid off. His shop, diagonally opposite SIET College, has been featured on television, and gets routine mentions on the radio; and VIP customers visit often. “Big chain stores have approached me, to stock up soup with them. But I don’t have any such plans; I only want to run this shop well… I want to introduce more items, perhaps fruit salads and fruit sandwiches.”

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