For most people, Chennai is firmly linked in the mind with its ubiquitous idlis and curd rice.
These food items, most imagine, are cheap and easily available for everyone to pick up, pay and eat. But in reality, this is far from the case.
Following the price trail of the docile idli reveals a hidden geography of differences in the city.
A pair of idlis in upmarket Swathi, a restaurant owned by the Saravana Bhavan group on Peters Road, costs Rs. 60 — almost the same price as a roti there. One vadai and coffee along with it would cost of Rs. 180 excluding taxes — as expensive as a grand meal. In the eatery below, where it is self-service without chairs to sit on, two idlis are priced at Rs. 25.
For almost the same cost, one can sit comfortably and be well served at the Murugan Idli Shop in T. Nagar and at the Saravana Bhavan in Mylapore. But 200 meters away, at Mylai Karpagamabal Mess, a favourite among many residents, idlis are still served for only Rs. 10 a piece. A plate of curd rice costs Rs. 40 here.
Even cheaper are the eateries in places such as Singana Chetty Street in Chintadripet and Ellis Road, Triplicane, which are frequented by small shop owners and auto mechanics. Idlis are sold for Rs. 4 to Rs. 5 a piece, and full meals are priced at Rs. 35.
But the cheapest place to eat in town, and frequented by car drivers, watchmen, load men and slum dwellers, are the shops on pavements.
Sitalakshmi, who is 60, brings a steel vessel full of idlis every day to sell near the Five Furlong Road bus stand, in Guindy. From a makeshift table, creatively arranged over a stool, she sells four idlis for Rs. 10, and a cup of Kuzhu also for Rs. 10. Employees hurrying to offices — both men and women — patronise her shop extensively. Her shop is open only for a few hours in the morning and moves with her as she leaves.
Against this background, the newly-inaugurated State-run tiffin centres gain greater import. They are the cheapest in town, with each idli priced at one rupee.
This is not the first time the State government has tried to keep food prices affordable. In 1973, following a government request, hotels reduced the prices of idlis to 10 paise each from 15 paise each.
When prices increased again in 1975 and idlis cost 30 paise each, the government intervened in the following year and fixed the price at 20 paise. Again in 1981, the government tried to regulate the prices. Finally, in 2008, the Hotel Owners Association, after a discussion with the then food minister, agreed to reduce the price of idlis along with a few other items by 15 per cent to coincide with the 85th birthday of then Chief Minster M. Karunanidhi. A pair of idlis, then priced in many restaurants at Rs. 8, was reduced to Rs. 6.80.