Vasantha Devi whisks white batter, pours it on a tava and swirls the ladle over it. Just as the crisp dosa takes shape, at least half a dozen hands carrying plastic plates stick out.
Her 22-year-old son dips the used plates into a plastic pot filled with dark water and stacks them next to the stove. A dog circles a stool piled up with piping hot idlis and fluffy parottas. Not an appetizing site to watch. But strangely, nobody seems to mind.
For hundreds of labourers and daily wage workers, roadside eateries are the only affordable place to satisfy their hunger pangs. The kiosks, strategically located near bus stands, hospitals and traffic junctions, open as early as 6 a.m. Countless idlis, dosas, vadas and parottas are dished out well past midnight.
The oil they use for frying bhajjis and fish are dark, thick and frothy. K. Natesapandiyan, who runs ‘idli kadai' on Kamaraj Salai, says, “Many buy used oil from hotels. Fresh oil is unaffordable as we sell idlis and dosas for Rs.5 and Rs.10 a plate,” he says.
Lunch menu would include lemon, tomato and curd rice prepared “well in advance” to serve customers in time. “People who have assistants will prepare lunch after breakfast gets over. Many others would cook it overnight and re-heat it as customers are generally impatient,” he adds.
Unlike the ‘bhajji kadais' at the Marina and Elliots beaches, which use seawater to clean and wash the plates, the roadside eateries in the city have to be frugal in using three or four pots of water that they bring for the day.
“We can't afford hotel food. All my family members are labourers. So there is no one at home to pack lunch,” says M. Sivarayan, a cleaner in a hospital in Adyar. “The food is tasty and I have not suffered any health problem,” he adds. Manohar and his wife Rajathi, who run a fast food kiosk near the Vadapalani bus terminus, say that though their customers are mainly autorickshaw drivers, they also get people who are working in “computer field.”
“They come around 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. for food. There will be some hotels open even at that hour. But, they prefer our eatery because we serve tasty food,” says Rajathi.
Palanisamy, an autorickshaw driver, says, “I make sure I don't look beyond the food in my plate. The choked drainage behind the stalls will be nauseating.”