Hidden Histories Metroplus

For the best idli and coffee

STARTED OFF WITH AN INVESTMENT OF RS. 50 And after all these years, none can better their idlis. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

STARTED OFF WITH AN INVESTMENT OF RS. 50 And after all these years, none can better their idlis. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

It’s 5.45 a.m. and dawn is just breaking over Bangalore. Most residents are still asleep, but there’s already a buzz around a corner building near Shankar Mutt. Steam is swirling from the ‘idli’ cooker and the aroma of fresh, brewing coffee makes you inhale deeply. A few early risers wait impatiently as the floor is being swept and the staff, looking fresh take position behind the counter. Radhakrishna Adiga, clad in his trademark ‘dhothi’ and shirt, alights from a scooter.

After adorning his father and the founder, the late Narasimha Rao’s portrait with a fresh garland, he prostrates before a row of deities and emerges. At 6 a.m. and the third shutter is rolled up. Most customers seek the coffee counter but a few are ready to ingest idlis at this early hour. It’s business as usual at the landmark café, Brahmin’s Coffee Bar, in the sleepy Shankarpuram. Young Narasimha Rao came to Bangalore at his wife Saraswathi’s behest -- for a better living and a brighter future for their children. He worked as a cook and even a priest. After a few failed ventures including a canteen at City Institute he decided to start a ‘standing only’ eatery, the first of its kind. The landlord of the present premises, a P&T employee had plans of opening one himself but graciously acceded to Rao’s request of renting out the place. Rao started with an investment of Rs. 50. They kicked off by selling bakery products from VB Bakery and RV bakery in VV Puram along with coffee. “My mother started making uppittu and chutney . My sisters would deliver parcels to people’s homes before going to school. People loved it and suggested, ‘since you’re making ‘chutney’ you might as well serve ‘idli’ and ‘vade’. My mother would grind the batter manually. We prepared and sold limited quantities in the first half of the day. Patrons wanted it in the evening too, and by God’s grace here we are,” says Radhakrishna, with his hands pointed skywards. “I believe it’s the ‘Sthala Mahime’ (miraculous location). I don’t think I can do this kind of business if I take the same ‘idlis’ and sell them elsewhere.”

In the pre-Facebook days, I’d say Brahmin’s café was a social networking site of the virtual kind. If you frequent the place you’re bound to bump into a school or college buddy you’ve lost touch with. You wouldn’t be surprised to catch a familiar face, probably relocated to a far flung city or country, squinting, trying to clear cobwebs in his memory and place you. You catch up over a couple of steaming ‘idlis’ swathed in aromatic butter and drowning in chutney. You exclaim in unison that the taste has not changed nor has the degree of hygiene. “My father was fanatical about cleanliness and so was my mother. My mother even now inspects the kitchen and admonishes us if she finds it messy,” says Radhakrishna. For my generation Radhakrishna Adiga is the face of Brahmin’s Café. When the place was much narrower (16/9feet), you could hear his gravelly voice from afar, admonishing a lax employee, greeting a regular customer like a childhood chum or rattling off what a customer has consumed accurately, before collecting cash. The place was cramped with granite slabs to rest your plates on.

Peak hour starts around 8 a.m. You can see the physical fitness fanatics replenishing the lost calories. It’s a meeting point for friends to chatter over coffee. Radhakrishna is more relaxed now, sharing a coffee with regulars or digging into a helping of ‘khara bath’. Aithal, who’s been manning the service counter for nearly three decades will recommend the ‘avarekalu uppittu’ if you’re a familiar face with a friendly smile. “The ‘vade’ is hot,” he’ll suggest. The cafe has the shortest menu I’ve seen anywhere. They only serve idli, vade, khara bath, kesari bath and coffee.

“You can’t eat ‘dose’ everyday and my father believed rice in any form should not be sold. We don’t prepare ‘sambhar’ because people love our chutney. It’s easy to prepare variety and even have sitting space upstairs, but we’re satisfied,” says Radhakrishna.

Labour problems are the bane of the hotel industry. The attrition rate is high with skilled hands easily lured by competitors. “We have no such problems because we treat them like family. You have to put yourself in their shoes and imagine your expectations. They live with us and eat the same food. We take care of their every need including the education of their children. Unlike other hotels we see to it that they’re in bed by 9.30 p.m. They also are witness to the whole family working. My parents and my elder brother Shankarnarayana Rao have done a lot for our entire community. My mother is still the backbone, rising at 3.45 a.m. ready for supervision,” says a smiling Radhakrishna.

Radhakrishna visits the Lord’s shrine at Thirumala every single Saturday. The amount generated from the first bill of the day from all their branches is collected and offered to the Lord. “When I took my one month old daughter everybody tried to dissuade me but after that I’d get calls from there saying my tickets for ‘darshan’ are ready. I consider it a divine calling.” “This morning a person from Assam came here for the first time after visiting Shankar Mutt. He sought me out after eating breakfast and said, ‘This is not an eating place. This is the temple of food.’ I was so thrilled. It is compliments like these that makes the entire family’s hard work worth it,” says Radhakrishna Adiga, before calling out for coffee.

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Printable version | Jun 27, 2022 10:25:36 am | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/for-the-best-idli-and-coffee-in-bangalore/article6342413.ece