Worth the Mani

I am at a table with three strangers. We don’t talk; our mouths are busy shoveling down idlis, wadas and upma. The only sounds we make come from the cracking of a crisp dosa, and the slurp of hot filter coffee.

A waiter hovers by, ready to refill our bowls with ladles of fragrant sambhar. The thin and tangy vegetable stew coats the idlis (steamed lentil rice cakes) on my plate, giving them an orange tint. In another bowl, the soup-like rasam, made with tamarind juice, tomato, chillies, and spices, soaks through the medu wada (crisp fritters made with urad dal), softening them up.

I wipe both dishes clean, resisting the urge to lick my fingers as many around me do. Someone near me gives a satisfied burp. Nobody bats an eyelid. At Mani’s Lunch Home in Chembur, table etiquette and manners are secondary to enjoying a good meal.

Rasam Vada
Rasam vada.

In Mumbai, there’s cheap and then there’s lunch home cheap. Mani’s Lunch Home, or Mani’s, falls in the latter category – nothing on their menu costs over Rs 150. The 80-year- old institution serves simple, homely, vegetarian South Indian food. Last year, it shut down its Matunga outlet and moved to the eastern suburbs of Chembur.

I visit the new digs for a late breakfast. It takes time getting used to the white walls, metals chairs and air-conditioned interiors. The old Mani’s felt like the dining room of a friend’s home, warm and inviting. Here, under the glare of white lights, the four of us sharing a table are extremely conscious of each other. We sit properly, without fidgeting.
Once our orders arrive though, all propriety is forgotten.

A flurry of waiters deposit plates of dosas the length of my arm, tiny containers of chutney, filter coffee in tumblers, fluffy idlis, crisp wadas and bowls of sambhar and rasam. There’s no cutlery so we use our hands and dig in. My Ghee Roast Dosa is paper thin and crumbles as I break into it, revealing a mound of masala’ (boiled potatoes with onion and tempered with mustard and curry leaves). In between bites, I pour the filter coffee from the stainless steel tumbler into the cup, cool it and take small sips. It is milky
and sweet enough to jolt me awake.

dosa
Masala Dosa. Photo courtesy: Mani’s Lunch Home

Eating at a lunch home is a lesson in portion control. I barely wipe the last drop of sambhar from the plate, when a hand materialises out of nowhere and fills it up. After two rounds, I feebly wave the waiter away. He is understandably surprised. Whoever says no to extra, and free, servings?

By now, I am regretting all the food I’ve ordered. I can’t seem to finish all that I have ordered. My fellow diners have finished up, paid and left. They know their limits. They also know that you don’t waste time at a lunch home, you eat as quickly as you can and leave, making way for other hungry diners.

As I pay the bill, the owner KS Narayanaswamy walks over for feedback. I am full of praise but, he isn’t fooled. He saw me wave away second helpings. “You didn’t finish your paper dosa,” he says, accusingly. I sheepishly apologise, promising to return and do justice to everything I order.

This was part of my breakfast series for Roads & Kingdoms; read a full review of the place in Midday

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