It is 5.50 in the morning and just as one wonders if fitness enthusiasts have gathered at the wrong place, two of them, just back from their exercise routine at Lalbagh Gardens, say that for years their post-workout cuppa has always been at the Mavalli Tiffin Room (popularly known as MTR) on Lalbagh Road. Over the next 10 minutes a huge crowd makes a beeline for the tiffin room, waiting for the doors to open.
- Chandrahaara: Want to know how the famous MTR sweet Chandrahaara got its name? As a tribute to 1948’s Kannada blockbuster Chandrahara, the Maiya family created this sweet, a blend of flour, sugar and thickened milk, spiced with ghee and cloves.
- Spoilt for choice: Ghee Masala dose with Aalu Palya; Rice Idli with chutney and Rava Idli with Aalu Saagu; Kharabaath; Bisibelebath; Chandrahaara; Mysore pak, Dumroot halwa, Payasa; badami haalu; grape juice.
- Survival challenge: During the Emergency when the restaurant had closed down, MTR created instant food mixes and had their workers busy. The timing was perfect as ready-to-eat sector, with sambar, rasam, and chutney powders, instant idli, dosa, and other mixes took off.
- In the limelight: Amongst the thousands of bureaucrats, businessmen, politicians, actors and directors Raj Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Yash Chopra, Rajkumar, politicians Farooq and Sheikh Abdullah, industrialist Narayana Murthy and his wife, writer Sudha Murthy, poet DV Gundappa, and painter MF Hussain have enjoyed MTR food.
For a group of villagers from Tumkur, 40 kilometres away, it is a day to relax after their vegetables have been dropped off at the nearby City Market much before dawn. “It has been three years now since I visited MTR , and we can’t wait to enjoy a hot MTR Rava Idli with alugadde (potato), and pack some for home too,” says an excited Siddappa, a tomato grower from Gowripura. At 6.20 am, vendors selling jasmine and golden champak gather outside the restaurant. “People buy flowers only after they are done with breakfast and coffee,” they say.
From 3 am onwards, the kitchen at MTR bustles with a dozen people. They are getting the morning’s dishes ready. “Idli and dosa batter is prepared a day before to ferment it. Vegetables are cut in the morning and noon, milk is boiled three times a day, only the vada batter is prepared fresh as that way the crispies emerge golden brown from the oil,” says Hemamalini Maiya, daughter of Harishchandra Maiya, who took over from his uncle, Yagnarayana, who was one of the founders of MTR in 1924.
Proficient cooks and brothers, Parameshwara Maiya with Ganappayya and Yagnanarayana had left Kota, a hamlet near Udupi to reach Bengaluru where one of their employers had encouraged Parameshwara to start a small hotel in 1924 to serve coffee and idli. That was the beginning of Brahmin Coffee Club. Later Yagnanarayana thought the word ‘club’ sounded elitist, so changed the name to Mavalli Tiffin Room, named after the locality where it is situated.
MTR has a couple of head cooks with nearly two dozen assistants, and a dozen more helpers. “Each one has a specific role with their tasks cut out. It is like an assembly line,” says Hemamalini, walking through an aisle where almonds are being crushed in a mixer for badam milk; coconut, chilli and coriander are in the blender for the famous MTR chutney, potatoes are being boiled in their skin for the saagu for poori and masala for dosa, fruits are being cut for fruit salad, and grapes are boiled and filtered for juice.
The din of plates and spoons are heard even as a mound of diced onions keeps growing. “It may seem robotic, but this routine has been followed for decades,” says Hemamalini, one of the siblings who with Vikram and Arvind took over the mantle of running this popular place after the death of Harishchandra Maiya in 1999.
MTR thrives on loyal customers who have been dining here for generations. “The weekends overflow with people. It is humbling to see serpentine queues with poets, actors and businessmen,” she says. There are nearly 2,500 walk-ins each day during the weekends, apart from around 1,500 others who drop by just for coffee. Public holidays and Sundays see MTR serving nearly 1,000 masala dosas, 800 plates of rava idli, 800 plates of poori, with about 300 litres of milk used. Nearly 200 litres of onion sambar, and vegetable sambar are prepared each weekend.
“We get nearly 400 kilograms of vegetables and fruits. Provisions are sourced from long-established vendors who have been supplying us since our grandfather’s time,” says Hemamalini adding, “Nothing much has changed.”
In 1997, Harishchandra Maiya introduced thali meals as he felt, “Dishes savoured at special party hall lunches at MTR should reach every customer.” He introduced a huge platter with nearly 30 items for ₹ 50 and saw nearly 1,000 thalis sell out between 12.30 pm and 5 pm! “We have now brought it down to two dozen items as we notice that people don’t prefer some of the sweets and side dishes. After 22 years it now costs ₹270,” says Hemamalini.
So, what is their secret? “It lies in the preparation that results in dosas that are soft and fluffy on the inside and crisp on the outside,” says Hemamalini, adding that red rice and dollops of ghee lends to their signature taste. Rava idli, she says, is yet another signature dish from MTR. In South Canara, where the family hails from, there was a similar variant generations ago. “During World War II, when rice was in short supply, my grandfather, Yagnanarayana , introduced rava idli mixed with curd and a seasoning of dal, cashew and curry leaves. This was paired with alugadde saagu and coriander chutney. The speciality is the rava is sautéed to perfection. We train our cooks from scratch, none of them are well known before they join us,” she says.
Despite the no-frills décor or conspicuously missing menu card, MTR retains its cultural stature, and is under the heritage list of INTACH. “The food is wholesome with an abundance of ghee. Perhaps Keto dieters will subscribe to it!” adds Hemamalini, and this is what her father wanted to maintain, and not bother with expansion plans. “He always wanted people’s choice to decide the course of MTR!” she says as we check out the 6,000 square feet of space with 14 rooms. “We have basic tables and plastic chairs, and we still have the silver tumblers my grandfather introduced 75 years ago. He was captivated by them during his trip to England. Right now we have only about 100 sets left that we serve only during special meals!”
Apart from Lalbagh Road, MTR has branches at Indiranagar, Malleswaram, Gandhinagar, Whitefield, St. Marks Road, JP Nagar, Kammanahalli and Kanakapura Main Road; and in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Dubai.
A column where we experience the lives of people and places in the city