South Indian Tiffin Rooms - Heritage Restaurants Catering To Hunger And Emotions
- Sidharth Bhan Gupta
Updated : December 26, 2022 12:12 IST
To most Indian people outside South India, ‘Tiffins’ is another word for lunch, mainly referred to as the packed lunch one carries to school or office, and therefore, the name - tiffin boxes. However, a tiffin would mean light food items enjoyed for breakfast or evening snacks if you are in South India.
When my flight landed, I could sense the excitement in me. I was in Bangalore, the capital of the gastronomically prosperous state of Karnataka, a vibrant south Indian city with a vast culinary history. I looked at the list of legendary food places I had prepared and noticed the word ‘Tiffin Room’ popping up repeatedly. The intrigue matched the excitement, and I was ready to explore why food lovers give the tiffin rooms such sacred importance.
To most Indian people outside South India, ‘Tiffins’ is another word for lunch, mainly referred to as the packed lunch one carries to school or office, and therefore, the name - tiffin boxes. However, a tiffin would mean light food items enjoyed for breakfast or evening snacks if you are in South India. So, a tiffin room is where traditional south Indian snacks are served.
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Tiffin items are dishes like ‘Dosa’, ‘Idli’, ‘Bhajji’, ‘Vada’, a variety of ‘Bhath’ (Rice preparations), and south Indian filter coffee. Early morning, as the dosas are spread on the griddle and the hot coffee is poured into cups, the magical aroma incites the passers-by for a quick, delicious, and healthy breakfast to enjoy the tiffins of their choice. This goes on till noon, and most tiffin rooms in Bangalore are almost always packed. Some legendary tiffin rooms also witness huge snaking queues, with waiting times going up to an hour. Evening time is busy, too; however, slightly more manageable than the morning, allowing people to enjoy the delicious tiffins, and catch up with friends over coffee, sharing how their day went by. Tiffin rooms, thus, are places to eat as well as socialise.
Mavalli Tiffin Room, famously known as the MTR, is one of Bangalore’s oldest tiffin rooms, which was started in 1924 by Mr Parampalli Yagnanarayana Maiya and his brothers. Ninety-eight years on, Mavalli Tiffin Room is Bangalore’s most prized culinary asset. Named after the locality where the first MTR started in the first quarter of the 20th century, Mavalli Tiffin Room still has an authentic and simple décor; however, due to its popularity and demand, the sitting area has been expanded to accommodate its loyal patrons, and tourists like me, who do not want to miss eating tiffins at the legendary Mavalli Tiffin Rooms.
Masala dosa is what you must try at MTR. A single bite into the crispy and ghee-laden dosa will explain why this culinary institution has run successfully for nearly a hundred years. Sambhar is delicious, and the coconut chutney amp up the dining experience. During World War II, it was challenging for MTR to serve idlis because of the rice shortage across the country. Then, they experimented with making idlis with Semolina (Rava), and Rava idli was introduced. People loved it, and it became one of the specialities of MTR. They served it with chutney and a small bowl of ghee to pour over the piping-hot Idlis. Among different restaurants I have ever had idlis at, MTR’s Rava Idli is the one I would rate the highest. It is an absolute perfection - a true delight.
Coffee is Mandatory! Your visit to a Tiffin room is incomplete without sipping on hot and aromatic filter coffee. The quality of the coffee beans that grow in Karnataka is the finest in India. With added chicory giving it its quintessential strong flavour and aroma. The method of filtering it, preparing a decoction, and the foamy milk poured over it make a heady concoction. Coffee lovers understand the importance of a good cuppa. And for those who haven’t yet fallen in love with coffee, Visiting Karnataka will undoubtedly help the cause.
In the Neighbourhood of Malleshwaram, the most famous landmark is the Central Tiffin Room or CTR, also known as Shri Sagar. It started around the same time as MTR and received a similar love from its patrons, if not more. If you are young and have often heard from the native Bangaloreans how the city used to be in older times, its charm and heritage, then a visit to CTR will give you a glimpse of the time gone by. This heritage tiffin room has cocooned the vibe and taste which goes back almost 100 years. When I visited the Central Tiffin Room, a restaurant which has seen a change of ownership a couple of times in its long journey, I realised how the institutions like these tiffin rooms have a life and culture of their own. It’s commanded by its visitors and not those who own it. It belongs to the people; the owners comply with giving them what they want and how they want. Thus, from the 1920s to the 2020s, the dosas, the idlis, the bhajjis, and the bhaths, have remained at a price which is the most affordable, the ingredients the best that can be sourced, and the service comes from the heart, it takes a bit of time, but, no one seems to be in a hurry. In a busy city like Bangalore, it seems time stops when one visits CTR.
Benne Masala Dosas, which you get at CTR, is an award-winning delicacy. In fact, at an award function where BBHA (Bruhat Bangalore Hotel’s Association) felicitated CTR for its culinary excellence, I met Mr Ganesh Poojari, the owner of Central Tiffin Room; during my interaction, I learnt that consistency is the key mantra followed at CTR. ‘We were requested to carry on the legacy of CTR in the same manner, as it was being done since its inception, my father followed the same, and we are running the affairs with the same principal’, said Mr Poojari, as he emphasised on the careful staff management, and, quality control followed at CTR. It's no wonder why food lovers thus consider tiffin rooms sacred. People’s emotions are attached, as their elder generations have dined at the same spot where they are eating today and wish to have the same experience for decades. Tiffin rooms like MTR and CTR comply with this unsaid demand of their loyal patrons.
Tiffin rooms have seen many famous personalities, former politicians, film stars, writers and directors, and celebrities from all walks of life. At Vidyarthi Bhawan, another tiffin room from the same era, one can see the old times unfold through pictures adorning its heritage walls. When I visited Gayathri Tiffin Room in Mysore, the loyal patrons came forth and shared their love affair with the iconic tiffin room; emotions poured out as they explained why visiting a tiffin room is not merely about filling up your stomach. It’s a social and cultural ritual. ‘Twice a day for the last 50 years, I have been having my cup of coffee at GTR’, said a senior citizen to me in Kannada, which my friend translated. Not knowing the local language, I did not understand each word of his 5-minute monologue about GTR, but the emotions seeped right through. My quest to understand the importance of Tiffin Rooms was thus complete.
The Food one gets to enjoy at Tiffin Rooms is the mandate of our palate and hunger, but the ritualistic visits to your loved tiffin room, soaking in the vibe, aroma, and environment of the Tiffin Room, is what your heart wants. And the heart gets what the heart wants.
Sidharth Bhan Gupta, Founder of 361 Degrees Hospitality, is a Hospitality / Food and Beverage / Restaurant Consultant, Travelling across India on a Cultural and Culinary Exploration.