The faded ink of a rangoli tattoo on Kamalathal’s forearm moves across her frail, mahogany skin; she dips her hand in a cup of water and flicks wet fingertips over a bed of steaming idlis, her wrinkled flesh purling like shifting sands. I’m in a dimly lit kitchen, in a village named Vadivelampalayam on the far outskirts of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Light filters through a gap between the cracked tile roof and worn cement wall. Otherwise, the only source of illumination in Kamalathal’s foyer-turned kitchen is the steady, blue flame of a gas stove caressing the bottom of a stainless steel idli cooker. Hungry lungi-clad men lounge around the stone bench behind the stovetop, furtively looking up from cricket highlights on their phones to stare at the vessel, waiting for a gush of steam to tell them breakfast is ready.
For over 40 years, according to Kamalathal, she has been serving up idlis for arguably the best price in the country: from 50 paise in the 1980s, only to be increased to one rupee in recent years (with no plans to raise the price), a sum that most beggars now snub in big cities. At 85, Kamalathal runs one of the most famous businesses in the entire district of Coimbatore.
However, Kamalathal is nonplussed by her notoriety. When video cameras and recording devices are brandished in front of her face, she concentrates on making sure her idlis come out of the steaming platter without sticking, manoeuvring around the media with the same aloof caution she reserves for the two kittens bounding around her workstation. Kamalathal’s priority, to provide for others fairly, seems to be a notion as antiquated as the tattoos she received when she turned eight.
Running On Quiet Steam
There is no sign of advertising outside Kamalathal’s home, which is commonly referred to as ‘one rupee idli paati’ among locals, just an off-white paint job on a small house with a rickety, red door, framed by two tile idols of Hindu gods, Ganesh and Lakshmi. A peek into her front room, and the scene would resemble a grandmother preparing breakfast for a few of her relatives. I was only able to find the place because I recognised Kamalathal—from social media clips—exiting her home, her bent figure ambling down a sparse, sun-baked road.
Unfortunately, I had arrived at noon, too late for idlis that day. I had just missed the last visitors, folks who had driven all the way from Kochi to try her famed breakfast staple. If I wanted a taste, I’d have to return between 6 a.m. (which roughly translates to seven a.m. in a sleepy setting like Vadivelampalayam) and 11 a.m. any day of the week, Kamalathal informed me. Still, she kindly welcomed me into her home, where her son, who’s old enough to be my grandfather, excitedly showed off his mother’s realm.
First up was the trophy room, full of awards Kamalathal had received for her affordable cooking. In the south, selling good idlis for a great price might even get you more recognition than winning an Olympic gold. We moved on to her backyard, framed by a single coconut tree, where Kamalathal makes her tasty coconut chutney every morning with a mortar and pestle, a large stone aatukallu as it is known in Tamil. I wondered how the wee woman could handle the heft, let alone churn out enough chutney for her many customers. As I took in her surroundings, she sat calmly in the kitchen, looking out her door while her kittens darted around her feet.
Kamalathal comes from farming stock, and started making idlis for locals to combat the tediousness of being stuck in an empty home while her family worked in the fields. She wanted to occupy her time, but also make it worthwhile. Feeding locals idlis started as a passion project, and eventually morphed into a large part of her village’s identity: a place where money may be in short supply, but magnanimity is bountiful. Every day, rain or shine, Kamalathal makes around 1,000 idlis.
We move back into the kitchen, near the small pit where Kamalathal used to build a fire every morning to heat her idli cooker. Now she has a free Bharat Gas LPG connection provided by the BPCL Coimbatore. After the installation, her gas connection was funded by Anand Mahindhra, one of her biggest fans, and among the first to turn the media light on the octogenarian cook, transforming her from a neighborhood secret to a national fascination. When asked if she prefers cooking with her gas connection or her old fire pit, her answer is balanced and non-committal. Both methods work fine. Her tone, matter-of-fact.
A kindly determination is what drives Kamalathal. At an age when most of her peers are happy if they can get out of bed, she works tirelessly to feed friends, family, and complete strangers. Even if a raging elephant stood in front of her idli cooker, she would simply pat its trunk and slowly shuffle past it to her stove top, her milky eyes shimmering with unalloyed purpose.
I made my way to my ride, parked next to a makeshift swing bearing the weight of three giggling boys, with promises of returning tomorrow.
Idli-Sambar, With A Side Of Chatter
A car and guide had only been organised for my first day in Coimbatore, so when I woke up at the crack of dawn the next morning, I realised I had no idea how I was going to get to this remote outskirt of the city. After some furious Googling, in a Hail Mary attempt, I typed ‘1 rupee idli shop’ into Uber. A blue dot popped up in a sea of white an hour’s drive away—breakfast was on.
I entered the cracked, red door again, which opened up to a few men from the neighborhood, and Kamalathal hovered over her cooker. Typically, I get asked where I’m from, or an endearing, “What is your good name?” during my travels in the south. Today, in under ten seconds of sitting down, I was asked,” What is your party?” It took me a moment to realise the middle-aged man was asking about my political leanings. I’ve never enjoyed politics much, except for the time my house help got offered a hot plate and a TV to vote for Karunanidhi, took the freebies, and voted for Jayalalitha instead. Sensing I wasn’t netting any free household appliances, I switched the topic to the idlis, making conversation in broken English and my personal patois of bastardised Tamil.
“Isha yoga and one rupee idli, (are the) only famous places (in) this area,” said a young man, with an emphatic gesture to the ground. All the men waiting for breakfast stated they were regulars, as did the other customers that trickled in as the sun rose. I noticed my water bottle had been commandeered by the guy that had asked me about my politics. I sensed he had a bright future in his field of interest. Small talk and cricket highlights filled the small room, until the hiss of the steamer blew a cloud of steam above Kamalathal’s head: everyone got to their feet and broke into action. Some washed musty banana and teak leaves, others passed around stainless steel plates, while I tried my best to get out of everyone’s way. Tiger-orange sambar was ladled over heaps of the pièce de résistance, along with a healthy pour of coconut chutney. Men who had been perched side to side earlier, chatting away, now sat apart, completely uninterested in each other’s company. All the attention in that little room was focused on Kamalathal’s cooking.
After everyone filled their plates, I lined up, and was quite pleased with my breakfast. The idlis were good, just like the sambar and chutney: nothing more, nothing less. It was a meal I’d happily eat again, but to be honest, the only reason I would once more travel so far for this particular breakfast would be the intimate atmosphere. That being said, the novelty of a solid meal that cost me less than 10 rupees was greatly appreciated. Of course, big city visitors should consider tipping Kamalathal handsomely so she can continue providing this service not only to the people of Vadivelampalayam, but other regulars, many of whom are farmers that come from the nearby areas of Boluvampatti, Pooluvampatti, Thenkarai, and Mathipalayam.
I bid farewell to my breakfast companions, some working on their second serving, others readying for a third portion. Thankfully, I had asked my Uber driver to wait for me, as my phone signal was spotty and the nearest bus stop on the main highway was a two-kilometre walk away.
An hour later, back at my parents’, my mom smiled and asked, “How much did you wind up spending on the cheapest idlis in India?” My Uber ride had cost me Rs 1,300, and I had eaten six idlis. If I divvied up the cost, that meant I spent over Rs 200 per idli, a price that would still be ridiculous back home in Mumbai—even if they were some bougie Bandra concoction, made from imported Bhutanese red rice and served with microgreens.
Ironically, the media spotlight may have turned the most affordable idlis in India into the most expensive ones by encouraging outsiders to make a pilgrimage to the shop. Nevertheless, the extra charge of getting to the ‘one rupee idli shop’ is a small price to pay to witness genuine altruism, something even rarer than pocket-friendly idlis.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.