One food I can eat any time, day and night, breakfast and dinner, is South Indian food. Health-wise, taste-wise, digestion-wise, variety-wise, there is no food to match it in the world. Medu vada, paper dosa, tomato upma, idli sambar, bisibele huli anna, bakhla bhath, Mysore bonda. Ladies and gentlemen I give you the world beyond chicken tikka and nargisi kofta.
And now I shall recommend to you Bombay's best-known restaurant for SI food -- Woodlands Garden Cafe at the Juhu-Vile Parle Scheme, on the same road (Vaikunthlal Mehta Road) as the Mithibai College, five minutes from Amitabh Bachchan's house. Go early, and avoid going on Saturday-Sunday evenings, unless you are prepared to wait for an hour for your Kanchipuram idli with sambar and two chutneys.
It is a big restaurant, comfortably sitting about 550 customers at a time, but evidently that capacity is not enough. There is a longish garden passage, open to the sky, with a cool fountain, and a row of neat benches, like at a well-appointed railway station. If the restaurant is full, you wait in the garden, with a token number, and on a busybusy weekend evening your token number could go up to 250. But let me not scare you, most of the days you will promptly get a place.
From the garden, you enter a lift and are taken on the first floor. There is an air-conditioned room, glass and brass, neatly-laid out tables with green table-mats designed like plantain leaves, napkins, crockery, glasses, all of them with motifs of a South Indian Brahmin pandit, and waiters in what I presume are uniforms styled on traditional Tamil outfits. The place has a hundred seats. Out on the terrace, there are 300 more seats, a large service counter, potted plants, and a spiral staircase that leads to what is known as the Cosy Garden, which can hold a further 150 diners. Service, in spite of the large clientele, is excellent, I can vouch for that. Though you may have to wait a few minutes for your orders, since everything is freshly prepared on order.
So, what shall we order this afternoon? I left myself in the hands of Mr. K. Subrahmanya Bhat, the very pleasant general manager. He explained to me my choice of idlis: plain, Kanchipuram, 14 idlis, rava idli, panchratna, navratna, mixed vegetable idli. I selected Kanchipuram, since plain idlis I eat every day at Dwarka, down the road from the office, and very good idlis too they are, let me tell you. However, back to the Kanchipuram, two pieces came along, with a patch of plantain leaf folded on them. It was a masala idli, mainly udad and tur dals, pepper and ginger, and turmeric powder that gave it the yellow shade. There were also cashew nuts inside, which gave the idlis an extra crunch. Sambar came in a sauce bowl, unlimited quantity and vigilant waiters kept filling it. And there were two chutneys, a red wet chutney made with the badgi chills of Mangalore, and the usual white coconut chutney.
On the GM's advice, I ordered a third chutney, malga pudi with ghee (Rs.15). It is made from channa dal, plus a little mung dal, jeera, rye, ginger, curry patta. It is dry and powdery, you mix the ghee to it, press it into a fine paste with the spoon, and eat it with the idli or with anything else.
The Kanchipuram idli costs Rs.25, plain idli Rs.22. then there is a rava idli, made naturally with rava, and an item known as 14 idlis. These are tiny cocktail idlis, 14 in all. Why 14? Because 1 plus 4 equals 5, and five is panchaman kariyasidhi, which stands for progress, prosperity, everything good. It costs Rs.35.
So much for idlis. We now move on to the dosas: sada (Rs.26), masala (Rs.30), rava (Rs.32), rava masala (Rs.35), onion rava (Rs.35), onion rava masala (Rs.36), paper (Rs.34), paper masala (Rs.36), Mysore sada, Mysore Masala, adai, polo, pesret, tomato, set dosa with kurma, spring dosa...do you want me to continue? A few details may not be out of place. The pesret dosa (Rs.35) is made with mung and stuffed with onions and chillis; polo dosa is a rice dosa, no oil, no ghee, no nothing, no stuffing also. Eat it with red chutney and grated coconut mixed with jaggery. Set dosa (also Rs.35) is made from a batter of 75 per cent udad dal, 25 per cent rice, the batter is fermented for a few hours, and spring dosa is cut pieces of dosa, stuffed with capsicum, ginger, onion, a puree of tomatoes, chat powder. Then there is the Mysore masala dosa, triangular shaped and standing, like the standing pomfret that the late Rendezvous used to serve. Red chutney is applied on its inside. It is served with a masala bhaji of onions and potatoes. I prefer to eat it without the bhaji, since I don't care for half cooked onions. Raw onions, fine, fried onions (biresta), fine, but no half cooked onions.
And now, from the kitchen, comes the 5-ft. family dosa. A single waiter carries two places in two hands, held widely apart, and balanced on these is the giant dosa. Coming out of the kitchen and into the restaurant, it makes as impressive a sight as a flaming shashlik. It is a plain dosa, and, I suppose, tastes like any other plain dosa. But eight people can eat this (a large family dosa for a large family), and it costs exactly Rs.100. Sambar, coconut chutney unlimited as usual.
There are several uttapams, I will not name them. But I will tell you about the 7-Taste Uttapam (Rs.45). You get seven uttapams in a plate, count them: onion, tomato, coconut, plain, rye, capsicum, malga pudi with ghee.
And I will mention only two rice items. First, the bisibele huli anna, the literal translation of which is, hot dal tamarind rice. Let us say it is like khichri, but hot, and with lots of sambar that you may pour on it. I do. And it's got wafers stuck on top, a special Woodlands touch. The second rice item is my favourite: bakhla bhath. It is rice and dahi, lots of dahi, with pieces of cucumber, and a seasoning of ginger and green chillis. With it you get papad and mango chutney. It is served at room temperature. Old Ramdev in Apollo Street used to take it out of the refrigerator and serve you. Both these rice items are priced at Rs.45. Less expensive are the lemon rice and the coconut rice.
End your meal with the badam halwa. It is exclusively badam, no other mixture. And, before you leave, take permission to visit the kitchen. I do not know a cleaner kitchen in Bombay. It is presided over by 84-year-old Raja Rao, head chef. In a way, he reflects the status of Woodlands Garden Cafe.