I recently took a visiting friend to the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens. This 240-acre oasis of calm in the heart of the bustling city is literally a breath of fresh air. All that walking and fresh air can work up an appetite so a visit to the gardens is not complete without a meal at the nearby Mavalli Tiffin Rooms – or MTR as the locals call it.
Walking down Lalbagh Road, this unassuming but famous South Indian eatery is easy to miss – if it wasn’t for the crowd of people waiting outside! This veritable Bangalore institution has been around since 1924 and once you step inside the door you wonder if it has changed much since. But it’s obviously not the décor that draws the daily crowds, it’s the food!
We arrived during the lunch shift which is the busiest time of day. There was only one thing on the menu: the ubiquitous South Indian ‘meals’ – a set lunch of traditional Brahmin vegetarian food. After paying at the cashier and collecting our receipt, we were directed up the narrow stairs to the waiting room. The room was already full of impatient customers who filled the long benches along the walls, while the adjacent dining hall was mysteriously empty. A man with a clipboard guarded the doorway and after adding us to his list, motioned towards the bench by the window. While we were waiting I had time to take in the old pictures on the wall, the ugly curtains and the minimalist décor which somehow gives the place an old-world kind of charm.
After a quick head count, the man with the clipboard finally ushered everyone into the dining hall filled with black marble-topped tables and red plastic chairs. He pointed with his chin to the table at the far end and we obligingly took our seats. I was starting to feel like we were in a military canteen and not a restaurant! Soon barefoot waiters dressed in long-sleeved shirts and lungis folded to the knee appeared with compartmentalized stainless steel plates. Next came a silver tumbler of fresh fruit juice and a glass of water.
What followed next was a feast for the taste buds. A potato curry and coconut chutney was served first. I wondered if this was going to be followed by a dosa, but next to arrive on our plates was a carrot salad and a dish made with green beans and coconut. Both were equally delicious. The waiter then spooned a creamy liquid into one of the compartments on my plate. I discovered it was payasam, a sweet dish and remembered that sweets are often eaten at the beginning of a meal in South India. I was saving the potato curry and chutney for the imminent dosa, but we were served hot puris instead – a small flat bread fried in oil, along with a flattened vada, which must have a special name but I don’t know it. My friend thought that it tasted a lot like falafel. Another sweet followed: a gooey serving of badam (almond) halwa. Bisbelebath, a local rice dish made with lentils and vegetables was next on the menu, served together with raita, a refreshing yoghurt preparation. These were all served by the efficient waiters out of shiny stainless steel pails.
I was quite full at this point but I knew that the meal was far from over. A proper Brahmin meal is not complete without rice and sambhar, followed by rasam rice and rounded off with curd rice. I decided to skip the sambhar and rasam rice and wait for my serving of curd rice which is supposed to aid digestion. Last but not least, we were treated to a small bowl of fruit with a scoop of ice cream for dessert. We definitely got our eighty rupees worth!
MTR is also known for its open kitchen where anyone is welcome to walk through and observe the impeccable standards of cleanliness and hygiene (as long as you take your shoes off first!). Close to closing time the front doors are locked and the only way out is by the kitchen door!
Some scenes from the kitchen:
Mavalli Tiffin Rooms is located at 11 Lalbagh Road, close to the main gate of Lalbagh Botanical Gardens. Bon appetit!