Some may feel my title to be more than a bit of an overstatement, especially coming from a non-Indian. Yet I will stand by it. Let me try and convince you of its validity.
When, in 1993, I first started travelling to Bhubaneswar in Odisha (then Orissa) and staying there for months on end, one of my main concerns was finding a good and inexpensive place to have my breakfast and lunch. Dinner was not a concern, as I usually fasted at night, or ate only fruits.
After trying several places near to where I was staying, I was introduced to Woodlands — not a part of the chain of South Indian restaurants, but a stand-alone place, little more than a hole in a wall. It quickly became where I ate all my meals, and while the lunchtime vegetarian thalis were delicious and varied from day to day, it was the idlis at breakfast that struck my fancy and kept bringing me back, from day to day and from year to year. Hot, fluffy, pockmarked rather than smooth, these excellent confections were served with two or three sorts of chutney (and one could ask for a thicker version of the coconut – out of this world!) and sambar. The perfect breakfast for me, tasting wonderfully good and lastingly filling. Never, in all of India or in Indian restaurants outside the subcontinent, have I found idlis as tasty.
The Kapoors – the family that ran Woodlands (in the past tense now, unfortunately) – were from western Odisha. Husband and wife worked the cash and waited on tables, while a cook (perhaps from South India) toiled in the kitchen and a young boy cleaned off tables. They all seemed to get along well and also seemed to appreciate that a foreigner should have picked their restaurant as his usual eatery.
The thalis were filling – so much so that I would order a reduced quantity of rice. Very quickly, and without my asking, the missing rice was replaced with fresh-cut tomatoes, carrots, and cucumber – perfectly rounding out the meal. If I had any doubts at first about eating uncooked vegetables, these were quickly dispelled. Never, in the 10 to 15 years I ate at Woodlands did I ever have even the slightest hint of a stomach problem. This despite what at first glance seemed to be the unhygienic nature of the restaurant, and especially, of the kitchen blackened with smoke from the wood fire. But the food was always fresh, hot, tasty and ‘safe’.
I was not alone in my discovery. The restaurant would fill up at lunchtime with ‘regulars’, both young and older workers from the neighbouring banks and later, computer shops. And in the morning, staff from nearby households would arrive to collect their orders of idlis or dosas, chutney, and sambar – including from the house of ‘uncle’, who, until he fell out of favour, controlled political life in Odisha.
But all good things have an end, and Woodlands has now disappeared. Mrs Kapoor moved to Pune a few years ago, to be close to her daughter, while her brother and Mr Kapoor continued the restaurant and their catering for a while. And then the restaurant – on the ground floor of their house – was given out on rent to a multi-cuisine place that in its banality could not hold a candle to what it had replaced. Another part of the plot of land connected to the house was built up and hired out to a chain of optometrists. At this point, all that was left of the original Woodlands was a makeshift kitchen producing idlis in the morning in the entry to their garage. The end, unfortunately, was close at hand.
The Kapoors had been kind enough to give me the recipe for the idlis I loved so much, explaining the different steps and the different sorts of rice and dal required for the confection. But a recipe is not enough, and try as I might I was unable to reproduce what I had so fondly eaten. And now, like Woodlands itself, that recipe too is lost.
Unwilling to fully accept this, I continue to try to find idlis as delicious as those served at Woodlands. But without success. The idlis at Thanjai in Montreal, with their smooth and bouncy texture and tepid temperature, are only a poor imitation; those at the branch of Saravana Bhawan near the Gare de l’Est in Paris, only vaguely remind me of how good idlis can be; even the idlis served in Udupi itself do not match the best idlis in all the world, which were to be found at Woodlands.
(The writer is a noted translator and was formerly Professor of Translation at Montreal University, Canada)