Memories and reality

Despite the clattering of plates and the high-decibel noise the restaurant seemed more appealing. It doesn’t require a genius to figure out why. The smell of coffee lured us from quite a distance and as we wade through the crowd milling around the tables, we could also get the endearing aroma of sambar. The scent transported me to a different place, to a different time.

Friday evening at our home town of Viruddachalam. The bazaar road would be chaotic with fast moving ‘town busses’ and trucks carrying loads of sugarcanes and groundnuts. Roadside tea stalls would attract customers with bright lights and blaring loudspeakers playing old Tamil songs, while people standing around would busy themselves discussing the latest in politics and film.

Having spent a full day playing cricket on the dry riverbank, myself and my brother would feel hardly tired as we looked forward to the prospect of eating the evening snack outside. We invariably went to the thatched roof stall of Adai Rayar, whose  specialities were ‘onion Adai’ (lentil crepes) with tasty ‘Milagaipodi’ (chilli powder) and gingili oil.

That was of course the popular choice. The thick dosa like dish would arrive the moment Rayar Mama saw my uncle cycling with a nephew each on the front and back of the saddle. While everyone preferred to eat the crisp and wonderfully fried Adai with chilli powder, my choice was the other one: vegetable sambar and coconut chatni. Rayar was too happy to serve the sambar several times, especially to me since I never used to waste even a drop. It was one of the best things I had ever tasted. It was harder to say what made the sambar tasty. It could be the dal or the native tamarind and vegetable.

My guess was the proportion and the blend, which needed immense skill to reproduce without any change on a daily basis.

With the red mark on his forehead and customary dhoti-towel, not to mention the trademark smile, the Madhva Brahmin offered the best food in the town.

The Adai, made with chana dal, toor dal, mung dal, rice and red chilli paste, topped the billing. The sambar we tasted this time at the restaurant didn’t live up to the sweetness of its smell. But thoughts of Adai Rayar and the tasty sambar at his modest stall made the palatable gravy a tasty one. Sometimes, memories can do the trick when the reality doesn’t live up to expectation.

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