It was a freezing Saturday morning and I was yearning for some steaming hot idlis. Idlis are South Indian comfort food - little rice and lentil dumplings served with a lentil dip called Sambar.
When I was a kid, I hated idlis, because they seemed to be all my mom ever made for breakfast. But as the years have gone by, I have rediscovered this seemingly simple dish. Because they are steamed and made of rice and lentils, idlis are the perfect high-protein, high-energy breakfast food. And my ma was so right when she said I would crave them if I couldnt get them anymore. Idlis are not particularly simple to make. The right proportions of lentil and rice have to be soaked , ground the previous night and left to ferment. Living so far away from home and not having the right grinding equipment means that I can now only savour them once a year when I visit family in Madras.
When I am in Madras, I head out early with my great-uncle for a walk along the beach at about 6 a.m. , well before the temperatures soar to the 37 C standard temp. Then, as my treat for getting the morning exercise out of the way, I huddle with loads of messy eaters to savour steaming hot idlis in the tiny restaurants that dot the road by the beach. The kitchens in these little places are bustling with staff scurrying around, sorting orders in a really haphazard but perfectly pragmatic way. The idea of queueing is alien to the Madras-i psyche and there is even a sense of silent admiration beneath the mutterings as some clever-clogs thrusts his order under the waiter's nose ahead of the person who was there well before him.
Anyway, back to freezing London and frozen Hammersmith in particular. There is no congestion charge between Xmas and New Year's. So, I have managed to cajole the grumpy boyfriend into driving us across central London to this little joint called Sagar.
After getting lost in the maze under the Hammersmith Flyover, we finally arrive at the restaurant which is just by the Town Hall. Walking into the restaurant, I am transfixed, as the decor transports me to the typical Udipi restaurants of India. (For those of you who are unfamiliar, its pretty much the same style as a slightly up-market cafe). Very functional and you can be assured of the staples. As usual, I over-order, hoping that I can convert the boyfriend to the joys of South Indian cooking. The idlis arrive , perfectly steamed. The boyfriend looks suspicious when he sees the little white UFO-style dish but steels himself and tries a mouthful. He doesn't look too impressed. But I am in food heaven. Next we try a rasam-vada (this is a fried lentil doughnut in a thin spicy soupy gravy). It blows the roof off the boyfriend's mouth. Finally we settle for a main course of dosa (lentil pancake) and utappam (a different lentil and rice pancake with chopped chillis and onions). Now the boyfriend is hooked. He gobbles down the meal and I can finally rest assured that the heathen has been converted to South Indian food. The service has been quick, efficient and inobtrusive. And the bill is in the early twenties, despite a couple of soft drinks each. I am satisfied. The next time I miss the restaurants of my childhood, I know I can visit and Sagar will safely transport me back to Madras without a bill thats as expensive as the aeroplane-fare.
SAGAR restaurant , 157 King St, Hammersmith W6 9JT