A 630am jog to Marina Beach reminds me that my forever home city of Chennai wakes up early. Joggers, walkers, Tai-chi practitioners, humour club members, athletes, Sportsmen, Trainers, Coaches,Photographers, Acrobats, Fishermen, Swimmers, and Galli Cricketers playing their ‘bet’ matches, throng the 2nd longest beach in the world morning after morning. For many, the beach is what defines the city. So, it doesn’t really come as a surprise when some of the best (and oldest) breakfast joints in the whole of South India are located nearby. After all, what could be a better way to refuel after a session at the beach than to indulge in steaming hot Idlies, freshly fried crunchy Vadas, deliciously textured and fragrant Venn Pongal? All washed down with a hot cup of filter coffee. The very thought brings a smile to your face, doesn’t it? So why not turn the thought into action, I said to myself.
I continued to jog towards Mylapore, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Chennai. A little more than a kilometer later lies Arundale Street, off the famous Kutchery Road. It is home to the legendary Rayar’s Mess- a tiny eatery which has been in existence for more than 70 years. Run by two brothers Mohan and Kumar, this place is what I consider THE defining experience of breakfast in Chennai. They have kept it ridiculously simple. Idli. Vada. Pongal in the morning. Adai, Bonda, Rava Dosai, in the evening. That’s it. No mess. No fuss.
My family had been devout fans of Rayar Mess for decades, however, it had been almost a decade since my last visit. As I entered the street, I came across a rather familiar sight. People overflowing from the tiny crevice-like bylane which proudly advertised in green ‘RAYAR MESS’. In more ways than one, places like Rayar Mess laugh at the face of change. They debunk theories about ‘disruption’, ‘innovation’, ‘evolution’ and what not by simply replacing it with three words- SIMPLICITY, QUALITY and the most important of them all, CONSISTENCY. Everything is exactly the same. The place is incredibly tiny – only 16 people at a time can be served. They wait for the seats to fill up before they start serving. Needless to say that it doesn’t take more than a few seconds for that to happen. Whilst we patiently wait to be served, it is startling to see the number of parcel orders this place gets. On a daily basis it is quite common to see people leave their parcel carriers at the place and return 45 mins to an hour later to collect it.
So let’s get down to the real deal- The Food. After being allotted my banana leaf, I waited patiently for 15 minutes. Everything is made absolutely fresh in their small kitchen hence it does take time. First up, they serve their legendary green ‘kara’ (spicy) chutney. Made mostly out of green chillies, the chutney leaves you sweating. It is their most sought after item and it’s not surprising to know why. This is followed by watery white coconut chutney. Up, on the wall in front of me, I noticed a small menu pasted which read ‘Thick chutney, podi, oil and ghee at extra cost’. Fair enough!!!The thick chutney refers to a thicker version of the white coconut chutney. It is served in bowls and charged accordingly. The secret lies in the Chutney dal, Kumar says proudly. He doesn’t divulge anything else. Not that he doesn’t want to, but simply because he doesn’t have time to indulge in a conversation. Both the brothers work at a frenetic pace to satisfy their hungry customers.
And then it came, a huge bowl of freshly made Venn Pongal. The mild aroma of ghee and jeera filled the room as each of us was served a fresh scoop of the absolute best Venn Pongal I have ever had – and believe me, I have had Pongal across innumerable homes and restaurants/temples in South India and especially Tamil Nadu. The Pongal vanishes in a matter of seconds. The duo are hardly surprised and so they’re ready with the next offering. Lo and behold! Fresh, Crunchy, light vadas make their way to our leaves. This is the part where the ‘ghetti’ (thick) chutney combines with the Vada to make you go into a state of culinary nirvana immediately.
After belting in 6 Vadas and 2 Pongals, it was time for the Idlies to make their appearance. A massive vessel containing at least 50 Idlies made my eyes light up in sheer greed. How many, he asked. ‘Two’, I said. ‘That’s it?’, came the retort. Oh well, two more please. By now my banana leaf was a delightful mess of green chutney, ghetti chutney, remnants of vada and some podi. It was about to get better, though. Mashing idlies and adding it to the existing mess on your leaf is the ultimate way to savour the preparation and that’s exactly what it did. Another round, another set of four idlies.
By the time I was done, I could barely get up. Am I missing anything? Of course, how can the meal be complete without coffee? In a display of respect for the next bunch of customers who have been waiting patiently for us to finish, we are given our coffee outside the Mess where we can sip it at leisure. The first sip of coffee scalded my tongue- just as I expected it to. I use the tumbler and davara to cool it a little. Fresh, aromatic coffee after a meal like this? Cheers to the simple things in life.
Just as I’m about to leave the place a man enters with a 5-layered tiffin carrier/dabba and rattles off his order to Kumar. ‘Paatram vecchittu poittu vaango saar, oru mani neru aavum’ (Please leave your vessel and return after an hour), Mohan tells him. I smile to myself. Glad to know that somethings never change. Mighty glad.