At the age of 80, K Kamalathal is up before the sun rises. She takes a bath, performs her daily prayers and goes to the farm with her son to collect fresh vegetables. She brings out the aatukallu all by herself, puts in fresh coconut, salt and other ingredients to make chutney. She chops the vegetables required to make sambar, puts them in a pot and sets it on the firewood stove to cook. The previous night she had kept the idli batter ready.
At 6 am every day, this resident of Vadivelampalayam near Perur in Tamil Nadu opens the doors of her house to customers. Her loyal patrons line up to savour the fluffy idlis with piping hot sambar and spicy chutney for just 1 rupee per idli. She runs her shop from her house.
"We visit her house at 8 am only to see many customers waiting patiently for their turn to pick up the food. Amidst the chaos, she welcomes us with a smile. While she manoeuvres across the rooms carrying a bucket of sambar and a plate of idli, you are sure to be left surprised at how quickly she serves everyone. “I started selling idlis 30 years ago in Vadivelampalayam. I belong to a farming family. Every day, my family members would work in the farm leaving me behind. I was alone, bored and wished to start making idlis for the locals. Now I have loyal patrons in daily wage labourers who stop by to have a healthy breakfast at a nominal price,” says Kamalathal.
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Having grown up in a household where they used the traditional stone grinder to make batter and masalas, Kamalathal decided to continue the same when she started the business. She did not find the need to purchase a wet grinder. “As I was raised in a joint family, cooking for a large number of people was not difficult for me. I wash and soak the ingredients the previous day in a vessel and grind them in the evening. It takes around four hours to grind six kilos of rice and urad dal for the idli batter. I let it ferment overnight and use it the next morning. I prepare fresh batter every day,” she shares.
Kamalathal sells idlis till noon. She is a multi-tasker — she pours the batter in a three-tier idli maker to prepare a fresh batch of idlis, serves chutney and sambar to those who need, and tells us, “The vessel can make 37 idlis in one round. I sell around 1,000 idlis every day. Ten years ago, one idli was priced 50 paise and I increased it to 1 rupee a few years back.”
While the chutney changes every day, Kamalathal makes it a point to only serve mixed vegetable sambar. She serves food on teak leaves or banyan leaves, which are also acquired from their farm. “Most of the people residing near Vadivelampalayam come from a lower-middle-class background or are economically backward. They are all daily wage workers. In such a case, it is hard for them to pay Rs 15 or Rs 20 for a plate of idli every day for breakfast.
In other hotels, they serve three or four idlis per plate and that’s not enough for their physical labour. So, I focus only on satisfying their hunger. Hence, I priced my idlis at 1 rupee. This will also help them save some money for their family. I get profits, but the margin is less,” she explains.
She makes a profit of up to Rs 200 a day. “Many approach me and ask me to hike the price. I tell them that I do this for the needy and hungry,” she shares.
As the news about her idlis spread, she started getting customers from areas like Boluvampatti, Pooluvampatti, Thenkarai and Mathipalayam who are now her regular customers. Kamalathal does not intend to increase the price of the food even in the future.
“My grandchildren ask me to stop the business as I am getting old and they want me to look after my health. But I refuse to stop as preparing food for people brings me joy. It also keeps me active,” she says. Recently, she added uzhunthu bonda in her breakfast menu as recommended by her customers. It is priced at Rs 2.50 each.
“The idli served here has a traditional touch. The batter is ground in a stone grinder and steamed on a mud stove. Whenever I eat here, I feel that my pattima is feeding me,” says 23-year-old Gopi Krishnan, a customer who lives near Kamalathal’s kitchen in Vadivelampalayam.