MKN Madurai Idly kadai - Karthik Pasupathy

Kalakki, Coin Parotta, and Manohar Anna

The most common way to eat parotta (Flatbread that is famous in Southern Tamilnadu and Kerala – not paratha) is by tearing them apart into little shreds, forming a heap of it on the middle of a plate or on a banana leaf, generously pouring chicken or mutton serva (gravy) on top of it and eating it without giving a damn about everything that’s happening around.

But, my way of eating parotta is a little different.

Whenever I go to this little Madurai parotta shop in Tambaram, I order three coin parottas and one kalakki (This is good stuff! I’ll talk about this later). I will start eating the first parotta by tearing off small pieces from it and dipping it in the chicken gravy. The first parotta is to keep me from being bored while I wait for the kalakki. I always save the remaining two parottas for the kalakki.

Manohar anna, who waits tables and occasionally takes care of the billing will walk up to my table and slide the hot, gooey mess of a Kalakki on to my plate.

I will ask for Ginger thokku, a South Indian style spicy gravy with the punch of ginger served at the restaurant. Manohar anna will bring a small bowl of golden brown gravy and pour it on the plate.

I tear off one piece from the parotta, tear off one piece from the kalakki, fold them together and dip them in the ginger thokku and eat it. What happens next is an unexplainable feeling. You can’t get it completely until you go, sit there, and eat it as I do.

The spicy, eggy flavor of the kalakki, the chewiness of the parotta, and the punchiness of the ginger in the spicy gravy  – it will come together in harmony to etch a memory in your mind with a label that says “Nothing can beat this”.

And, I feel this way every time I sit at that restaurant. Despite it being a very small place with a seating capacity of sixteen, the people who work there have always made me feel special. Especially Manohar anna.

Whenever I walk into the shop, Manohar anna ( ‘anna’ means elder brother in Tamil) will look at me and give out a warm smile. He will come up to me and say “Wait for five minutes, Thambi (younger brother in Tamil), I will get you a spot.”

And, within the next five minutes. I will have a nice spot to sit and a stainless steel plate in front of me filled with coin parotta, chicken gravy, and Kalakki.

Kalakki – what an amazing dish!

It is made by mixing an egg, some chicken/mutton gravy (known as Serva in Tamil), and some onions and pouring them on to a flat top and transferring it on to a plate before it is completely cooked. The end result is a messy blob-like mass of egg mixture that is cooked on the outside and gooey on the inside.  And, as you eat it, you get the flavor of the egg, the serva, and tiny chunks of chicken or mutton from the serva.

(the video above shows how Kalakki is made)

Manohar anna will also serve me a couple of special gravies that won’t be served to every customer, but only for regulars and for those who ask for it. Most small restaurants have items and sides that won’t be on the menu. Customers who come there regularly would know it and get it. And, the best thing is you won’t be charged extra for these additional gravies. They’re complementary and it gives you a privileged status in the restaurant. When the waiter comes up to your spot and pours thick, delicious-looking gravy, everyone else will look at you. It is a good feeling.

I still remember the day I discovered this restaurant. I was driving from Ambattur to Tambaram with mom after a long day and I realized we haven’t had anything since morning. I looked at my wristwatch and it was two-thirty in the afternoon. I realized that we won’t get a decent lunch anywhere at that time.

As I kept looking, I came across this parotta shop. There wasn’t anybody in the shop except for Manohar anna. He asked what we want and served us amazing parotta, chicken serva, and kalakki. After the meal, my mom asked if the restaurant serves tea. Even though they did not serve tea, Manohar went the extra mile to go to the tea shop next door and got tea for us. We were having the worst day and he turned it around with his food and hospitality. After the meal, I appreciated the food and also gave him a small tip as a gesture. From then on, I became a regular to the restaurant. And, whenever I go to the restaurant, he’ll always find me a spot and make sure I get the crunchiest parottas and all the special gravies.

Even now when people talk to me about customer experience at work, I always remember people like Manohar anna and the random, yet kind waiter in a Tiffen center at Velachery

Last week, I visited the parotta shop to get some takeaway, but I couldn’t find Manohar anna. The shop was filled with young boys who were working at lightning speed. Maybe Manohar anna would’ve gone to Madurai during the lockdown and not back yet. Or maybe the owner did not want him to come back to work as he is a bit old and the owner did not want him to get sick. 

It is a shame that I don’t know much about Manohar anna except for the fact that he is in his fifties, always wore a clean shirt and a lungi, a towel on the shoulder, and a smile on the face.

When we experience kindness from strangers, we receive it, reciprocate it, but we never go beyond that point to know more about them – however familiar they’re to us. I’m not sure whether it is good or bad. Or maybe this is what makes the experience really special.

One of the things that I want to do after things come back to normal, is to visit the parotta shop as a dine-in customer.

I want to find my way at the crowded restaurant, smile back at Manohar anna, and wait for him to bring me a plate of amazing food that will make me sweat, burn my palate a little bit, but give me the best experience of my life.