In 1967,says Panju Swamy,the streets of Mumbai were wider and people simpler. He recalls his father,a Tirunelveli native,carrying two steel tins of dosa batter,a portable stove,all on his bicycle as he went about Matunga. Panju joined him in late 70s. Under the shade of a huge tree at Telang Road,he set up a stall,selling dosa for a rupee,and uttappa for 50 paise. It was a simple affair. Our clients were from labour camp in Matunga,mostly south Indians who were critical of thickness of the dosa, he says.
Today,Panjus stall is called Ayyappan Idli Stall and in four decades,he has created over 100 varieties of idli and dosa strictly through experiments. While his critics continue to be south Indians who judge him on the coarseness of his kitchen-made gunpowder,or a five-star hotel in suburban Mumbai which outsources his mini idli or butter gunpowder idli when they have special guests,his regular crowd includes college students,bachelors,office executives,and families from Punjabi and Gujarati communities. With six lodging and boarding around them,the Ayyappan brand today has followers from other states,too. They eat at our place while in Mumbai and recommend us to their relatives. Some have come from north India after their relatives told them about us, says Panju.
By 2010,Panju had introduced 20 varieties of dosa,which he says would get over by six pm and he would head home. It was only after Ganesh joined him that things changed. A municipal school student,Ganesh stood by his father and helped him with the batter after school hours. There was a new wave of requests. People would ask for things like vegetable dosa or spicy idli. I kept a record of these requests and started making them. I also went around the city eating different kinds of food,all the time thinking if this would work when mixed with idli or dosa, recalls Ganesh. For instance,our Mysore masala comes with sprinkling of fresh onions and tomatoes mixed with chutney spread and masala. We do our own experiments. It was also in 2000 that Ayyappan stall started stocking cheese and paneer two of their biggest food hits. And the childrens favourite includes pizza dosa.
In their kitchen,with just two furnaces and six masters as they are called,the Swamys and their chefs make over 60 varieties of dosa and 40 varieties of idli. Over the years,they have improvised to include customer compliments while naming their new experiments. So a dilkush dosa is one in which they have incorporated fried idlis as dosa stuffing,and Abhay Dosa has upma as the filling. Our biggest seller is the morning pongal. We make it the way it is made in Tamil Nadu simple mashed rice and it is served as wholesome community food, says Panju.
Their manager Shanmugaval laughs as he speaks of morning joggers who gorge on pongal soon after their run.
What also makes them special is the various chutneys they make. We know that in the end,that is what will set us apart from others, says Ganesh. At their stall,one can taste the mix four chutneys spread on crispy dosa,probably their bestseller. Its simple. None of us here comes with any degree in food making. We just adapt. Besides,if you mix four chutneys,its bound to be tasty, says Ganesh.
In two shifts,six men cater to at least 500 customers. They feel that an open kitchen is their biggest USP. One doesnt wait here. The most used word at our stall is jaldi (quick). I think I hear it every minute; when they see the dosa being made,their patience is sold, he laughs.
Despite their business having multiplied,the Swamys feel they will never open a restaurant. We face the temple and the idol faces us. Its gratitude we have towards her. We wont go anywhere, says Panju.