Thursday, May 8, 2014

Profile of Saravana Bhavan

His story begins in 1947, 10 days before India’s independence from the British, when he was born in the vast brushland in the southern state Tamil Nadu. His village, Punnaiadi, was so inconsequential that it didn’t merit a bus stop; his home was a shack with mud-and-cow-dung floors. Rajagopal writes that he quit school after seventh grade, left home alone and took a job wiping tables at a cheap restaurant in a distant resort town, where he showered in a waterfall and slept on the kitchen floor. But he was proud of his work, especially after the restaurant’s tea master inducted him into the mysteries of making a perfect chai.

When he was a teenager, he moved to Chennai, then known as Madras, and in 1968 opened the first in a series of tiny groceries on the outskirts of the city. One day in 1979, at his grocery in a neighborhood called KK Nagar, a salesman made a casual remark: He’d have to go all the way to T Nagar for lunch because KK Nagar didn’t have any restaurants.

A century ago, there were virtually no restaurants in all of Chennai. “It’s a country that was very conservative about eating out,” said Krishnendu Ray, a food-studies professor at N.Y.U. When Rajagopal was born, the restaurant scene consisted of little more than Brahmin hotels: modest affairs catering to the traveling upper caste, whose dietary rules dictated that they couldn’t eat food cooked by any caste but their own. As a member of the Nadar caste, Rajagopal wouldn’t have been allowed to eat in most Brahmin hotels, let alone run one. But by the time he came of age, entrepreneurs from other castes had begun to meet Chennai’s increasing appetite for dining out.

Masala Dosa to Die For

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