When I was a trainee journalist at Indian Express in Kochi in mid 1990’s, I used to have food mainly from the office canteen which was subsidised, or from wayside eateries. One night returning from duty, I made my first visit to Pai Dosa in MG Road which served 36 varieties of dosas. It was started by 4 brothers Sivanandapai, Narasimha Pai, Anantha Pai, and Purushothama Pai, who had migrated from Udupi. There was no place to sit and even at 11 pm the place was overcrowded.
I was indeed surprised to find Mr V Ashok, a senior at school and an executive chef at Taj Residency wearing his white chef coat savouring hot onion dosas. Wouldn’t his management object to him eat wayside food? He said it was not unusual for chefs to dine out during duty breaks. He was amazed that despite their popularity and brisk sales the Pai’s were unwilling to upscale their business or relocate to a better place. Now run by their children and grandchildren, Pai Dosa has expanded with big restaurants in two places offering 150 plus dosa varieties.
In pre-Covid times, when my daughter Diyah had Hindustani music classes twice a week near Holiday Inn in Kochi we used to have tea and bajji from a mobile dhaba stationed in front of the hotel and run by a Tamil native. Despite their limited infrastructure and manpower, wayside eateries provide inexpensive, convenient, and delicious food for all classes of people as APJ Abdul Kalam has endorsed.
Mr Kalam was on a visit to Uttar Pradesh to inaugurate a health care facility and was returning to Varanasi airport when he along with his motorcade stopped to have tea and samosas from a wayside tea stall. It was managed by a single man who was the owner, cashier, cleaner, tea maker, and server, all in one. Kalam wrote on his FB page,” Let me tell you, there is no place which can match tea at an India roadside chai shop. How do we encourage and standardize such entrepreneurs which bring taste to the nation?” (My India, Ideas for the Future: APJ Abdul Kalam, Penguin Books, 2014).