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Amma’s Food For Chennai’s Rich July 13, 2014

Posted by Gomathi Karri Reddy in Desi Indian.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This morning’s Economic Times(ET) threw up an interesting equation The Chennai’s poor only need Rs.63 a day and that takes care of their 3 meals a day, travel costs and shelter for the day. It was an interesting back-of-the-envelope study.

The major component of this calculation made it look like all poor people in Chennai have their food out of Amma Canteens, have only 2 idlis and 1 chai for breakfast and their housing costs border on being free. But what piqued my interest was that Amma Canteen’s now being made to look like staple food for Chennai-ites, by the national media.

I’ve been wanting to visit this one for a while, after all that media blitz that these chain of restaurants seem to create, over a carefully planned PR program that finds its way through as advertorials in the Hindu and leading newspapers of the South. This is one lesson, that CM Jayalalitha has certainly picked up from the PM Narendra Modi. There can be nobody better than the PM to vouch for what the media can do to your image, if  only you can spend enough on it.

As an aside, the Rangarajan committee’s announcement that anyone who can spend more than Rs,47 a day in India are not poor made me wonder if he is suggesting that Chennai’s poor are all rich, since they can afford to spend Rs.63/- a day. The next thing on target will be welfare schemes! 

I took the bold step of taking a walk to the nearest AMMA Canteen this morning.

My Day Out At Amma’s

My trip to the nearest AMMA canteen took me to K Block, 2nd Main Road, Anna Nagar, Chennai.  I didn’t know where the nearest one to my household was didn’t even know where I should be heading. I spoke to an Auto guy(they are the quintessential live Google Maps of Chennai, with absolutely no expectations. It’s almost a cultural trait with them. They help anyone, anytime with their directions that are always the best bet)  and I follow the directions. A few yards down, I spoke to someone else on the road, just to make sure I was heading right, a few more people on the road ventured to direct me. Resourceful Chennai-ites.

I walked down a couple of blocks and I found this one in a posh neighbourhood, an adjoining lovely park and clean roads, and the entrance was fairly neat and tidy – Not bad for a community kitchen. There were about 6 round steel-topped high tables, and a few people were already there around 7:30 am. I saw a couple of them carrying parcels, though the boards blared otherwise.

The ladies at the cash counter and the service area were polite, had hair coverings in place, and to my relief, there were no flies and cockroaches doing the rounds. Just beside me there was an old man hesitating to get ahead of me as I was fumbling in my bag for change.  I asked him to step ahead.  I noticed that the idlis were priced at Rs.1 and the Pongal at Rs.3 – the only 2 items on the menu for breakfast.

The old man gingerly picked up his soiled 10 rupee note and stretched it to the lady at the counter, and she told him that his note cannot be accepted, ‘cause it was torn. He just stood there and said, “aaru, idli,” (six idlis)  as his cataract-filled eyes tinged in anxiety, staring to-and-fro at me and at the counter.

This immigrant from Andhra Pradesh, stood there not knowing what to do. I had to step in and I asked the lady to serve him his food and volunteered to pay up for him. He looked up and down at me, was too hungry to worry about courtesies, took his soiled note back from her, and then stepped to the next counter for his 6 idlis as breakfast. The lady at the counter refused to take money for his breakfast and said she’d pay up from her pocket and I had to insist that I pay for him, which she reluctantly took from me. I was touched by the simplicity and generosity of our folks.

I ordered for 2 idlis and paid a grand sum of Rs,8/- for breakfast for 2  and went to the next counter. Two large idlis with sambar were served.  “No chutneys. Only Sambar,” they said.

The idlis were sizeable, the sambar was plenty yet paltry with no sign of dhal in it, and I saw something like a piece of drumstick shredded to its millions on my plate. I walked to a table with another elderly gentleman, relishing his pongal. I struck a conversation with him, with my “Vankkam Sir. Inga regular-aha varuveengala?” (Greetings, Sir. Are you are regular here?”)

Like all strangers that I bump into, he too volunteered information in English, “Nalla food. Not tasty. But food good. No expect home food. But cheap food come like this only. Pongal nice today. Try Pongal.”

Inga daily varuveengala? (Do you come here every day?), I continued to insist.

“Yes. Retired man. Wife not well. Why cook? Come here. Eat kalailey, lunch and dinner. Dinner chapathi very nice. 3 chapathis in one plate. Enough. Lunch, there is karuvepillai saadam, lemon rice, sambar saadham and curd rice. Each plate only Rs. 3. Food not so tasty. No side dish. No appalam. But this is enough for hungry. Why bother about taste. Tomorrow you come?”

“Not sure, Sir.”

“Come. Try lunch. You come to try only know? Try lunch. Parents not here? You living in hostel? Some hostel girls come.”

“Sure, Sir I’ll try lunch” and for the rest of his queries, I just smiled.

The idlis were large, but a little hard. The sambar was running all over my large plate, but was enough to cover the mashed 2 idlis. As I ate what can be dubbed as a frugal meal, I saw the old man from Andhra Pradesh, focusing on his food  in a pace that was frenetic.

Food Philanthropy

As the women in the counter were looking at me suspiciously and gingerly, I went to wash my hands, and the basin was clean and neat.

I walked out, as more people were swelling into the canteen. I saw a teen boy with a funky hairstyle, sporting a ring on one of his ears with his mother, pretty middle class folks, walk up to the roadside vendor  squatting with her vadas, buying their stock, and entering the Amma Canteen for Pongal.  For all those who liked their Pongal with a Vada , the street food filled the gaps in taste and nourishment at the Canteen.  I could see a whole ecology of street-food evolving around the Amma Canteens, in the near future.

But what struck me the most were the clean kitchens, the updated boards that displayed the stock and inventory at the kitchen, the intensive cleaning of the place with plenty of water and the polite and humane women at the counters.  The kitchen looked like any modern catering unit, with a deep-freezer and refrigerator,  a couple of grinders and mixies, and lots of large vessels – All of this would’ve involved nothing less than a minimum of Rs.8 Lakh investment – Even if the place belonged to the government, converting it to a unit that can serve food would’ve cost something in planning, effort and utilization of resources, and finally having a supervisory mechanism that ensures that the initial high-morale ideals are adhered to at all times. This is tax-payers’ money and I hope it will be continued to be put to good use, under the garb of “welfare.”

The old man of 6 idlis walked out, and his whole body language was positive, now that he’s got some glucose running in his veins. He looked around, caught my eye, just nodded and walked with a hop. And that was heartening. I could’ve ordered for 10 idlis for him….why didn’t I do that.

Amma Coupons/Amma Plastic Cards

I was wondering if the neighbourhood elite could start doing their little deeds of kindness. Why not just pick-up Amma Canteen coupons and distribute it to the needy?

a)      Individual coupon can be given to the needy and poor, at the Amma Canteen.  It helps to do your bit of philanthropy…without the need for media attention. There is no greater peace to the soul than to do your bit to the society, without seeking limelight.

b)      Why not  have a monthly Amma Canteen Pass, which can be used to pick up food, in any one of the Amma Canteens? This can also be used by enterprises/individuals to support a needy immigrant/local person, giving them a sense of security about food. I see a lot of immigrants in building sites looking so malnourished and haggard. Once I was appalled to learn that workers are not even given individual plates. They were supposed to wait for their turn to have a plate to eat their food, and the ones who have their food on a plate are made to rush through so that their plate can be passed on to the next person. These people live in such abysmal conditions. How do we even have the heart asking them to pay attention to detail at their work site? 

c)       Sponsor the canteen inventory, and make this a public-private partnership at welfare, so that the Government can now focus on running the human resource machinery, space acquisition and capital costs, while private enterprises can  bring the daily costs under their CSR program. This way social welfare can reach deeper pockets of the State.

Will our CM be open to such ideas?  Will our society look at these options for creating a balanced Chennai?



1. Right Off Center - July 17, 2014

Interesting read. Description of the food items.. Well I am going for dinner. Thanks

2. goks - July 24, 2014

Very interesting. I am from Chennai but have not been in Chennai since this was introduced. I should visit this place for sure…

Hey, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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