How to make sambhar

Baby Iyer

 He was an 84-year-old man called ‘Baby.’ He was the first born of his parents. His father used to call him “Baby” when he was…well… a ‘baby’. But the moniker stuck. And as time passed by Narayana Iyer came to be known as “Baby Iyer” in and around Ulsoor where he lives.

 It was a particularly muggy evening. I was trying to catch my breath and clear the fog in my head by walking the bylanes of Ulsoor. I followed my feet, which first took me to the famous Someshwara temple (and I am not even remotely religious) and then the lane adjacent to it.

In the far end of the narrow street was a modest house, yellowed with-age, and a maroon coloured gate. Leaning on it was an elderly man in a white dhoti, which must have been white long ago. His half-sleeved shirt was hanging on his drooping shoulders, which must have been proud and vigorous ages ago. Nobody can escape the vagaries of time. He didn’t seem well. But looks can be deceptive. He would later tell me, with eyes twinkling, “I have no diabetes, cholesterol or any other disease.”

There’s something utterly delicious about striking up a conversation with a stranger and to see it go to unexpected places. That evening, Baby Iyer, whom, in all probability, I would never meet again, enthralled me with stories. For close to one hour I stood on the one-car-motorable lane, flanked by a 3000-year-old temple on one side and a forgotten aged man on the other. Listening to a stranger’s story was oddly comforting on a stressful day. Even the occasional flapping of the loose end of a cloth poster hanging on the gate was soothing. On it was written: Homemade products…catering undertaken for all small functions.

‘Baby’ Narayana Iyer has been a caterer of vegetarian meals and manufacturer of homemade products like Sambar podi, chutney podi, Mysore rasam powder, Vangi bath powder, bisi bele bath powder, puliyogare, gojju etc. for more than half of his life. He established his successful business five decades ago. His business has no name. It never had one.

Seeing that my eyeballs were ready to pop out in surprise, Iyer gives me a toothless grin and says, “Oh, no name and all ma. People know me…that’s all.” Our conversation is steadily interrupted by greetings from passers-by. People sure know him here.

Baby Iyer lives in a rented house, the fourth one from the temple. “Oh, I never managed to build my own house. And now there is no need for one,” he says. His two daughters are married and live in different cities. His wife died four years ago. And his parents, few years before that. His younger brother visits him daily and helps him with the catering business. He came by while we were chatting.

Iyer’s forefathers came to Bangalore from Palakkad. His father worked as a clerk in Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for a salary of Rs.30 per month. Since it was hard to manage a huge family (of parents, wife and seven children) with the meagre salary, Baby Iyer began contributing to the household income while he was still in school — cleaning, chopping vegetables and serving at hotels or various caterers, after school hours. Once he completed high school, he too joined his father at HAL. “For a salary of Rs.110 per month,” he proudly recalls. He would finish work by 4.30 pm, cycle back home in Ulsoor and by 4.45 pm he would be ready to help his friend who was a caterer.

 Were you always interested in the catering business? I ask. “Only if a man has ‘interest’ can he move forward in life, otherwise he is an empty soul,” Iyer says.

 His curious nature usually saw him straying into the kitchen to “observe” the cooks. These ‘observations’ gave him the confidence to strike out on his own. Before long he became a much sought after caterer for vegetarian food at weddings and family gatherings. All by word of mouth. “Those days,” he tells me, “I used to pay my Head Cook a princely sum of Rs.15 per day. Today, I pay him Rs 2000. And Rs.700 for the assistant – the vegetable chopper.”

 “In my hey-days, I would cater to large groups – around 2000 people per order,” he says. Today, he caters to smaller groups. Around 200 people. He cites old age as the reason for this. But there’s also another important reason. “For whom should I earn money? For what?” he asks.

Age has slowed Baby Iyer, but it hasn’t stopped him. He still works 20 days a month. And he also sells homemade curry powders from a small outlet opposite the Ulsoor Temple on the main road — again, it is a shop without a name. “If you ask people for Baby Iyer’s shop, they will point you in the right direction,” he says.

You can also buy the curry powders from his house, which is what I did. 100gms of sambhar podi for Rs.40. Packed neatly and handed over to me by Baby Iyer, with valuable advice: “Boil the dal nicely. Then cook the vegetables. As it is cooking, mix 10-15 gms of the sambhar podi with a pinch of hing in tamarind water and once the vegetables are cooked pour this concoction into it and let it boil nicely. And if you can smell the wonderful flavours then you have a good sambhar on hand,” he says.

I believe him.

 I have mentioned Baby Iyer in my column, Wayfaring, in National Geographic Traveller, October 2017. Read: Why Shopping Can Buy You Happiness