Walking inside the famed Adi Kumbeswara temple in Kumbakonam, the stone floor feeling cool against our bare feet, we are filled with a mix of awe and reverence. This Shiva temple has been in existence since the 7th century, the times of the Cholas, and is believed to be the inspiration behind the city’s name (Kumbakonam). Being armed with this bit of information from the Internet, how could we not feel like we were walking through a very, very sacred and special place?
We pay our respects to the main deity, admire the temple elephant, and head to Sri Mangalambiga Vilas, the little eatery that we have read a whole lot about and cannot wait to try out. It is, after all, an eatery that is over a century old, still going strong.
Sri Mangalambiga Vilas looks ancient, non-descript, from the outside. It looks like an integral part of the temple, as if it has existed for as long as the temple has. A signboard outside the eatery proclaims ‘Since 1914’, but patrons believe it is even older than that. 1914 is only the ‘recorded’ date of existence.
We walk in and are instantly charmed by the old-world interior. The inside of the eatery today looks pretty much the same as it did when it started, I suppose. A few ancient tables and chairs, peeling paint on the walls, a painted-on menu, a billing clerk’s little table near the entrance, a little cashier’s desk, elderly service staff clad in shirts and veshtis – all of these elements combine to give us the feeling of a place suspended in time.
The eatery – popularly called ‘Sannadhi Kadai‘ or ‘Koil Kadai‘ aka ‘the shop in the temple’ – is well known for the delicious all-vegetarian fare that it serves. I hear there is a plantain-leaf ‘full meals’ in the afternoon, and traditional South Indian tiffin items in the mornings and evenings. There is also, of course, the famous South Indian filter coffee.
It is close to 7.30 PM when we visit, and only tiffin items are up for grabs. So, we decide to make an early dinner of these snacks. I ask for a plain dosa to be served with vada curry, while the husband orders adai avial, that not-so-famous-outside-of-Tamilnadu combination. We are asked if we want medu vadais to go with that, and we nod our heads in the affirmative.
The food arrives at our table almost immediately, with a lot of politeness and respect.
The plain dosa is neither too crisp nor too soggy, just perfect. It tastes homely, exactly like the dosas we make at home. The chutney and sambar served with are very simple, tasting like home, too. The medu vadai isn’t dripping with oil, as is common in hotels, but nice and homely.
The vada curry, however, is another story entirely. It tastes delish, but it is literally swimming in oil. It is way too spicy for the both of us, too. I cannot eat more than a couple of bites of it, and leave it as is.
The adai and avial, again, are quite homely. They don’t have that ‘hotel taste’ to them; they feel like the adai and avial we would prepare at home.
Everything – except the vada curry, that is – we taste that night at Sri Mangalambiga Vilas is homely, quite fresh, good but not exceptionally tasty.
We head to Sri Mangalambiga Vilas again the next morning, for breakfast. We want to taste more of the tiffin offerings here.
The husband opts for some pooris with saagu, while I choose a rava dosai. Again, service is very prompt and courteous.
The poori-saagu has a homely feel to it, just like all the other food we had the last night. The saagu is not exceptional, but not bad either. The same is the case with my rava dosai, served with coconut chutney and sambar. Everything tastes very fresh.
We get a couple of idlis for the bub, which have the same homely, non-hotel taste to them. We head back to our hotel room, sated, without the bloated stomachs and heaviness that often accompany meals outside of home. We would have paid a princely sum of INR 150 or so, in total, for both the meals we had here.
As we walk back, the husband and I ponder over what exactly makes this small joint tick with the locals. Is it the fact that the establishment is over a 100 years old – is that in itself an attraction? Is it the very affordable prices at which food is available here? Is it the homely quality of the food here? Is it because generations after generations of Kumbakonam natives are used to eating here, so used to it that it has become an automatic habit? Is it the simplicity, the old-world charm of the place? Is it a combination of all of these factors? We are unable to decide. The flavour of the food certainly doesn’t seem to be the driving force, at least not to us. Whatever be the case, we can vouch for the fact that eating at Sri Mangalambiga Vilas is an experience in itself. Eating here makes you feel like you are back in the 1920s or so, stocking up on tiffin after paying your respects at the temple, before heading home. It is, certainly, an experience that we would like to savour again. Next time, maybe.. We haven’t had their menthiya dosai (fenugreek dosa) and full meals yet, after all.
Have you read my other posts about Kumbakonam? Do check them out!