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20.04.2018

There are many reasons to rise early to visit your nearest Indira canteen, but to us, the most compelling one is apolitical: it’s just a thrill to stuff your face as earnest joggers struggle past you on the street outside. Inaugurated by the Siddaramaiah government, the Indira Canteens offer economical prix fixe menus every day of the week, promising a filling meal that never costs more than Rs. 10 for lunch and dinner, or Rs. 5 for breakfast.

The concept is not new to our Tamizh friends, many of whom claim that it was Jayalalithaa’s own famous Amma canteens that helped her consolidate power. But a year after they were first inaugurated, during crunch season for this state election, can we expect Indira Gandhi’s successors to work the same magic for this corner of India?

If our enjoyment of the food itself had any impact on political outcomes, our predictions would be mixed. A month away from polls, we head past our jogging neighbours to our closest canteen, situated in Jakkasandra in a building so grey and unassuming that you are likely to miss it despite being all about that Bellandur commute life. Here, we find a choice between idli and khara bhath to choose from - real mannina maga fare. Thinking of the health nut running laps around the lake opposite us, we get both and exchange the princely sum of Rs. 10 for two tokens.

Each token obtains us a cheery yellow tray of food - no familiar steel plates or silverware. Instead, the set up lands somewhere in between your local darshini (tall tables that encourage efficient eating) and a corporate campus food court (forming an orderly queue to be served food that was prepared off site). The service-cum-dining area inside is decidedly tidy, if bleak. We choose to head to one of the many concrete tables outside the canteen, enjoying the cool April morning. (You may have pongal, Tamizh patriots, but you will never have al fresco dining.)

Surrounded by beds of pretty purple posies and bright green benches, it almost feels like the annual school field trip to the local park we embarked on when more wide-eyed and pigtailed. And it very well could have been just that a few years ago - the canteens have been plagued with disgruntled citizen complaints about rampant tree felling and appropriation of children’s playgrounds to make room for this populist service. Neighbourhoods have rejected the very idea, in an effort to preserve the little green cover and public spaces this city was once famed for.

But we are too hungry to think of political aspiration in the face of a classic Bangalore breakfast. When the Indira Canteen was inaugurated, the government claimed its ambition was to ensure that our Ooru becomes “hunger free”. On this count, it has succeeded beyond expectations - the sheer quantum of food is frankly shocking for how much we have paid. Three idlis and enticing twin mountains of pearlescent khara bhath let off wisps of steam in the morning light.

Following the lead of our fellow diners -- primarily daily wage workers and share cab drivers fuelling up before rush hour kicks off -- we dig in, quick and silent. Our suspiciously grey idlis are a massive disappointment: they would be considered terrible even by our northern neighbours. They are neither fluffy nor fragrant and are instead, distinctly sour. It seems almost an insult to patrons who come here because the food is frugal: cheap food doesn’t have to taste like this.

It is only then we notice that the khara bhath seems to be the meal of choice for our more astute fellow diners. We try to assuage our shame at making this rookie error by swiftly moving onto our second plate. In this, happily, we are not disappointed. This is every bit the busy weekday breakfast that Amma whipped up while wrangling her screaming pests into their school uniforms, and is every bit as hearty.

We devour spoonful after spoonful of this melt-in-your-mouth softness, plates wiped clean before you know it. You might find better (read: more ghee-laden) versions at more expensive establishments around the city, but the Indira G promise holds good here. It is perfectly nourishing and astoundingly affordable fare that is likely to keep you full until lunch time. If idlis were votes, we don’t see our incumbent government winning the upcoming election; but dear chief minister, dish out enough of this khara bhath in the run up to the big day and you might just hold sway.

Getting there: Find your nearest Indira Canteen on Google Maps or the dedicated app.

Accessibility: Three steps or a concrete ramp lead up to the Indira Canteen in Jakkasandra from the pavement.

Sushmita Sundaram writes about funny people, odd things, and anything edible. Follow her on Twitter at @sushmitas.

Karnataka elections will be held May 12-15 this year.

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