KUALA LUMPUR, March 18 — Since last December, all my friends can talk about is MTR 1924.
The latest export from Bangalore, India, it serves south Indian vegetarian food. Word on the street is once you try their crispy dosa drizzled with fragrant ghee, you won’t go back to eating our normal Malaysian thosai since this version tastes entirely different with its batter made from a mixture of multi grains and pulses.
MTR, or Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, traces its long history back to 1924. In 1920, the three Maiya brothers — Parameshwara, Ganappayya and Yagnanarayana — relocated to Bangalore from their village, Parampalli in Udupi.
After four years, Parameshwara and Ganappayya opened their own place on Lalbagh Fort Road, called Brahmin Coffee Club that served coffee and idlis.
Later, Yagnanarayana (or Yagnappa, as he was fondly called) joined the business.
He was instrumental in making various changes to the business. After an exploratory trip to Europe in 1951 to see how restaurants there operated, he returned to make various changes such as improving the sanitation of the restaurant operations.
An emphasis on serving only quality ingredients was also instilled from that day onwards, and he also changed the name of the place to Mavalli Tiffin Rooms.
In 1960, the restaurant moved to Lalbagh Road, where they have remained since. The business in India is now run by the third generation — siblings Hemamalini, Vikram, Arvind and Priya (a sleeping partner) — children of Harishchandra Maiya, the nephew of Yagnappa.
This outlet in Malaysia is the fourth one overseas. Their first outpost abroad was opened in 2013 in Singapore and they have two other outlets located in Dubai.
The Malaysian outlet is licensed to Culin Ventures, a company set up by Bangalore natives — Adarsh Srivinas, Dr Arvind Nagendra, Praveen Prabhakar and Vivek Tholasi — together with their local partners, Jayanthi Arvind and Arvind Vishwanath.
They are familiar with the Maiya family as they are all friends back in Bangalore. The idea to open here began back in December 2016. It took them roughly one year from conception to search for the right space and recruit the people to expand here.
Praveen explained that they see the potential in Malaysia with the rise of numbers in Indian expatriates especially those involved in the IT industry.
Most importantly, the brand is recognisable since the restaurant has such a rich history in south India. To their surprise, since they opened last December, even the locals have welcomed their food warmly.
Many MTR fans say the food here tastes exactly like it does in India. The reason, we understand from Vivek, is all the ingredients — from their pulses, masala, coffee beans and even the ghee — are brought in from India.
Not only that, emphasis is placed on keeping the taste the same as long ago. This is achieved by retaining the same suppliers. Some of their spices are still supplied by the same people, tracing back their relationship to at least 50 years.
In the kitchen, the chefs work their magic. Vivek explains to us that each chef goes through training from a young age, some from 18 to 19 years old.
Usually, they cut their teeth, starting from the most basic kitchen tasks, like cutting vegetables. After six to eight years of working in the kitchen, they are allowed to branch out to their specialty, whether it’s idli, dosa, coffee, etc.
Their signature dosa with its crispy texture is made from multi grains and pulses soaked and ground every day. The dosa is slathered with a mint green chutney made from chillies for flavour.
To keep things fresh, the batter for the dosa for example is prepared in small batches, allowing it to age a few hours before using. A small container of melted ghee is served with your dosa and idli.
You are encouraged to pour the ghee over your dosa. Vivek explains that touch of ghee enhances the flavour.
He assures us that the ghee served at MTR is pure and made from cow’s milk. When it comes to frying items in MTR, they also don’t reuse the oil multiple times since it can turn the items rancid or affect the aroma.
In India, it’s common for people to nibble on small bites or tiffin the whole day. Vivek tells us that people often greet each other with, “Have you eaten your tiffin?”
Aside from lunch and dinner, the restaurant will serve tiffin items throughout the day. This includes some unusual items like neer dosa, a lacy crepe made with coconut and served with sweet jaggery. There is also Mangalore buns which taste slightly sweet as they are made from bananas and flour.
Some items are on a daily rotation, about five to six, to prevent fatigue from the menu.
If you are feeling peckish, try MTR’s iconic rava idli which is a soft, steamed bite. This particular item was a product of rice shortage during the World War 2, and uses roasted semolina mixed with curds.
MTR’s version is a flavourful one, studded with cashew nuts, chopped fresh coriander leaves, curry leaves and mustard seeds. It is served with coconut chutney and sagu, a creamy potato curry.
Another iconic dish is their bisi bele bhath, rice cooked with lentils, chopped vegetables, spices, curry leaves and tamarind pulp. One spoonful of the comforting dish with a slight spicy kick and you won’t be able to stop. You can order a portion separately but it is part of their special mini meals served during lunch and dinner.
Their mini meals contain a little of everything. Some items change daily, like the vegetables or playa. It’s served with a choice of dosa, poori, chapati or akki roti. Try the puffy poori, dipped with the sweet payasam dessert, as suggested by Vivek. The combination works well with the creamy dessert. You also have kosambari salad, vegetable sagu, curd rice, sambar, rasam, papad, pickles and halwa.
End your meal with their badam halwa, a saffron coloured dessert made from crushed almonds, ghee and thickened milk cream. We love the not overly sweet taste of the dessert, which is delicious with a cup of their Masala tea or their signature coffee.
Vivek explains that in south India, it’s predominantly coffee drinkers, as a lot of coffee is sold there in India. What makes MTR unusual is their fragrant filter coffee uses beans sourced from the same farm located at Chikamageluru in south India for more than 50 years. The coffee is prepared in limited quantities for them to keep the freshness.
On weekends, try a specialty of theirs, the chandrahara. According to MTR, Yagnappa invented this sweet creation after returning from Europe.
Fascinated by all things French, he created this layered French pastry he called, “French Sweet.” Sadly, no one ordered it. He decided to rename it chandrahara, after a movie that was screening at a nearby cinema, and it became an instant hit with everyone.
Nowadays, it’s a dessert unique to the Kartanaka region that is prepared for special occasions like weddings and naming ceremonies. Till today, the iconic dessert is served in MTR.
The triangular-shaped, crunchy pastry is made by deep frying a dough made with maida flour and semolina. It is served drenched in a creamy thickened milk sauce flavoured with cardamoms.
Moving forward, the directors of MTR Malaysia have lofty ambitions to expand around Malaysia, possibly up north in Penang.
Some customers have also enthusiastically asked for another outlet in the Bangsar and Mont Kiara neighbourhoods.
Plans are also underway to open on a daily basis, rather than closing on Monday which it does now. The restaurant spans two floors, where the first floor houses the general dining area and the second floor will be open for tour groups and small gatherings.
69, Jalan Thambipillai
Open: 8am to 3.30pm, 5pm to 10.30pm
Closed on Mondays