The Cuisine of Karnataka

My own encounter with the cuisine of Karnataka, was interesting to say the least. I loved dosas from the very first taste and also grew to like idlis, to the extent that I cheered when I discovered an Udupi restaurant at Rohtang Pass, during a visit to Manali!  That was all I knew about the food in Karnataka. I got to know more about this state’s vast and interesting cuisine, when I landed a job in Bangalore. A friend mentioned ‘Bisi Bele Huli Anna’ (popularly referred to as BBH Anna),  a preparation of rice and lentil, with the special flavour being created by the final tempering of red chillies and mustard seeds.

To learn more about this cuisine, we must first find out about the people who cook these dishes. Udupi is a very small district in the state of Karnataka, but is well known for its food. I’ve been told  that most cooks in Karnataka, seem to have a link to this area, which has slowly but surely created one of India’s most famous cuisines — suitable for any occasion anywhere.  With this being part of the nine days of the Navaratri festival, this sort of cuisine it becomes even more relevant, as it is customary for many to refrain from non-vegetarian food during the Navaratras.  

Karnataka also has a cuisine specially designed for festivals — ‘Festive Food’, known as ‘Habbada Adige’, is prepared without onion and garlic.  This menu suits all religious requirements and is thus perfect during Navaratri.   Interestingly, the meal is served on a banana leaf, but every dish has a specific place of its own on the leaf. Among the essentials in a typical meal, there normally is a Lemon or Mango Pickle, Mango Chutney, Payasa such as Rice Kheer,  two varieties of Kosambari (salad), Palya (veg such as beans) Mosaru Bhajji (a type of raita), Gojju which is a vegetable gravy and some deep fried bhajji, all served with BBH Anna, the main course. The dessert may be Mysore Paak or Modaka or even Payassa made of milk, jiggery, coconut and cardamom, or the Badami Hallu made of crushed almonds mixed with milk, sugar and saffron. 

Karnataka’s Navaratri  celebrations are famous and done in right royal style.  The ‘Mysuru Dasara’,  a festival to celebrate victory of good over evil has been around for more than 400 years.  Every year, visitors from all corners of the world, can be expected to arrive in large numbers, to enjoy seeing the brightly lit Mysore Palace and watch the ‘Jumboo Sawari’ (elephant procession), which is the  grand finale of Navaratri, in which along with the richly caparisoned  elephants,  hundreds of dancers, musicians and performers also take part. Needless to say, Mysore overflows during this occasion with streetside food stalls and everyone has a merry time.

One of the first meals that I ate on my arrival in Bangalore was at Woodlands, a branch of the restaurant in Chennai. At the time the Woodland’s dining area was being renovated. So an impromptu dining hall had been created in an enormous shed thatched with palm leaves. I was totally captivated both by the atmosphere and the food. The memory of eating off banana leaves, the delicious fare and the never-ending supply of food, continues to remain one of my favourites to this day. Needless to say, any outstation guests who had to entertained, would invariably be treated to a Woodlands dinner.  A young Danish couple who we met at the restaurant, were so taken with the atmosphere that they were determined to be photographed with the staff. We had to translate for them and finally one of chefs very grudgingly agreed to drop his ladle and pose with the couple, along with the waiter armed with his brass bucket of food. But both smiled when they got the tip and a promise of a photograph each.

Along with learning about the Kannadiga cuisine, I also discovered that it was normal to shorten names to the first letter of each word, hence BBH and of course  MTR — the Mahavali Tiffin Room.  This piece would be incomplete without mentioning this most important eatery in Bangalore. Whether one chooses to try out the Sooji Upama, the Channa Dal Payasam or Mysore-Paak, customers can be sure that they are in good company. Presidents, Prime Ministers, and VIPs of all hues visit MTR for the best Karnataka breakfast in town — and to gaze on their unbelievable gleaming stainless steel kitchen. For lesser mortals unless one goes early enough, it may be necessary to queue up to get in, on any day in the week. But no matter how long the wait the breakfast is always memorable.

As time passed, I became aware of the subtle differences in the cuisines that were native to the state — the coastal cuisine of Mangalore, the non-vegetarian cuisine of the warrior clans of Coorg and the vegetarian cuisine that we refer to as Udupi. The coconut plays an important part in all their cuisines as it does with most of the other cuisines of the south.  Mangaloreans seem to use more coconut than the Coorgis or the people in the plains. Coconut milk is also used to a larger degree in the plains and the one thing you can be sure of — any dish cooked in coconut milk will be memorable!

Shona Adhikari