I mentioned earlier the likelihood of my having been a South Indian in previous life. I believe there are people who are offended by this title – South Indian. I know not why. I do understand though, the umbrage at everyone from Southern India being (once) called ‘Madrasi’ by self-centered North Indians. May I add that for my grandma’s generation all non-Kashmiris were Punjabi – likely the only other state they had heard of from their insular position. “So, you married a Punjabi,” she would say.
Southern India is not a homogeneous region; neither is Northern India nor, for that matter, the Eastern or the Western parts of our country. And, just as the cuisine and customs of the Northern plains have a lot in common, the people of Southern Peninsular India also share a long cultural heritage.
While I have established (some might say – followed my tummy to) the general region of my previous birth as Dravidian India, I have not yet been able to point to the exact spot. In my early teens I already knew that Andhra and Tamil food gave me as much comfort as did my mum’s cooking. I relished the everyday-kind dal-based vegetable preparations (which I may not know by their names) served with thick short grain rice; idli smeared with fiery milagai podi was as much ambrosia as was tayir saadam. I discovered Kerala cuisine a little later – in my twenties – though it was confined to the odd fish curry, thorans and pachadis, and the exotic (to me) appams with either avial or ishtu.
While I have traveled extensively in Karnataka, its cuisine has been my least explored from within the Southern states. Karnataka Sangham (Moti Bagh, New Delhi) was a favourite haunt since we lived on an institutional campus nearby. But other than their Bisi Bele Huli Anna, which they used to serve on Saturdays, there was little on the menu that set it apart from the food of other Southern states. [For those of you experiencing a little nostalgia here, let me inform you that KS is alive and kicking, has reinvented itself in the new granite-clad building on the same site, but to my deep disappointment, does not serve BBHA on Saturdays anymore.]
Armed with my friend Subashree’s e-mail regarding the food scene in Bangalore, I met my sister and her friend at the airport. “So, where’s lunch?” I said as I hugged them. Or words to similar effect.
But, first I wanted to meet up with family. We arrived at TH’s cousin’s house to find him and his wife enjoying a repast of Tomato Bhaath. I was quick to accept their invitation (that soggy ‘gourmet’ sandwich, costing all of Rs60, that I bought on the Spice Jet flight was not worth the paper it was wrapped in). This turned out to be a delicious, tomatoey version of good-old Bisi Bele Huli Anna, served with koshimbir (salad) and fried sabudana papad – a promising start to what was to be a full-blown gastronomic visit.
Hallimane, near Malleshwaram, was the choice for lunch and we headed out to get a taste of authentic Karnataka cuisine. After a half hour wait we were ushered to the first floor space at 3:00pm where the lunch thali is served on gleaming black granite tables.
The first course was a spicy soup and I thought, “Authentic?” Yes, it is traditional to serve saaru at the start of a Kannadiga meal. The banana leaf lined thali had two kinds of subzi – one of eggplant, and the other of cashews, a daal preparation, fried papad, and a few pieces of sliced cucumber and onion, served with a naan-like roti, or as in my case, a parotta!
The liberal use of cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves (the three main spices in Bisi bele huli anna as well) gives the cuisine of Karnataka its unique spicy richness different from other cuisines of the South. Though coconut is an important ingredient, it is not used as much in these parts of Karnataka as it is in Kerala cuisine.
I declined the vegetable pulao in favour of the next course of rasam-bhaath. Cooling curd-rice, with mango pickle followed, to douse the rasam induced fires. Kannadiga dahi-bhaath is prepared somewhat differently from the Tamil tayir sadam. A tempering of mustard, whole dried red chillies, and curry leaves is added to cooked rice, which is then mixed with milk. A little yoghurt is added as starter and this mix is allowed to sit at room temperature for a few hours. It thus, had little of the tang of the familiar curd-rice.
For dessert there was dumroot halwa made with ash gourd grated so fine that I was certain it was vermicelli. One could pick a small banana or fix a paan to round off the meal. I opted for paan but, dabbed a spot more of the slaked lime than needed. The reaction was instantaneous and the inside of my left cheek was not happy. Needless to add, I was glad this was post-rasam. All this eat-as-much-as-you-can food for Rs.69.00 per person? I was in heaven, not near Delhi at all. (Make a virtual visit to Hallimane)
You would think there could be no dinner after a lunch like that…and you would be so wrong. For supper we had idli at Swathi, a restaurant at the Bangalore bus-adda, while waiting for the over-night KTDC bus to Belgaum. The katori- shaped idlis were served with a chickpea gravy and coconut chutney. Not used to having chhole with our idli, we left the curry well alone and enjoyed the fluffy idlies with chutney as usual.
The Volvo-bus overnight services are very popular in this region. They are comfortable as long as you are not short and the neck-rest-bump in the seat does not come to where your head wants to rest. They do offer a blanket and bottled drinking water in air-conditioned comfort….and early in the morning we were in beautiful Belgaum.
A cup of tea was sorely needed and promptly served. Breakfast was medu vadas with a sambar that turned out to be less fiery than it looked; it was the famous Byadgi mirch of Karnataka [add to shopping cart ] imparting that bright orange colour. It was steely willpower that made me stop after just two vadas – two divine deep-fried doughnut-shapes, golden crisp outside, soft inside – perfect to dunk in the sambar. Sorry, no pics – I was barely in the door, people!
Belgaum lies on the Karnataka-Maharashtra border. The cuisine of North Karnataka is similar to that of South Maharashtra. In fact, much of Belgaum is populated with Marathi speaking people. Belgaum is also very close to Goa, and Kannadiga people share their love of sea food with their Goan neighbours. The fish market was full of many kinds of fish – fish that a Delhi resident had never set eyes upon. You want fresh? The fish market receives the bounties twice a day – early mornings, and late afternoons. Sea fish are prized over those reared in fish farms.
Padma picked three kinds – tiny silver fish, to be marinated with red chillies, salt, and lime juice, dusted with rice flour and fried whole; surmai, to be made into a curry reminiscent of the Goan fish curry; and pamplet (pomfret/butterfish), to be marinated again in red chillies, salt, and tamarind juice, coated with a mix of rice flour and semolina, and shallow fried.
I was only too happy to accompany Padma on her vegetable market trip where I saw baskets filled with fresh produce – I spotted the famed heirloom gavar (cluster beans), bundles of ridged gourd, white bitter gourds piled high, small streaked brinjals (eggplant) and, ambadi, a sour green, amongst many. Heirloom varieties are much prized and sell for one and half times more than the bigger-but-not-better hybrid varieties. There were cucumbers in too many shapes and sizes.
Padma traced Maandge, a Karnataka delicacy, through the streets of old Belgaum. There are just a few skilled families today who still make this traditional Karanataka phyllo-dough-like flaky sweet. Maandge is crushed and eaten with warm milk.
The dough is filled with a mix of powdered sugar, sesame, and ghee, rolled very thin, carefully transferred to be cooked over spherical pots that resemble large inverted karahis, and deftly folded into neat bundles as it cooks. The cooks work in the early hours of the morning. By the time we reached, the day’s job was all done, and the individually sealed maandge were neatly stacked in baskets. I was sorry to have missed the action.
The same family also had Udipi sambar and rasam powders on offer. I got myself some sambar powder which I am told is going to make a sambar very different from what I am used to – maybe a little like this Udipi sambar?
Padma’s cook, Lakshmi, transformed all the vegetables we bought into delicious North Karnataka meals for us – each one more delectable than the previous. My interest in her recipes and cooking methods might have made her even keener. The akki roti she turned out were exceptionally good. This is one recipe I am not going to attempt in a hurry – it is time consuming and requires skilled hands that have patience and experience. For one meal there was akki roti, for another jwaarichi bhakri, and bajri bhakri for a third – and all of them were so soft and thin that I had to change my notion of bhakri as a coarse dry thick roti!
The ambadi greens we bought were another first taste for me. Lakshmi boiled the greens with some rice and peanuts. The boiling liquid was then discarded (to reduce the sourness), the greens mashed, and cooked with a simple masala of ground green chillies, cumin and garlic fried in a little oil, and cooked (covered) for a couple of minutes. Served with jowar bhakri these were the highpoint at one lunch.
At another lunch, I discovered the nutty taste of kale vatane [add to cart]. I immediately remembered Manisha’s gushings and proceeded to gush myself. These were soaked, cooked, and then stir fried with some chopped onion, and a lot of those aforementioned red chillies, served with a side of stir-fried gavar (cluster beans).
You would think that that would be enough discovery for a two-and-a-half day stay in Belgaum, but there is more. I finally stumbled upon the spice that I had been asking every relative visiting from Bombay-Poona to bring for me. Nobody had the foggiest idea what I was talking about. This, a spice supposedly from the Konkan coast – one would be forgiven to think Konkan Brahmins would surely have cooked with it?
As I was writing down the recipe for surmai fish curry, Lakshmi mentioned, “…two pieces of tirphal…” I looked at her with much joy – I had found my spice at last! [Add to cart ] Tirphal or teppal is an integral spice in Karnataka fish curry, and finds its way into some other preparations as well (thanks for all the information, TLO, and the recipe references – what would I do without you?). Apparently it is blasphemy to grind it into a masala paste; it should be squeezed in just a little water and added (with the water) to the curry. The fish curry was served with akki roti but I think it was even better with rice.
In between meals we visited Padma’s friends and their farms. On one such visit, one friend was informed of the birth of a calf, and asked if she would like to take some of the colostrum-rich first milk from the cow. She declined and I was heartbroken. It is not everyday, rather never, that I can get kharvas in Delhi. As we were leaving the farm, somehow the conversation veered back towards the cow and her calf…
Before dinner was over, the daughter-in-law of Padma’s friend had brought for us a bowl of the steamed pudding. To prepare kharvas, the colostrum is mixed with plain milk, sweetened with jaggery (or sugar) and steamed, where upon it sets into a custard not unlike caramel custard. It is sprinkled with nutmeg or cardamom, or even black pepper and makes a refreshing dessert. Next morning she brought us another bowl, this time sweetened with sugar.
It is amazing that I packed in so much food in just two and a half days in Belgaum. The credit for this goes entirely to Padma and her cook, Lakshmi. If they were trying to sell Belgaum to me then I am sold! The fresh fish and vegetables alone are worth moving for. Watch out, Belgaum.
Some related recipes for you to explore while I get my act together:
Ashwini’s song using the famed Byadgi chillies makes my heart sing.
Manisha’s chitkyachi ani kaalya vatanyachi bhaji (cluster beans with dried black peas)
Lakshmi’s Akki Roti
Ashwini’s Khatkhate (uses tirphal)
Shilpa’s Tepla Ambat (Fish Curry with Teppal)