“Badnekai hege (how much is the brinjal)?" I casually asked the lady in Kannada while gesturing towards her basket filled with a green rotund vegetable. I was enroute to Mattu beach, about 400 km from Bengaluru, when I decided to make the impromptu stop.
“Adu gulla, badnekai alla (this is gulla and not brinjal),” she retorted.
Taken aback by her curt response, I quicky realized the faux pas and apologized. Then she earnestly explained that this vegetable was special and native to the surrounding village of Mattu. I picked up a generous lot and left for the beach. On the way, I crossed Udupi, I passed by a building with a board that read Mattu Gulla Belegara Sangha which translates to Mattu Gulla Growers Association.
The name of the vegetable stayed with me. After returning to Bengaluru, I read up about gulla and cooked it, which made me think of the lady who sold them to me.
Grown mainly in the village of Mattu which is just over 10 km from the temple town of Udupi, mattu gulla was accorded the GI (Geographical Indication) tag in 2011. Legend has it that the seeds of this crop were given by famous saint and philosopher Sri Vadiraja of Karnataka, in the 15th century to the farmers of Mattu, which explains why it is also called Vadiraja gulla. Known for its distinctive round shape, light green hue and pale stripes on the outer skin, this variety of brinjal is known for its rich pulpy flesh that has relatively less seeds. “The key feature of mattu gulla is its thin skin and its crown which has thorns. Being close to the sea, the soil lends the vegetable a unique flavour and taste. The authentic mattu gulla sports our patented sticker which has the image of Sri Vadiraja,” says Sunil D Bangera, President, Mattu Gulla Belegara Sangha. It is an Farmer Producer Organisation (FPO) which has 210 farmer members cultivating the crop in an area of 350 acres in Mattu. The vegetable is a perfect example of conservation of genetic purity of indigenous produce, and records a daily average output of 2000 kg during its season which runs from mid-October to May.
Much loved vegetable
In these months, gulla is arguably the most popular vegetable, especially in the coastal regions of Udupi and Dakshina Kannada, finding its way into gravies, curries, sambhar and even fritters. “Mattu gulla was an integral part of my growing up years and we would have it for almost all meals during the season. One of my favourite childhood memories is of my grandmother making a tangy, smoky, green chilli heavy gojju (a thick, pulpy gravy) by roasting the gulla on a wood-fired stove. Vegetable vendors from nearby villages would sell it from door-to-door and my parents would excitedly buy large batches. While I have tried to recreate the same flavours with similar varieties of this vegetable available in the local markets of New York, I have never been able to replicate the taste one gets with the Udupi gulla,” says Hari Nayak, Culinary Director, Sona, New York City. People in Bengaluru usually source their gulla from the numerous Mangalore Stores in the city where it sells like hot cakes during the season.
The gulla sambar made from boiling the vegetable with tamarind extract and green chillies, and then adding a finely ground mixture of fresh coconut and red chillies is one of the most common ways of using the vegetable. The aromatic sambar is finished with a handful of fresh coriander and a tempering of mustard and asafoetida in coconut oil. “Apart from other dishes, we make gulla vangi bath (flavoured rice made with mattu gulla) and gulla bolu koddel (sambar made using tur dal which replaces the freshly ground masala),” says Pratiba Bhat, food researcher, writer and photographer who lives in Mandya, Karnataka. She picks up the gulla each time she visits her parents in Udupi.
One of the characteristics that makes the gulla distinct is its characteristic texture which is firmer than regular brinjals. “It occupies a place of pride in the region and is my favourite too. Unlike other brinjal varieties that tend to get too soggy after cooking, mattu gulla retains its unique texture and holds its own flavour in spite of adding other vegetables and spices,” says Mangalore-based Shriya Shetty, chef and partner at Pupkins Hospitality. Popular as the ‘ghee roast girl’, Shetty has recreated the iconic ghee roast recipe with gulla.
Since it is a vegetable used extensively in homes, rather than in restaurants, every household has its own recipe variations which highlight its versatility. “The gojju made from roasting the gulla over fire can be prepared in three different ways by altering the souring agent. You can use either curd, tamarind or even sour mango. If you add tamarind, you could add chopped onions in the end,” says septuagenarian Sarojini Upadhya who hails from Kota, a small town situated 25 km from Udupi. She often adds the pulp of ripe mango to gulla sambar to amp up the flavour during summer months. It's a classic example of optimising various seasonal produce.
Gulla is savoured as an afternoon snack or during meal times in the form of podi. Do not confuse with masala podis which are served as accompaniments. Gulla podi are shallow fried slices of the vegetable dipped in spicy rice flour and topped with rava for crunch. Another snack preparation is bajos which are deep fried gulla fritters coated with spiced gram flour. “I love cooking it like the Bengali beguni bhaja, with a drizzle of tomato thokku on top, fusing my Tamil Nadu and Karnataka roots,” says Mangalore-based Subha J Rao, writer, editor and foodpreneur.
Konkani cuisine has a wide repertoire of gulla dishes too. “We make a simple curry of gulla and drumstick cooked in a tempering of garlic and red chillies. We also prepare a more elaborate curry where spices, like red chillies, coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, fresh turmeric and curry leaves, are roasted in oil and ground with coconut and tamarind,” says home chef Uma D Baliga, 67, a native of Bantwal near Mangalore.
So as the season of gulla commences, it is time to discover this regional delicacy and celebrate its nuances, in more ways than one.