Neatly tucked away between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats in Karnataka’s south western region, the tiny sliver that is Mangaluru—or Mangalore to use its erstwhile name—may be diminutive in size, but this coastal city has always been a shining beacon on India’s culinary map.
Like most regional cuisines in India, it is virtually impossible to compartmentalise Mangalorean food into any one form of a rigid, constricting genre. While you could be partaking in a festive meal at a Christian home, a few hundred yards away, you could be sitting down to an Udupi vegetarian feast laid out on a banana leaf. And later, tucking into a Tuluva-style pescatarian dinner—all in the same day, in the same neighbourhood.
It is this fluidity that we see as a direct result of the interplay between Mangalorean cuisine’s three most definitive pillars—the coastal Tuluva fare, the staunchly sattvic vegetarian Udupi food and the Mangalorean Christian cuisine. Each distinct from the other and each leaving an indelible mark on the food of this region.
With its red bricked interiors, one could easily say that long before the whole exposed brickwork SoHo loft look became the de facto decor style for scores of newly popped up hipster chic cafes and restaurants across India, Mangaluru’s Shetty Lunch Home set the trend. But what this iconic restaurant—with its signature terracotta tiled roof—can also lay claim to is having invented chicken ghee roast in the mid-1900s.
This Mangalorean staple—that is best eaten along with some ghee rice (but, of course)—along with another classic, i.e. kori roti, forms the backbone of the region’s Tuluva cuisine. The first part of this latter dish is made up of a mildly spiced, runny chicken gravy called kori which is accompanied by shards of wafer thin, crispy rice crepes called roti.
But truth be told, offering up a plethora of piscine delights, Tuluva cuisine is more of a seafood lover’s dream come true. Bangude puli munchi is one of the fore-runners when it comes to an iconic Tuluva fish dish. Prepared by the Bunt community, this mackerel curry is made with copious amounts of puli (tamarind) and munchi which is what chillies are called in the Tulu language and best had with plain white rice, like it is served at Meeu Oota Da Mane restaurant in the Kodailbail area of Mangaluru. Yetti ghasi a coconut-y prawn gravy dish along with marvai ajadina a dry fiery clam preparation and the semolina-crusted lady fish dish called kane rava fry are a trifecta that also help give definition to the seafood-favouring Tuluva cuisine.
It would do us all a whole lot of good, to simply cast away any references to meals and snacks had at our friendly neighbourhood Udupi restaurants outside Mangaluru. Places that serve, what are at best, ersatz versions of the real deal.
Dishing up bona fide Udupi meals, Mangaluru has much more to offer than de rigueur tiffin staples like masala dosa and the medu vada. Take for instance the multi-course, entirely vegetarian meal that’s served up on a banana leaf. Quite similar to Kerala’s festive sadya feast, the Udupi iteration has among its main components, the spicy nimbehannu chitranna which is a zesty lemon fried rice. Best accompanied by the menaskai curry made from mango (also called gojju), southekayi sambhar made with coconut and cucumber, koddelu—a sambhar-like gravy, and a dry vegetable dish called ajethna.
One completes this meal by crushing a happala poppadum over the rice and curry mix.
Interestingly, just like a Kerala sadya, sweet components are not had at the end of the meal. Rather during, and include a plethora of sugary treats like holige that are similar to a Maharashtrian puran poli, kesari bhath (sweetened saffron rice cooked in ghee) along with puddings like mudde payasa made from rice, jaggery and bananas and one made with moong dal and coconut milk called hesaru bele payasa.
What can only come as a great surprise to many, is the fact that the otherwise pork-beef-chicken loving Christian community of Mangaluru has a very similar, yet different sadya-adjacent, all vegetarian meal called the novem jevon. Interestingly, this meal has a dual purpose and its own must-haves and rules.
For one, it is eaten only on September 8 every year. This is to celebrate the birthday of Mother Mary called Monti Fest in Mangaluru. Secondly, it symbolises the new harvest and hence the word novem or new. Typically served on a banana leaf, the feast is made only with freshly harvested produce, and has to have an odd number of dishes to complete it. These take the form of alsande, which is a mildly-spiced long beans dish, karate or bitter gourd sautéed with grated coconut and allu dentte which is colocasia and spinach leaves cooked with Mangalorean masala.
Very similar to the aforementioned hesaru bele payasa, the Mangalorean novem jevon has as its crowning glory, the vorn (or vonn as it is called in Goa). Always served warm, this a thick, rich porridge of moong dal, coconut milk and palm jaggery. The perfect, singular end to a meal with a dual purpose.