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Karnataka’s hyper-local fare enters fine-dining spaces

Hyper-local dishes from Karnataka’s diverse culinary landscape are finally getting the spotlight they deserve

Yenne Badnekayi (a spicy brinjal curry) at Oota Bengaluru.
Yenne Badnekayi (a spicy brinjal curry) at Oota Bengaluru.

The Mylari dosé has acquired legendary status in Karnataka, especially in Bengaluru and Mysuru. There is a certain conspiratorial secrecy about what goes into its batter, which turns out thick, super-soft dosas, served with a dollop of benne (white butter), that taste like your regular dosa except for a certain difficult-to-pin-down flavour. There is speculation on the internet about this batter—is it a mix of rice, avalakki (beaten rice/poha), horse gram, wheat…? No one’s telling. If you go looking for it in Mysuru, where it originated, several dosa outlets claim they serve the “original” Mylari dosé.

There is some consensus, however, that the Mylari dosé was invented by cooks at Hotel Vinayaka Mylari in the city’s Nazarabad area— the restaurant itself leaves no scope for doubt in its signage, which proclaims it to be the “Old Original Hotel Vinayaka Mylari”.

There are similar legends surrounding food in practically every village and city in Karnataka, a state with distinct culinary cultures that have remained largely undiscovered even within the state. Chefs and restaurateurs are now scouting for cuisines such as Malnad and Coorg food, the food of Hyderabad Karnataka and north Karnataka, and the cuisines of communities such as the Gowdas and Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, to introduce into their menus. It’s not that none of this was available at all—“military hotels” and khanavalis like the popular Basaveshwara Khanavali chain in Bengaluru—have been serving meaty Gowda dishes and north Karnataka specialities like Jolada Roti (sorghum roti) and Sajje Roti (pearl millet roti) but they are, frankly, unprepossessing spaces for a cosmopolitan crowd.

The discovery started with the likes of tasting room Bengaluru Oota Company, which serves Mangalorean and Gowda food at a traditional home converted into a restaurant in a reservation-only format, and has picked up pace over the past couple of years. Chefs are looking at naati (native) cuisine and tweaking simple, home-style dishes to bring them into the casual- or fine-dining space.

Take the reinvention of the Myalri dosé at the new Koramangala restaurant, Malgudi Mylari Mane. Here, the dosa is served with hearty, meaty curries and soups, like the Mutton Meatball Curry, Mutton Kheema Gojju, Paya Soup, Naati Koli (country chicken) Fry and Koli Khara.

Paya soup at Malgudi Mylari Mane.
Paya soup at Malgudi Mylari Mane.

In most of the “hotels” and eateries in small towns and villages, these dishes are available for breakfast. “In the Karnataka heartland, people like to start their day with a big non-veg meal, accompanied by ragi mudde (finger millet balls) or rice, to keep them going through the day. We follow the same principle—we are open by 8am and everything on the menu is available for breakfast,” says Steven Thirumalai, one of three partners who have brought Malgudi Mylari Mane to the heart of Bengaluru after running another outlet on the outskirts of the city for three years. “Our aim is to redefine naati cuisine—people think naati cuisine is just about ragi mudde and mamsa saru (mutton curry) and it’s all rich and spicy, but there’s so much more to it. We are all about home-style Karnataka food,” he adds. Taste their Mutton Paya Soup (slow-cooked mutton trotters) and you will know what he’s talking about—unlike the Mughlai paya and nihari, which are rich, oily dishes redolent with spices, the Karnataka version is much more delicate, cooked into a light and flavourful broth with a few whole spices and garnished with ginger and lemon juice. The Mutton Pulav at the restaurant is also straight from the streets of Mysuru, where small “hotels” like the well-known Hotel Hanumanthu serve up a spicy, hearty rice-and-meat dish, a cousin of the more complex biryani. “In naati cooking, there is no marination and no layering,” explains Thirumalai. “They get fresh meat, cook it immediately and finish it in one meal. We try to replicate that here by cooking in small batches.”

While Malgudi Mylari Mane is creating a buzz in the casual-dining space, Oota Bengaluru in Whitefield is a fine-dining restaurant that has built its reputation on serving authentic dishes from across the state. The menu was two years in the making; a team from the restaurant, accompanied by veteran food researchers and writers Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy, travelled across Karnataka, eating at homes and small restaurants, documenting techniques and collecting over 500 recipes. They divided the state by region—coastal Karnataka, Coorg and Malnad, north and south Karnataka—and communities, ingredients, festivals and seasons. “For instance, we looked at bamboo shoots and mushrooms, which are used extensively in Coorg and Malnad cuisines because of the availability during the monsoons,” says Ajay Nagarajan, who heads F&B at Oota Bengaluru’s parent company, Windmills Craftworks. The result is an eclectic menu that goes well beyond popular coastal Karnataka dishes like chicken ghee roast and neer dosa. On the menu at Oota Bengaluru are Menthya Pachadi, a north Karnataka dish with fresh methi (fenugreek) leaves, grated vegetables and a dash of grated coconut; Khara Boti, a dish of the Marathi-speaking Sauji community of north Karnataka, made by tossing lamb shanks in a simple spice mix; and Dalcha from the Hyderabad Karnataka region, a haleem-like lamb dish made with lentils and whole spices. They have recently introduced a little-known heirloom dish from the Konkani community called Kalbutthi, made by dipping a heated stone tempered with ghee into a bowl of curd rice to give it a unique flavour.

Other chefs in the state are taking note. “I can confidently say that native Karnataka cuisine is having a moment right now. Chefs and food researchers are diving into the variety of the state’s hyper-local dishes due to the cuisine’s cultural diversity, unique blend of flavours, emphasis on healthy eating and the use of locally sourced ingredients,” says Gaurav Ramakrishnan, head chef at the Hyatt Centric Hotel on MG Road, Bengaluru, who is planning a sit-down dinner showcasing Karnataka cuisine later this month.

Naati cuisine has even made its way to pub menus. At the Garden City Beer Collective, a new microbrewery that pays homage to the culture of Bengaluru, lead chef Vikram Udaygiri is serving up pub snacks and mains inspired by the varied cuisines of Karnataka, such as Kummu Pepper Fry, a Coorg dish of fried mushrooms; Chikaballapura Koli Kabab, deep-fried chicken kebabs; and Malnadu Mutton Chops. It also has a section dedicated to “native starters” with more conventional, popular dishes like Shetty’s Anjal Fry and Kane Rava Fry, popularised by chain restaurants like Fish Land (again, there is no single, definitive Fish Land; they all claim to be the original) that dot the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway.

“It’s time to break away from the mindset that ‘south Indian’ food is all about idli-dosa. In Karnataka, the variety of millets alone that are used in everyday cooking in the form of rotis is mind-boggling and truly unexplored,” says Udaygiri, whose favourite dishes on the menu are the Avarekalu Usli (usli is a cold salad-like dish typical of south Canara), made with the local hyacinth beans, and the Yennegai Badanekai with Jolada Rotti (a spicy brinjal curry served with sorghum rotis).

With so many distinct culinary cultures and ingredients unique to the state’s diverse ecologies, chefs and restaurants have just about scratched the surface of Karnataka’s foodscape. It’s another matter that cities up north haven’t even acquainted themselves with the delights of chicken ghee roast.

Also read | Bengaluru’s darshini wars

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