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More than just idli dosas

Chef Suresh T. Venkataramana discovers the diversity of Karnataka's cuisine on his travels across the state

Suresh T. Venkataramana learns the nuances of Malnad cuisine from home cook Kalpana Pradeep
Suresh T. Venkataramana learns the nuances of Malnad cuisine from home cook Kalpana Pradeep

There is nothing uniform about food in Karnataka. It is a diverse blend of cuisines from the spicy chicken gassi of coastal Mangaluru to the pandhi curry of Coorg and from the khara boti (lamb shanks) of north Karnataka to the ragi mudde (finger millet balls) of south Karnataka. These are the dishes that Suresh T. Venkataramana, executive chef at Bengaluru’s Windmills Craftworks, spent more than two years discovering as he travelled across the state. He was accompanied by Manjit Singh, food consultant and owner of the now shuttered Herbs & Spice restaurant in Indiranagar, Bengaluru, two writers, and camerapersons. The team’s aim was to document the state’s culinary heritage and their labour of love culminated in Oota, a fine-dining restaurant in the commercial and IT quarter of Whitefield, which opened in August. Lounge asked Venkataramana about his take on regional food in Karnataka. Edited excerpts from the interview:

What is the idea behind Oota?

We wanted to dedicate this restaurant to food from south India as a whole… Kerala, Chennai, Andhra, everything. We had always planned to visit these places, try out the cuisines and understand the authenticity. But once we started, it looked like we would never finish. We just could not focus and say, “Yes this is what I will put in my menu." So Kamal Sagar (founder and director of Total Environment, a real estate company) said, “We’re in Karnataka, let’s showcase what Karnataka food is all about."

Why are there so few restaurants focused on Karnataka’s cuisine?

That’s a difficult question to answer. Before we started, we looked around us at different restaurants to see what it was that they were trying to do with food, and talked about what we could do to stand out. In Bengaluru, you have restaurants such as Mangalore Pearl which focus on Mangaluru cuisine and one place that does Coorgi food… but we didn’t see anything go beyond these places. Karnataka has got so many regions—north Karnataka, the coastal belt, the Malnad belt, Gadag, Belgaum, Dharwad, Chitradurga… all these places have their own unique cuisine, spices and flavours. We wanted to showcase all of that.

Mangalurean fish fry with ‘bafat’ masala.

Each recipe in the restaurant probably has its own story...

On the second day of our travels on our Coorg trip, I was in bed with a severe backache. I couldn’t move. The kitchen at the place we stayed at was just below my window. The cook was making erachi (mutton) pulao. The aromas that came into my room just lifted me up. I walked down holding the railing, as I just had to see what was cooking. Imagine being in your bed, sick, and you smell something so wonderful that it lifts you up on its own. It was one of the best mutton pulaos I have tasted and now it’s on our menu.

Given that you lived in Bengaluru for most of your life, did you get to experience a lot of these cuisines before?

No. It was an eye-opener for me. For a chef (with over 20 years of experience in India and England) to just go around and do all of this is just amazing. We first did a soft launch with Oota. We called the people behind the dishes and then asked them for the final approval. We put in a lot of hard work and hours of cooking before we decided how we would represent ourselves as a Karnataka restaurant.

What’s the one perception you would like to change about Indian food?

Regional food is the next big thing in India. North India has had a great influence on our food culture. But it would be great if people could learn more about south Indian cuisine, which, as you know, is a lot more than just idli-dosa.

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