Whether you are in Matunga or Melbourne, Munirka or Manhattan, when the heart pines for a ‘masala dosa’, the mind automatically navigates the body towards an ‘Udupi’. There, within seconds of your settling down, a scrawny but hyperactive fellow will have wiped your table, installed a glass of cold water and begun reeling out the menu, all in one go. And then, regardless of whether it’s Rama Nayak’s or Sagar Ratna, or whether your order is taken in Marathi, English or Hindi, a familiar train of events will follow.
Switch off your mobile and listen. If it’s that dosa you want, your waiter will shout ondu masale (Kannada for one masala dosa) in a very nasal sort of way when he’s roughly three-fourths of the way to the kitchen. This ensures that even before he enters the hothouse and registers the order, the assembly line will have been activated. First, the hiss of water being splashed on the tava and then the cook tickling, almost teasing, your taste buds by tak-tak-tak-ing the sides of it with his spatula. Shortly thereafter, it’s the cook’s turn to shout massss-aaale; it’s his signal to the waiter that the order is ready. And even as you begin marvelling at the taste and hygiene of the food you are devouring, the speed and efficiency of the service and the reasonable cost at which you have got all this, two things happen. You wonder how on earth transnational fast-food joints peddling alien tastes will ever be able match the ‘Udupi’, and your man will have thrust a bill into your hand and vamoosed.
Funny thing is, here in Udupi, none of this happens—at least not in the way it used to. Here, in circa 2000, the Udupi Brahmin hotel of yore that gave birth to a million ‘Udupis’ all over the world is on the wane. It’s still possible, of course, if you snake your way towards the coconut orchards, Thengapet, to bump into a Bhattara Hotlu and see a little sign which says ‘Brahmin Meals and Tiffin’. But the pure vegetarian Udupi restaurants that all of India salivates over have given way to multi-cuisine eateries or commercial complexes. So, the ‘Udupi’ you see in Mumbai or Delhi is not the Udupi you get in the town of its birth, 60 km north of Mangalore on the west coast.
The sambar-secularists might like to see this, the collapse of yet another upper-caste citadel, as yet another sign of an India coming of age. But that would be missing the uthapams for the idlis. Sure, Udupi’s Udupis were inspired by the town’s other claim to fame: the Lord Krishna temple. But, in spite of being one of south India’s holiest Vaishnavite centres, packed with pontiffs, pundits and pilgrims, Udupi boasts not of a strong exclusivist tradition but a stronger inclusive one.
In fact, the temple is proof. Here, the good lord faces not the main entrance of the temple as most idols in temples across India do, but a small window at the back of the temple. Local says that like most of his compatriots, Krishna, too, used to greet the devout walking in through the main door in the front. But sometime in the 15th century, they say, he did a 180-degree turnaround. Why he did so probably tells us a little on why ‘Udupis’ have managed to win over every palate.
Apparently, Kanakadasa, an ardent disciple of the Lord but an outcaste, was prevented from offering puja at the temple by the Brahmin seers. So, Krishna did what only gods can. He did a U-turn so that Kanakadasa could have a glimpse of him from an aperture in the back of the temple wall. The eight maths (monasteries) that Saint Madhwacharya (1238-1317), the supreme exponent of dwaita or dualism, set up in Udupi soon got the idea, and christened the window from where Saint Kanakadasa got his view as Kanakana Kindi. Krishna’s attitude, it can be bravely said, has rubbed off.
Old-timers here have no doubt at all that it was the system of offering lunch to thousands of devotees at the Krishna Temple—and in the eight monasteries—that laid the foundation for the reputation of ‘Udupis’. For one thing, with lakhs of devotees thronging the Palimar, Admar, Krishnapur, Puttige, Shirur, Sode, Kaniyur and Pejawar maths each year, speed was the buzzword so that no stomach would go empty—to achieve which the food had to be simple and easy to cook. And, to reciprocate the devotees’ faith, a certain minimum standard of hygiene and cleanliness had to be adhered to so that nobody would go back sick; so the food had to be piping hot. All these requirements have had cash registers ringing at ‘Udupis’ around the country.
If traditional Udupi joints are disappearing from Udupi, it’s for other reasons. Initially it was the Shivalli Brahmins, with their expertise in paka-shastra (gastronomy) who ventured out and set up modest hotels and restaurants. The pioneers among them—Kuthettur Seetharamachar and Kadandale Krishna Bhat—started the Dasaprakash and Woodlands chains respectively that are now spread all over the world. It was the simple techniques of cooking picked up at the maths, laced with business acumen like creation of family rooms, lodges attached to these restaurants and even puja rooms within these complexes, that made them unique enterprises, says Dr H. Krishna Bhat, director of Rashtrakavi Govinda Pai Research Centre, Udupi.
But over the years, though, the hegemony of Shivalli Brahmins has been on the decline. The younger Brahmins have either branched off into different professions or winged away to different pastures. With mid-scale hoteliering very much an appa-amma operation, this should have spelt finis for ‘Udupis’. If that has not happened, it’s because enterprising restaurateurs from other communities of Dakshina Kannada have begun to exploit the Udupi moniker. The issue of who manages these hotels is irrelevant, says M. Srinagesh Hegde, an architect, who owns two ‘Udupis’ in Andheri, Mumbai, and one each in Mangalore and Udupi. For us, it’s good turnover with minimal staff. Our Mumbai restaurants do better than any other establishment in that building.
In Udupi town itself, it is difficult, almost impossible, to trace the ‘Udupi’ of yesteryear. The odd one that has retained its link with the past, Mitra Samaja, is adjacent to the temple complex and continues to draw crowds for its delicacies. Says Sridhar Holla, 44, a qualified doctor who now runs Mitra Nursing Home, "Ours is the oldest Udupi Brahmin hotel here, started more than 50 years ago. Those days, at Mitra Samaja, snacks were made by Brahmins in madi (ritualistic cleanliness) and served on banana leaves. The devotees would be invited to sit on mane (wooden seats) to partake of the delicacies. We do not use onions or garlic in any dish because it’s not considered madi." At one point, this little restaurant had turned into a melting pot for litterateur Gopala Krishna Adiga and others.
At Mitra Samaja, one gets to feel the cash table and name board of 1954 vintage. Sridhar’s father, N. Gopal Holla, started two more hotels in Udupi but advised his sons against venturing into the same business,
probably because it wasn’t economically viable. His grandfather, Seetharam Holla, was popularly known as "Maha Swayampaki" for his expertise in cooking lunch for a swelling number of devotees—between 10,000 and 20,000. Dr Holla’s younger brother Achutha now scrutinises the service at Mitra Samaja Restaurant, while his cousin Satish Udupa manages one across the road, where only Udupi oota or Udupi meals are served. These two outlets have survived the test of time and a recent onslaught by hotels that offer north Indian cuisine and masala chat. The third eatery, Mitra Priya, has been replaced by the medical centre. Sridhar’s cousins have fanned out and run similar restaurants in 25 cities—Chennai, Madurai, Pune and Baramati being some of them.
But while the spread and reach of Udupis has generally been a happy experience, there has been one casualty even on its home turf: delicacies unique to Udupi have been quickly disappearing from the menu cards. Whether they are run by Brahmins or "Bunts", such coastal specialties as Halasina hannina gidde (jackfruit seasoned in teak leaves), Halasina hannina appa (a paste of jackfruit and coconut that’s fried in coconut oil), Patra Vade (a vada made of a herb) and Menaskayi (a delicacy made with mango pulp) are no longer on offer.
Food, though, is only one side of the Udupi coin, with the fishing village of Malpe on one side and Manipal, the nursery of banks and educational institutions, on the other. A few kilometres from Malpe is St Mary’s Island, the deserted outcrop of hexagonal basalt where Vasco da Gama erected a crucifix prior to his first step on the Indian mainland. But, perhaps more importantly, it’s the maths that make up the other face of Udupi. The eight maths are built in a circle, and the seers follow a unique system that facilitates puja by turns at the Lord Krishna temple. The ‘Paryaya’, the system of taking turns to do the puja and rituals (14 types of puja are performed every day), dates back to the days of Saint Madhwacharya. The seers would take turns once in
two months. But in the
16th century, his disciple Saint Vadiraja started the two-year cycle. The 30th cycle of this two-year ‘Paryaya’ now has Sri Vishvesha Teertha Swami of Pejavar math as the ‘Paryaya Swami’. "We have worked to spread literacy all over the country. We have started a centre to promote indigenous research in science and technology in Bangalore because we feel that Indians are among the most intelligent scientists," says Sri Vishvesh Teertha Swami.
But ironically, despite its learned history, neither the seers at the maths nor scholars at the research centre can pinpoint the origin of the name ‘Udupi’. Explanations range from the place where Udu-pathi (Chandra or the Lord of all stars) performed penance, to the boat or raft that Lord Krishna used to sail from Dwarka to the place of his disciple (Saint Madhwacharya), to the mishap of a ship carrying the idol of Lord Krishna near this place. But then, perhaps origins aren’t necessary, for with ‘Udupi’ it’s the palate that counts. And millions will testify to that.