There used to be a ‘last bench’ in Mysore’s Maharaja College on which all six RK brothers, including Narayan and Laxman, famously carved their initials: a prescient start to immortal careers, it may be said, although that desk has disappeared, some believe under a thoughtless coat of paint. Malgudi pops up in Mysore much the same way, convincing but elusive, like a swipe of red chutney on the soft inside of a Mysore masala dosa, the old Iyengar bakeries that won’t make egg puffs, the just-a-little-less-sugar in a frothing cup of filter coffee, or the aroma of melted ghee and roasted gram flour in a warm batch of Mysore pak. Yes, I too noticed how surreptitiously Mysore likes to patent its dishes, catapulting them into specialness, this royal city that also gave us the coconut-flavoured Mysore rasam with fresh-ground spices, and the sumptuous, spongy Mysore bonda, not that anybody remembers how they came about.
I arrived in Mysore as the city prepared for its famous Dasara, a festival it owns uniquely. The roads were getting a makeover, gardeners were anxiously coaxing their blooms, mahouts were taking processional elephants on mornings walks, a few strokes of distemper here, a rub of polish there, all lamps in working order (“wait till you see the lights!”), and the shop that’s the progenitor of the divine Mysore pak setting up another outlet four doors down to deal with the unmanageable influx. A journalist with a notebook can be quite unsettling, but my questions elicited no surprise and, when I asked for recipes, just a smiling shake of the head. They are used to this sort of thing at this time of the year.
“The train had just arrived at Malgudi Station,” R.K. Narayan first wrote on one such auspicious Vijayadasami, and they say it was his memories of Mysore that made great parts of Malgudi. Indeed, Narayanesque inspiration was everywhere — the churmuri man and his tidy cart who asked me to step into the light and take the proffered cone; tokens that looked like Scrabble tiles at old Gayatri Tiffin Room (and the perplexed eyebrow when I declined coffee, marked a perfect ‘10’); an 80-year-old soda and ice cream ‘factory’ with the touch-phone-wielding grandson behind the worn counter; the hotel manager who carried a camera in his vest pocket and advised eating less to look young; the vendor of sweets who keeps his bill book and pen carefully wrapped in ancient plastic; the two ‘original’ Mylaris, both by brothers and equally fantastic, and their super-secret dosa batter. Would Narayan have wanted to out them…or leave them be?
The best way to discover this Mysore is to walk the rambling, mostly single-storey city of open spaces and plentiful greenery. Morning walkers around the broad avenues near the palace naturally like to end their outing with a divine cup of filter coffee (Rs 20) at Hotel Siddharta (Guest House Road, Nazarbad; 7am-10pm; open all days; 0821-4280888). The truly local way to have it would be ‘by-two’ so it won’t do to go alone. Their bustling, tidy, only-vegetarian restaurant is actually called Om Shanti but everybody just goes by the hotel’s name. It can’t be more centrally located and their dosas, bhaths and idli-vadas are always reliable. The bisi bele bhath, that complexly spiced and flavourful Kannada sambhar rice, and set dosa (soft dosas served in sets of three) are particularly famous. Tiffin for two, including the coffee, costs about Rs 125. Also try the filling, well-prepared south Indian thalis for lunch or dinner (Rs 90; other dishes are not served between noon and 3pm, while the lunch meal service is on, but you can and must end everything with the aforementioned kaapi).
If you know your filter coffee, you will know it can’t get any better than this, although Mysore Refreshments (bang opposite the zoo; 7.30am-8pm; Tuesdays closed; 2433444) tries with a fair degree of success. Oddly enough, their menu lists all the standard tiffin staples (Rs 20-45 per serving) but not the coffee (Rs 16). Ask, ask.
It took me Rs 80 to get to and back by auto from the Gayatri Tiffin Room (Chamundipuram Main Road; 7.30am-8.30pm; Mondays closed; 2332170) and my plain dosa served with a large ladle of thick coconut chutney came for Rs 22. GTR looks geriatric and opened in 1960 at its current location, having already functioned in a nearby building as a Palahara Mandira (a ‘temple for tiffins’) sometime since the 1940s. The quirks are memorable: diners place their order at the counter in exchange for black tokens with numbers on them, liquid soap is dispensed from a bowl with a spoon at the washbasin, and I was politely directed to the ‘ladies and accompanied by ladies only’ section when I brazenly sat by the door. If the shabby ambience doesn’t put off loyal crowds it’s because the idli-vada, uppittu (the Kannada upma), khara bhath and kesari bhath are distractingly nice. Even a gluttonous meal won’t set you back by more than Rs 75, and there is a nice South Kanara-style thali for lunch (Rs 55, lightly spiced, more coconutty, and pinches of jaggery to sweeten the flavours).
Patrons drive into old-worldly Dasaprakash, quite like the late Wodeyar maharaja did from time to time, and its courtyard-facing non-AC, again vegetarian restaurant Akshaya (Gandhi Square; 7.30am-9pm; open all days; 2442444), serves all the usual tiffins in good style (I loved the savoury boondi-topped curd vada; Rs 32). I like to sample dishes that make a restaurant famous and these folks are rightly well-known for their guliappa (plate of six for Rs 45), which is dosa batter elevated to its irresistibly deep-fried avatar, and halbai, a melt-in-the-mouth halwa made with rice flour, jaggery, coconut milk and ghee, served in even, plump squares, the first ‘a’ pronounced longer than the second, another coastal speciality that can be had only with their tasty ‘Special Ltd thali’ (Rs 90). Of course, they prepare other sweets too, but the staff makes sure they never run out of halbai to avoid disappointed complaints from regulars who come just for it.
I was secretly hunting for Mysore pak, of course, and I met the nemesis of all weighing scales at a ridiculously small shop, the Guru Sweet Mart (Sayyaji Rao Road; 8am-10.30pm, Tuesdays closed except around Dasara; 2443495), which clearly takes its humble origins seriously. The three brothers, who take turns at the counter through the day, are brisk and friendly about everything except the recipe, which they keep back at their home-cum-kitchen, shipping several sliced blocks of Mysore pak (Rs 300 per kilo) across the city every day. Their great-great-grandfather was Kakasura Madappa, royal cook to the Mysore maharajas and a nalapaka — a culinary artist worthy of Nala, the king who cooked like none other. When his master asked him to create something new and worthy of Mysore’s name, he relied on his felicity with melted sugar, added gram flour and ghee, the last without hesitation, to arrive at the addictive dish that was to become Mysore’s most famous contribution to Indian sweets. Pack away by all means but taste a sample warm (microwave for that effect back home), served on a strip of newspaper which quickly darkens as it absorbs the ghee. The aroma overwhelms this little store and when I asked for a bill and card, it had to be extricated from a smudgy plastic cover after a rigorous wipe of hands on a dry towel, which I guess has to be an essential accessory when you deal in kilos of the stuff every day. Mysore pak can be made porous and crumbly or moist and melt-in-the-mouth. It’s the latter here, as it always is in the better versions, but with a finely grainy texture that sets it apart as exceptional, never mind the noisy road on which you are partaking this ambrosia. Oh, they have a wide range of other sweets as well, and even a rather nice rustic hard biscuit called kajoor (Rs 200 per kilo). There are spin-offs aplenty nearabouts and the cashew Mysore pak (Rs 420 per kilo) at Shree Mahalakshmi Sweets (on Devraj Urs Road with branches at Vidyaranyapuram and V.V. Mohalla; 8am-10pm; open all days; 2443553), a spiffy chain of one-stop sweet shops, is worth a detour.
The best way to work off that Mysore pak, or at least a fraction of it, is to walk to the Brahmin Soda Factory (Old Bank Road; 9am-9pm; open all days; 9483901667) to pick from a range of unfussy sodas, ice creams and fruit salads. Don’t look too hard for the sign, though — it’s marked into a corner of a hotchpotch board that looks as archaic as the furniture, which might well be eighty years old, like the shop itself, and it’s actually just the right setting for a tall glass of masala soda (Rs 14 each) — I would say try the mild sarasaparilla (a root with medicinal properties that the family brings from Kerala and processes, always post-monsoon) or the ginger, which packs a terrific punch. The ice creams are also homemade and there’s something really refreshing about this laidback joint that’s been around since Hari Rao, grandfather to the young man now behind the small counter, got into the business of summer coolers.
A food street distinguishes a city’s foodie credentials, and Mysore’s very own is the ingeniously named Chaat Street (on Krishna Vilas Road, near Marimallappa College; 6pm-10.30pm or till supplies last; open all days). It has sellers of chaats, certainly, and the usual idli-vadas, ‘dry gobi’ and fresh cut salads. I was here for its uniquely Mysorean churmuri (Rs 10 per paper cone), a light puffed-rice-and-peanuts confection mixed expertly to your personal preference in spice levels. The stall has no name but he’s the only seller of churmuri on the street, so you can’t miss him. Another sublime discovery here was Mahaveer Icecream’s chilled badam milk (Rs 20), a thick, creamy cupful laced with nuts. Frankly, I could happily make a meal of them any day.
That is, if I haven’t already been to Hotel Mylari (Nazarbad Main Road, Tuesdays closed; 7.30am-8.30pm; 9845918925), a tidy but nondescript establishment that has just three items on its unprinted menu — idli (Rs 22), coffee (Rs 16) and the incredibly good sagu-dosa (Rs 25), so soft that it’s confounding, the sagu or vegetable, instead of the usual potato masala provided as filling, just perfectly spiced, and the thick coconut chutney served in unlimited dollops separately. Uff, whatever else you do or don’t eat in Mysore, make time for this dosa. There’s another ‘original’ Vinayaka Mylari Hotel diagonally across the same road and their sagu-dosa is just as great, the courteously protected recipe descending from the same forefather. They are, helpfully, closed on Wednesdays.
It must be obvious by now that fine dining isn’t Mysore’s forte. The Windflower Resort and Spa’s Olive Garden (Ranapratap Singh Road, right next to the Golf Club; noon-3pm lunch; 7pm-11pm dinner; 2522500) bridges the gap temptingly, its open-air setting ideally located at the foot of the Chamundi Hill, with calming water all round — and nothing like it if you happen to have a moonlit night handy. Vineyard, their wine bar right adjacent, is set among grand trees, and they have wisely let Mysore’s salubrious weather contribute substantially to the whole experience. Olive Garden gets full easily, especially on high-season weekends, and is reasonably priced for what it offers (meal for two: Rs 800). It serves multi-cuisine (Mughlai, Thai, Chinese and Continental) and their mocktails and tandoori dishes have quite a fan following but I would suggest a sampling of their signature dishes, Mysorised versions of Awadhi specialities — especially the aloo Udayagiri (Rs 153) and chicken Yadavgiri (Rs 189).
Ambience also wins at the Green Hotel’s coffee shop (Jayalakshmipuram; 11am-8pm; open all days; 4255000), which has comfortable chairs strewn about a courtyard full of plants, a whiteboard listing healthful soups (beetroot, broccoli, carrot; Rs 80-90), pastries, quiches, sandwiches and pies (including a soft lemon drizzle cake; Rs 40 for a big slice), and traditional puddings and hot chocolate. There’s a well-stocked library of books waiting to be read by guests and how could I not love this charming throwback’s name? Malgudi it is.
Where to eat: My search for a very real Mysore was hugely helped by Royal Mysore Walks (9632044188, royalmysorewalks.com), a youthful enterprise with a range of interesting walking tours for this “600-year-old city with over 200 historic buildings” (they also have cycle, jeep and offbeat tours). Local knowledge will stoke more than your appetite on their food tour (Rs 600 per person including samplings) and turn it into a conversation on the city — Vinay Nagaraju, who took me on mine, helpfully pointed out colourful markets, squares which are actually circles, and heritage buildings masquerading as government offices, our feet squelching on rain-drenched streets in a provincial, green city that must be walked.
There are other sides to Mysore you may not want to miss. Hotel RRR (Gandhi Square and Sri Harsha Road — the latter is air-conditioned but the prices are the same; noon-4pm lunch; 7pm-11pm dinner; 0821-2441979 and 2442878) is always crowded because Mysoreans can’t get enough of their chicken biryani (Rs 120 per plate), 40 kilos prepared daily in five batches of eight kilos each so they reach eager diners piping hot. Runner-up is their mutton biryani (Rs 140 per plate), chicken kebab (Rs 97 per plate) and a non-vegetarian plantain leaf meal (Rs 85) featuring freshly prepared dishes for lunch and dinner — they are very serious about this and just so patrons can be sure, it’s red gram sambhar with mixed vegetables for lunch and green gram sambhar with onions for dinner, matched with a variety of curries and poriyals or side-dishes.
Here’s a handful of other oddball reccos, every one of them guaranteed to satisfy. The Madhushahi Samosa Centre (Lakshmi Building, Shivarampet; 4.30pm-9.30pm; Sundays closed; 9845861751) is a hole in the wall that plates up awesome samosas and kachori, quashed and served with a chutney and dahi, and hot gulab jamuns and carrot halwas (Rs 10 per serving, anything you choose).
Do enjoy the simple delights of the many Mysore Iyengar bakeries that dot the city — especially the flaky and piquantly spiced veg puff and spicy, fresh-baked aloo bun (Rs 12 apiece).
I suggest you ask for a takeaway of the most coveted mutton pulao at the uninspiring Hotel Hanumanthu (B.N. Street, Market Building, Mandi Mohalla; 9845660715). Ditto for the sought-after shawarmas at Lemon Tree (7th Cross, Adi Pampa Road, V.V. Mohalla; 4pm-10pm; open all days; 97419-17120), whether served as a chicken roll (Rs 50) or plated up with two kubboos (a kind of bread, Rs 90), all of it to be washed down with an ‘Arabian grape juice’ (Rs 40). You will quickly realise it’s no relation to lemons, trees or upmarket hotel chains but the crowds of patrons thronging here have more important things on their mind.
There are four cheery Nalpak branches (V.V. Mohalla, Kuvempunagar, Devraj Urs Road and Agrahara Circle; 7.30am-10pm; open all days; 4246622) that pop up around the city with standardised, tasty tiffins available through the day.
And I have multiple foodie endorsements for the amazing mayo burgers at Downtown (Kalidasa Road, V.V. Mohalla; 11.30am-2.30pm and 5.30pm-10.30pm, Mondays closed; 2513942). The regular chicken burger is priced at Rs 70 and the ‘bionic’, which is their large, at Rs 80. Sagari Roy, the home cook behind this enterprise, also has a short menu of nice pizzas and rolls but make sure you have room for her hot chocolate fudge ice cream (Rs 60).
The wacky over-the-topness of the Beer Garden at the Parklane Hotel (Harsha Road; 7am-11.30pm; open all days; 4003500) makes it good for a boisterous evening with friends — it’s terribly green everywhere, from the furniture to the faux plants, the open air gets covered with a roller top if it rains, there’s a 12-page menu with an earnest ten-point list of tips to beat a hangover, and you pull a switch hanging over your table to light up a red bulb till someone shows up to take your order.
The slow pace of this town-city steeped in colonial architecture is best experienced at the stately coffee shop of the Metropole (Jhansi Lakshmi Bai Road; 7am-11pm and 4pm-10pm, with a popular buffet lunch in between; open all days; 4255566), situated in a beautifully kept heritage building, serving decent burgers, sandwiches and pastries, although the atmospheric bar (11am-11pm) here can inspire even longer evenings.
If you don’t mind the long drive (route no. 303 is a direct and frequent service from the City Bus Stand, Rs 15 each way), make time for a cup of tea (lobby level) or a mug of beer (first floor) at the café or bar, respectively, of the Royal Orchid Brindavan Garden (11am-11pm; open all days; 257257), both of which overlook the famous tourist attraction of Brindavan Garden; the waters of the iconic KRS can be heard gurgling all round, in streams, fountains and the ornamental lake.
Mysore’s thriving ashtanga yoga scene, which originated here, is centred around Gokulam, home to a couple of famous schools and disciple-run tributaries, visited annually by hordes of foreign students on long stays. Three highly popular health-centric enterprises cater to them — there’s the Anokhi Garden and Café (Contour Road, Gokulam 3rd Stage; open 8.30am-12.30pm only from Thursdays to Sundays; 4288923), run by two Frenchwomen from Bordeaux in the quest for a holistic life, and they dish out the most magnificent vegan pancakes (Rs 120), crumbles, quiches and savoury tarts from a daily patisserie, and quite a few fulsome juices, shakes and fruit salads (Rs 80-110). Tina’s Café (1D, 3rd Main, Gokulam; 12.30pm-10pm; Sundays closed; 9449818668) is liked for its healthy, mostly but not exclusively vegetarian Punjabi food, lightly prepared and inexpensively priced (Rs 40 for the curries, Rs 5 per phulka). The a la carte menu’s focus is on simple food like ghia ke kofte, palak-dal and rajma instead of the perpetual paneer butter masala. There’s also Anu’s Bamboo Hut (2nd Main, 3rd Stage, Gokulam; only between October and March, the yoga high season, except for special requests; 1pm-3pm and 5pm-7pm; Thursdays closed; 9900909428), which announces itself with a quiet ‘Anu’s’ on the gate and is open for a Rs 250 home-style north-and-south Indian mixed buffet lunch although that’s liable to run out by 2pm, and drinks, snacks and filling smoothies with a range of toppings in the evenings. Look out for the ‘world’s best chocolate banana cake’, which is constructed more like a substantial fresh fruit pie (Rs 70 a slice).