I’m usually in a silent minority everytime there’s a discussion on the merits or otherwise of Udupi vegetarian food. Mainly because most people believe that ‘Udupi’ amounts to idli-vada- sambar, and also because of the near-ubiquity of this cheap, vegetarian, fast food from South India. I can’t really fault my friends, for what they know is what they see. And it isn’t a pretty sight always, at the ‘Udupi’s’ that dot our cities. Standard idli, vada, dosas served with the regulation watery sambhar and chutney. Folks who step in, eat, step out, all in double quick time. Too much predictability and too little to delight.
However, the Udupi of popular consciousness has little do with a culinary tradition that dates back to the 13th century — when the saint-philosopher Madhavacharya established the Sri Krishna Temple in Udupi, a town on Karnataka’s western coast. The sage founded the Dvaita branch of Hindu philosophy and devised a set of elegant rituals to worship the godchild. Krishna in Udupi is worshipped as an infant, wielding in one hand a rod to churn curds with and a length of rope in the other. The devout believed that Krishna would wander away unless he was enticed to stay by delicious eats. This belief resulted in the ‘naivedya’, where cooked delicacies — no fewer than 14 different varieties — are offered to the Lord every day. Gradually temple authorities also cultivated the tradition of feeding the devotees who thronged the temple on a daily basis.
The Brahmins in the temple and the eight mathas that surround it had to learn not just the exacting rituals required to correctly worship the Lord but also had to cook well enough to ensure that he hung about in Udupi. Religion and culinary tradition merged to produce food that was and still is (depending on where you sample it) truly fit for the gods.
Achyuth Holla’s family has run the Mitra Samaj restaurant in Udupi’s temple square since 1949. “Today anyone who opens a vegetarian restaurant serving idli, dosa, vada feels free to add the Udupi tag, authentication just does not exist,” complains Holla. It isn’t difficult for me to agree with him. The taste of goli baje, a maida savoury, deep-fried in coconut oil and served with freshly ground coconut chutney at Mitra Samaj, I have never yet encountered elsewhere. As also the pineapple ksheera, a rava-based sweet served with spicy upma. This breakfast treat is served from 5am onwards as bells toll in the adjacent temple courtyard.
So entwined with the temple is the tradition of Udupi cooking that even the vegetables used are chosen according to a rigorous system laid down by priests. Onion and garlic are taboo for their tamasic qualities. Vegetables such as gherkin, spinach and drumsticks too are not included. Later, ‘English’ vegetables were also deemed unfit to be offered to the gods and by extension unfit for everyday cooking — no tomato, cauliflower, beetroot, radish, carrot or papaya.
Instead, within the strict satvic boundaries, these chefs devised signature dishes that till today typify Udupi food. But there’s none as scrumptious as the variety of dishes fashioned around the matti gulla, a squat greenish brinjal that grows only in the hamlet of Matti. Cooks who hail primarily from a sect of Brahmins from the village of Shivalli turn out a range of matti gulla delicacies. The sliced gulla is soaked in water till the water turns black and the vegetable takes on a fresher aspect. It is then stuffed with a ground mixture of a little coconut, methi, jeera, red chilli, tamarind and salt. When lightly fried, the gulla glistens in a cloud of aromatic spices.
Rituals and cooking were clearly the twin skill sets of the Udupi Brahmins. Once they found employment opportunities at the temple complex dwindling, they signed on as cooks at private homes or made their way to Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and the towns of Maharashtra. In 1924, the brothers Maiya from the village of Kota landed in Bangalore, where one worked as the cook in the home of a British judge. The brothers then set up a snack outlet in the city’s Lalbagh Fort Road, serving idlis and coffee, calling it the Brahmin Coffee House, for the next 26 years. By 1950, the Maiyas had moved to larger premises nearby, renaming the hotel Mavalli Tiffin Rooms or MTR. Today after 80 years of business, MTR is more an institution than a hotel, where customers queue up at 6am for a taste of the legendary breakfast.
Hemamalini Maiya, who now runs the restaurant, says while they no longer use coconut oil to season their dishes, the Udupi connection lingers in the taste of their sambar and rasam. “I try to include seasonal specialties from Udupi — for instance, the badanekai huli will in season have the matti gulla in it,” she says. Her personal Udupi favourite is bol huli made from matti gulla. The sliced and soaked gulla is cooked in a thin gravy made of ground coconut, green chillies, tamarind and coriander seeds with a touch of jaggery and seasoned with coriander leaves.
Udupi Brahmin men are traditionally peerless cooks. As P.N. Narasimha Murthy, an Udupi-based historian, explains: “The monastic tradition for all priests at the Sri Krishna temple and the ashta mathas meant that all temple cooks had to be male.” So where does that leave the women? What cooks in the homes of the Udupi Brahmins, I wonder, as I make my way to meet Vasantha, professor of literature and a Shivalli Brahmin in Udupi. She takes me to meet her mother-in-law, a lady who runs the kitchen with the vegetables and greens from her frontyard and the milk from the cows in her backyard. They like their food light, easy to digest, nutritious and cooling in the coastal heat. So a meal will consist of salads like the koosambri, made from soaked dals mixed with grated coconut, green chillies in a mustard seasoning. Then the thambli, a summer speciality, considered the ultimate coolant. Seasonal greens such as the leaves of the brahmi or yelemuri or vitamin soppu, skin and seeds of gourds, or chathai soppu — whatever’s handy — are fried with ghee and then ground with pepper, jeera and coconut, thinned with buttermilk and served with rice as the first course. Next comes the sambar, cooked either with freshly ground masala including coconut or with the sambar powder prepared every 15 days (see ‘The Information’). The meal is rounded off with Udupi rasam that bears the trademark hint of jaggery.
In keeping with coastal tradition a variety of steamed foods form a part of Udupi cuisine as well. Idli batter is poured into cups made from jackfruit leaves and steamed. Ripe jackfruit is ground to a thick doughy batter with coconut and steamed in the leaves of the teak tree, to get a pink-hued delicacy called pelakayida gatti that is served with honey. Leaves of the mundevu palm are used to steam idlis that are locally known as moode. A variant of this dish using a rava-based batter instead of rice is called kadubu ole and served as naivedya.
A balanced, nutritious diet is central to the philosophy of Udupi cooking; for their protein content, lentils are a prominent feature. Udhina gojju, made from raw urad dal ground with white pumpkin, green chillies, a pinch of asafoetida and thinned with buttermilk is then seasoned with mustard and red chillies in coconut oil to make a typical Udupi delicacy. (A variation leaves out the buttermilk, and instead shapes the ground batter into little curls to make crunchy kumbla kai sandige.) No part of the white pumpkin is actually wasted, the skin and seeds and soft core go to make the cooling thamblis, while the vegetable will end up as a sweet dish the famous kumbla kai halva, cooked in pure ghee with jaggery and roasted cashew nuts if not in a sambar.
For those who believe that Udupi food cannot do without large amounts of coconut, the chefs have a treat for the summer months. When fresh pineapples, bitter gourd, mango and the local sour fruit amte kai flood the markets, they roast some black til. Then in a little coconut oil they fry red chillies, urad dal, and fenugreek and grind it all with a little coconut and jaggery. To the boiling mixture they add the sliced fruits or vegetables, and as the mixture thickens, add a seasoning of mustard and red chillies to serve a dish that is tangy and incredibly aromatic. Through the monsoons, the Udupi Brahmins make spicy chutneys that go well with boiled rice. Freshly ground with colocasia leaves, ridge gourd, or yam and spiced with tamarind, red chilli and salt these are a fiery addition to bland monsoon fare. No wonder then this faintly mocking proverb is so popular in the coastal towns: “Brahmana bhojana priya” (the Brahmin loves his food too well).
If you live in an Indian city, you will no doubt find an ‘Udupi’ in your neigbourhood or in the next. But for a taste of authentic Udupi cuisine means, you would do well to pick the eatery with care. Restaurants with a Kamat, Shanbhag or Pai attached to their names will in most cases be able to trace their lineage back to the tradition of tasteful, healthy food from the temple town of Udupi. For more than the standard idli-vada-dosa, snack at some these speciality Udupi restaurants.
Try the kadubu olle, rava batter steamed in the leaves of a native palm, and served hot with chutney, or the goli baje, a delicacy of which over 1,000 plates are sold between 3pm and 9pm every day at Mitra Samaj, Car Sreet, Udupi (0820-2520502). Located adjacent to the temple compound, this restaurant set up in 1949, uses no onion or garlic, lest even a whiff of these tamasic foods drift across the compound into the temple premises.
For a taste of moode, palm leaf idli and ragi porridge that form part a traditional coastal breakfast, try Hotel Ayodhya, Kodialbail, Mangalore (0824-2493681, 2493684).
In Bangalore, the renowned MTR traces its roots to the hamlet of Kota in Udupi district. The pineapple halwa, sambar and rasam all bear traces of that distinctive taste inspired by the rich tradition of satvic cooking as practised in the temple town. Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, Lalbagh Road, Bangalore (080-22220022).