Think Masala Dosa and you think Udupi—the small and rustic town nestled away in the Southern part of Karnataka where this ubiquitous Indian dish originated. And then there are the network of Udupi family restaurants that can be found in several states and cities all over India. In these Udupi joints, hundreds of dosas, idlis, uttapams are dished out every hour, to be quickly gobbled up by customers and then made way for the next batch of customers to be seated.
But when we met with local Corporator of Udupi, Amrita Krishnamoorthy, during our Utsav: Thalis of India show, she had a different story to paint, “There’s so much more to the cuisine. We have indigenous vegetables like the Mattu Gulla (Green Brinjal), Amtekai (Indian Hog Plum), Southekayi (Mangalore Cucumber) and the Byadgi mirch that can be used to make many unique preparations that are traditional to our cuisine. A Tambli or a Menaskai have as much history as a dosa or idli, but just that the latter items got exported to other parts of the country and became popular, while the former stayed intrinsic to this small region due to their proximity in availability.”
In Udupi, food is a religion and people take their food very seriously. “Food is the greatest binder. We sit down to eat together in large groups and only get up when everyone has finished eating. The first to finish remains seated till the last person in the group is satisfied with his/her meal.” Being brahmins, the Krishnamoorthys adhere to the Satvik tradition, and refrain from the use of onion and garlic and do not consume meat and fish. “The vegetables that commonly feature in the Udupi cuisine are pumpkin, gourd, yam, mangoes, cucumber, beans, various greens and other local produce, while cabbage and root vegetables like beetroots and carrots are avoided,” says Krishnamoorthy.
We sit down to eat the Satvik Udupi Thali. The banana leaf is horizontally placed in front of us on the floor. “It is auspicious to place the narrow side of the leaf on the left. During ceremonies to appease our ancestors or during funerals, the banana leaf is placed vertically,” adds Krishnamoorthy. She continues, “Salt is placed on the top left side to bring positive energy to the meal. Salt is a must on the leaf as a reminder that without salt, none of the food would be tasty.” The fare today is what would be served at an Udupi wedding, with a few missing items. The Appe Midi or baby mangoes pickle is a rare find. And the taste lies in the prep. Small mangoes, the size of grapes, are plucked straight from the tree when their seed is tender. The mangoes are boiled, and then dunked in a mixture of brine, mustard seeds, hing and the local chilli hero Byadgi mirch.
Also Read: The Modern Ayurvedic Kitchen
A coconut chutney is a must-have in the Udupi thali. This one is fibrous, has ginger, and imli lends the sour notes. “Coconut is the base of every chutney. The add-on ingredients, of course, differ. Horse gram and coconut chutney is popular during the rainy season as it keeps the body warm. Channa daal and amtekai are other popular chutneys. While in the Konkan region, they use kokum as a souring agent; in Udupi, we use the locally-available Amtekai as a souring agent. Tamarind, of course, is a souring agent used all over India, and we, too, use it in certain dishes,” Krishnamoorthy draws the comparison. The palya (dry vegetable) is next. “At weddings, at least two dry vegetables, two curries and one fried item (which is usually Goli Baje—a deep-fried maida-batter fritters) need to be served,” she explains. “But for this Udupi thali, we have prepared one dry veggie—Ghorikai Uppakari, which is an easy preparation made of cluster of beans, Byadgi mirch, crackling mustard seeds and shredded coconut.” It’s safe to say that the aroma of Hing, Rai, curry patta, bhaydgi mirchi wafts in the Udupi air as these make up the traditional tadka to any Udupi delicacy, and all components of the Udupi Thali are cooked in coconut oil as the locally available coconuts are rich in oil, while the little milk in them is used in desserts.
Krishnamoorthy Acharya with Chef Kunal Kapur
Next up is the Thambuli or Tambli, made of cucumber, ginger, coriander and buttermilk. The purpose of this cooling dish is to quell any acidity and to prepare the stomach for the masalas to follow. When we likened the tambli to raita, Krishnamoorthy politely disagrees, “raita uses yogurt and has a watery consistency. Tambli uses buttermilk, is thicker, and serves as a side-dish that can be eaten with plain rice.” Then comes a tongue tickler—the Menaskai made of Amtekai and Mangalorean pineapple. As Chef Kunal Kapur describes it, “this dish is a riot of flavours—it is sweet, spicy, salty and sour.”
Udupi cuisine too has a version of the Patra that’s popular in Maharashtra and Gujarat. Called Patrode, colacasia leaves are swaddled in besan, rolled and steamed, with a dollop of ghee on top to enhance the taste. “Patrode is a rainy season specialty as it generates heat in the body, but improves overall immunity. In other seasons, we serve Kotte Kadubu or Moday—rice and black gram batter filled in bowl-shaped jackfruit leaves and steamed.” The jackfruit papad, too, was a pleasant surprise and the unsung hero of the Udupi Thali. Chef Kunal nods in agreement, “I have eaten moong daal or urad daal or sabudana papads, but this is my first time eating jackfruit papad—the flavours are sublime, not too sweet or salty.”
The piping hot Rassam made of toor daal, lots of pepper and tomatoes can be had as a soup to clear your throat, or with steamed rice. Chef Kunal sings praises of the Sambar, locally called Mattu Gulla Hulli, which is the star dish of the thali. The secret ingredient being the Mattu Gulla—the local green brinjal of Udupi. “If I were to divulge, the secret to our Sambar lies in the masala. We don’t use store-bought masala. Instead, we grind it fresh during the dish prep. The green brinjal is firm and textured. After you cut it, soak them in water for a few minutes to cut the bitterness. You use the stem too as it’s tasty,” reveals Krishnamoorthy.
Besides steamed rice, Chitrana rice or tempered lemon rice also finds a place in this thali. So those Kakdi Kadhi made with the indigenous Southekayi and yoghurt, and is to be savoured with rice, and serves as a digestive. Ending the meal on a sweet note, is the rich Payassam made of boiled broken wheat, coconut milk and jaggery or sugar. Another popular dessert at Udupi weddings is the Holige—this Puranpoli-esque pancake that is laboriously made (read: sautéing, kneading, stuffing, rolling and cooking) of channa dal and sugar, but makes for happy endings.
Creative by Vartika Pahuja
Images: Joyoti Mahanta
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