How I learnt to love Udupi food and found myself

By Kavitha Rao

I come from Udupi, the town in Southern Karnataka that launched a million hotels across the globe. Its name has become synonymous with clean, fast, vegetarian South Indian food. The cuisine that got the Indian middle classes to switch from chicken butter masala to masala dosas. Still, for all its fame, very few Indians know that there is actually a town called Udupi, or realise that there is more to Udupi food than dosas, idlis, and vadas.

 How I learnt to love Udupi food and found myself

Idlis, Dosas are typical of Udupi cuisine. Soumya Dey/Wikimedia Commons

For much of my life, I didn’t really get Udupi cuisine either. I have never lived in Udupi, and spent most of my childhood overseas, interrupted by brief spells in Bangalore . But, unlike many Indian families abroad, my mother never resorted to pizzas for dinner or cornflakes for breakfast. We would awake instead to the sound of dosas sizzling on the tava, the house filled with the aroma of pure ghee. One day we would have lacy and fragile neer dosas with jaggery and coconut, and robust and thick adais with spicy chutney, the next.

Later in the morning, the house would be filled with the heavenly smell of coconut, chillies and assorted spices being sauted to make “huli” (similar to sambhar, but oh so much more complex and richly layered) for lunch. We ate off steel plates with our hands, learning early how to build a mound of rice to hold the runny saaru, a tangier version of the Tamil rasam, garnished with crunchy haplas (papads). We would go on to the palyas (sauted vegetables) or perhaps a deliciously sour gojju (chutney) and then proceed to the main course, the coconut-ty huli. Our meal would end with mosranna, the curds and rice without which no South Indian meal is considered complete.

I would be lying if I said that I appreciated these efforts. You never really value what is served to you – quite literally – on a platter. Instead, I would demand toast for breakfast, or chole and puri for dinner. I would complain loudly when my mother would plop the obligatory dollop of pure ghee on top of my plate of rice and huli. I would snigger at the way my parents would reminisce fondly about the “madhwe oota” (wedding feasts) of their childhoods, salivating over holiges (a sweet pancake filled with gram flour) they had known.

Food of the gods

Udupi cuisine is not a fast cuisine, or a simple one. Except for the ever popular masala dosa, it does not have the easy, universal appeal of tandoori chicken or dal makhni. It is a spartan cuisine that has bloomed despite its innate disadvantages.

To begin with, it is pure vegetarian, at least if you consider the Brahmin version. To make matters more difficult, traditional Udupi cuisine rules out many vegetables that are considered 'foreign': cauliflowers, tomatoes, beans, cabbage, onions, garlic, beetroots and carrots. The vegetables it uses—yams, gourds, jackfruits, mangoes, cucumbers, fresh coconut, a variety of greens—are often difficult to find. Wedding feasts must be served in a specific order, beginning with the crunchy kosambari (a dal salad) and ending with a cooling drink of majjige (buttermilk).

Somehow, this perverse list of dos and don’ts has fostered a marvellous yet underrated cuisine full of contrasting flavours: the tartness of tamarind mingled with the sweetness of jaggery in the hulis, the blend of mustard seeds and coconut in the palyas, the bite of sesame setting off the tanginess of mangoes in the menaskai (a special delicacy made from coconut and mango pulp).

The origin of Udupi cuisine is the stuff of legend. There are some who say that the tradition of feeding the thousands of devotees at the famous Sri Krishna temple in Udupi led to the creation of the typical hotel menu: fast, hot, clean food. Others claim that these were the delicacies invented by devotees to tempt the mischievous Sri Krishna, the town’s most beloved hero, to stay in Udupi.

The origins may be subject to debate, but there is no doubt about this one fact: Udupi Brahmins are obsessive foodies. The gathering of ingredients for Udupi delicacies is a culinary quest for the Holy Grail. To cook pathrode, a particular delicacy made of rice batter and hard-to-find colocasia leaves, my parents would comb the gardens of relatives, sometimes procuring the leaves all the way from Mangalore.

The jackfruit, used to make hulis, idlis and appas (a deep-fried mixture of jackfruit pulp and jaggery), is often difficult to find. To most outsiders, the rubbery yellow fruit smells absolutely foul, an overpowering odour that can rapidly engulf the entire house. But Udupi Brahmins consider it such a treat that my parents would beg relatives—even relatives of relatives— if they knew of anyone who had jackfruits to spare. Eventually my father’s brother’s wife’s cousin’s sister-in-law would arrive, proudly bearing the prickly fruit aloft, and be met with profuse thanks. The Udupi Brahmin community may be small, but its culinary grapevine reaches far and wide.

Going back to the future

Despite a childhood steeped with its culinary wonders, my reconciliation with Udupi food came late in life. I despised cooking when I was in my twenties, sneaking out of the kitchen every time my mother tried to teach me anything. Later, I married a Bengali who had always assumed “Udupi” was a South Indian term for dosas, idlis and vadas. When I moved overseas, I opted for easy cooking: hearty pots of daal, alu-gobi and palak-paneer. Going through all the palaver of an Udupi dinner seemed too much like hard work.

But lately, as I get older, I begin to understand why my parents would get so ecstatic if they found “kesuina yelle” (colocasia leaves), or why they spent so much time plucking jackfruit. It is their comfort food, their link to a way of life that has all but disappeared. Nobody, including me, has the time to grind fresh coconut, churn butter or clean jackfruit any more.

Buffet style weddings are taking over, and the younger generation wants to eat Punjabi food off paper plates, not squat over a banana leaf. The tiny “Brahmin Hotellus” or “Tiffin Rooms” are dying, and a new breed of multi-cuisine, fully airconditioned “Adarsh Complexes” is taking over. Udupi hotels today have taken to serving chaat, North Indian thalis and—most horrifyingly—Punjabi Chinese food.

I now go willingly to all the wedding feasts my mother used to drag me to when I was a teenager. I find it hard to believe that there was ever a time when I preferred bland toast to a spicy dosa. I even found myself buying a Udupi cookbook the other day in a burst of optimism. In short, I am turning into my mother.

I realize now that Udupi food is my link to an endangered heritage, diluted with every passing generation that intermarries or leaves. It is my refuge when my palate revolts against a bland diet of palak paneer and dal makhanis, craving for something sharper, tangier, more familiar. A cuisine that is dear not because it can be flourished as a status symbol at dinner parties, but because it is my refuge, my link to a land where I have never lived. Most of all, this food is my own.

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Updated Date: Jul 11, 2011 06:14:44 IST