I owe this post entirely to Shetty. A stocky man with a pachyderm’s appetite, Shetty – a Mangalorean – was my driver on my first long-haul through Karnataka in 2007, when he introduced me to many a gastronomic ace the state packed up its sleeve. Last week, as I wound up a month-long research trip, my waistline substantially inflated courtesy some guilt-free gorging, I was happy to see that his tutelage was not lost on me. So here’s recounting some of my all-time Kannada favourites.
For me, a culinary journey through Karnataka almost always begins with the Udupi vegetarian thali. For the uninitiated, you’re basically looking at a Wimbledon champ-size salver decked with at least half-a-dozen small metal bowls, containing an assortment of delectable vegetables, curries, lentil soups, yoghurt, poppadums and pickles. Hit it off with an initial serving of fluffy puris, followed by white rice. Sign off with dessert – the vermicelli pudding unfailingly makes my day.
Soon, however, the protein-obsessed non-veggie in me rebels. So I scuttle off to the hills of Codagu (Coorg), revered by foodies for its piquant tribal fares, most legendary among which is pandhi masala, bite-sized pork chunks cooked in a thick, fiery gravy of local spices. Ask for a plate of kadambuttu or steamed rice dumplings on the side, to cut the tang. And while passing through Madikeri, the region’s municipal centre, pick up some aromatic wild honey, coffee or spices – pepper, vanilla, nutmeg, lemongrass, cardamom, the works – that come into town from the nearby plantations.
Once you’ve stocked up, it’s time to head for Mangalore on the west coast and deplete some yummy marine life. Tops here is the rava fry, which involves coating the day’s catch of fish – kane, koddai, surmai or prawns are most common – in thick semolina batter and frying to a crisp. Then there’s the sinful ghee roast, where fish or chicken is crunch-fried in a slathering of clarified butter. For breakfast, there’s neer dosa, made of rice batter and fried pancake-style, and served with thick coconut chutney. Filling. Flavourful. Fabulous.
And finally, if you get homesick along the way, there’s always the option of stopping by at one of Bengaluru’s many excellent old-school pubs, where you can catch up on the weekend’s football match or sing along with The Ramones blaring on the PA, while treating yourself to some fresh draught and a succulent, medium-rare steak. Bon appetite!