SAVOURING THE SOUTH: How To Eat Your Way Through Karnataka

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.

Udupi vegetarian thali

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.

Rava fried prawns

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!

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DECCAN’S QUEEN: The Legend of Bidar

Every time I get off a rickety state transport carriage at the dusty bus stand in Bidar, I find myself involuntarily muttering lines out of Shelley’s Ozymandias. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” the words pathetically ring out in my ears, as I weave through a maze of noisy, bustling lanes to reach the fringes of town, where a constellation of grand ruins stand in muted silence, fighting a losing battle against modernity and collective memory. Few, after all, know about these historical gems dotting the farthest extents of the Deccan Plateau. Sadly, fewer even care. 

Entrance to Bidar Fort

Splendid in decay, the architectural relics of Bidar date back to the 15th Century, when this tiny settlement in northeast Karnataka first gained prominence as the capital of the mighty Bahamani Empire. Chosen as their seat of power in 1428, Bidar soon grew in stature to become a veritable nerve centre holding sway over much of South India. 

Inside Bidar Fort

Eventually, after playing capital to the Barid Shahi dynasty (successors to the Bahamanis), Bidar was annexed by the Bijapur sultanate in 1619. And redundancy set in once it was palmed off to the Mughals in 1686. Declining rapidly, Bidar was soon reduced to the ignominy of a district outpost, which it remains today. 

Mahmud Gawan Madrasa

Nonetheless, the enthralling legacy of this forgotten metropolis continues to enchant those who stray off the beaten track to revel in its peeling glory. Walk out north, and you’ll find yourself dwarfed by the formidable red-rock ramparts of the Bidar Fort, the largest battlement in South India. A short distance away stands the vestiges of the Mahmud Gawan Madrasa, decked in fragmented Persian tiles, which was built in 1472 as a centre for advanced learning and blown to bits by a gunpowder explosion in the late 17th Century. 

Bahamani Tombs in Ashtur

Amble down to Ashtur, where the gigantic domed sepulchres of the Bahamani sultans stand guard over the desolate laterite landscape. And spend a quiet moment at the mausoleum of Syed Kirmani Baba, who came calling on the Bahamani kings from Iran and never returned. A sublimely beautiful monument, it’s regularly prayed in by women in hijab, who sombrely murmur pleas among rows of medieval graves lining the polygonal courtyard. Sit in, and be forever under its spell. 

Mausoleum of Syed Kirmani Baba

Four visits in as many years, and I still haven’t managed to snap out of it.

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GETTING STONED: 10 perfect ways to laze away your time in Hampi

If you’re packing your bags for Hampi, there’s one thing you can safely choose to leave behind at home. Your wristwatch. And while you soak in the languid grain of this ancient village tucked away under heaps of rocks and ruins, here are 10 pastimes you could indulge in to while away the sluggish days.

Coracle on the Tungabhadra

1. Hop onto a coracle and go for a slow ride on the turbid waters of the Tungabhadra. Strike a pidgin conversation with random co-passengers, and have a laugh.

2. Scramble up the stone staircase leading to the summit of Mathanga Hill before first light, and sip out of your thermos while you watch the first rays of the sun light up the magical landscape.

Banana plantations, Hampi

3. Go for a walk in the banana plantations. Choose a well-defined trail, however, or there’s every chance you might get lost (unless that’s really your objective!).

Mango Tree Restaurant, Hampi

4. Park yourself in the terraced dining area of Mango Tree, Hampi’s numero uno restaurant, and treat yourself to a scrumptious yet unhurried lunch. Try the lavish special thali. Stay through for dinner if you will.

5. Sit in a quiet corner of the Virupaksha Temple complex, the most sacred of Hampi’s shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva, and watch devotees lose themselves in a plethora of rituals.

6. Join in with Lakshmi, the adorable temple elephant, as she happily bathes herself in the waters of the Tungabhadra at 8.30 every morning. Later, get sloppy smooched by her — that’s how she blesses mere mortals — for a coin.

Rock formations, Hampi

7. Scale the boulders. For the cliffhanging types, Hampi’s rocks make for a perfect Sunday morning climb. Cheat code for amateurs: many of the giant rocks have medieval stairways cut into them. Easy does it!

Ruins in the wilderness

8. Play Indiana Jones. Hampi is strewn with some 2000 ruins, only 83 of which are identified, conserved and protected. So go hunting for new relics in the wilderness – but watch out for creatures of the slithery kind.

9. Cross over to the northern banks of the Tungabhadra to explore the ancient fortified village of Anegundi, and the nearby Hanuman Temple, perched precariously stop the craggy Anjanadri Hill.

Cricket match, Hampi Bazaar

10. Play a game of cricket with the local kids at the foot of Mathanga Hill. A Twenty20-style match takes place almost every evening, so go crack a few sixes and steer your team to victory.

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CRACKED REAR VIEW: Bangalore Rediscovered

Swing a chicken on its high streets, and you’ll hit a dozen works-in-progress in transient, ever-morphing Bangalore – oops, Bengaluru. But romantics take heart: the city still fosters a few sanctuaries where one can soak in undiluted nostalgia. Here are five places that bring back the memories.

The Bandstand at Cubbon Park

 

CUBBON PARK

In the heart of Bengaluru’s business district is this 300-acre patch of green, forested with 6000-odd trees and protected by environmental law. Landscaped in 1870 (it still feels around then within), Cubbon Park is where Bengaluru’s residents often slink away to take a pit-stop from the rat race. Idlers, thinkers, lovers or dreamers – you’ll find them all here, immersed in their own indulgences.

 KRISHNA RAJENDRA MARKET

This was the first area in India to get electricity in the early 1900s. But the clock hands in KR Market have refused to move since then. Walk into its ancient preserves, and you’re teleported to an era when they were still writing legends about kings. Watch flower stalls bloom in a riot of colours, or breathe in the fragrance of exotic incenses and spices emanating from around you. Happy loitering.

Lunchtime at Koshy's

 KOSHY’S

Perhaps the last of the dinosaurs among India’s watering holes, Koshy’s has quenched the collective thirst of Bengaluru’s intelligentsia for six decades. Its mothballed interiors are a foster home to generations of lawyers, professors, writers, filmmakers and painters, who still gather here to while away the hours over a pint or three. Feel free to join in.

MAVALLI TIFFIN ROOM

Want to wolf down some traditional Kannada Brahmin fare the old school way? Welcome to Mavalli Tiffin Room, or MTR, a culinary institution that has, since 1924, churned out endless platters of dosas, idlis, vadas and assorted dishes for its loyal customers. Grab a quick bite at the walk-in café downstairs, or splurge on a lavish meal in the restaurant upstairs. And don’t forget that coffee for the road, served in a silver cup!

THE TAJ WEST END

They call it the Grand Old Dame of Bengaluru’s heritage hotels. The West End’s saga flashbacks to 1887, when it was incepted as a 10-bed hostel for army officers by a British family. Over the decades, the hotel has evolved as a definitive icon of Indian hospitality. But nostalgia hasn’t been given the golden handshake, and you can sense it lingering among the clusters of pearly white colonial villas and mansions strewn with memorabilia, and interspersed by silent groves of exotic flora that are home to flocks of chirping birds. Step in, and feel it all coming back.

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