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Mesmerizing Multitude of Mangalore

My urgency was unexplained to my family. Neither did I share as to why I avoided a lunch halt en-route. With a couple of small halts to ensure that the soul is fed with the beauty of the landscape, I was holding back my more mortal hunger since I had a belief that if one wants something intensely, it happens. Google Map has rarely been so critical. As the cityscape gradually started appearing, it was 3 pm and it still showed 15 minutes to Jyothi Talkies, Bunts Hostel Rd. The chauffer also must be hungry and my restlessness probably irritated him further. The car didn’t even come to a halt, and off I went out and instead of even searching for the elevator climbed the steps up to reach there.

Inside, I told the supervisor, I need to order. A slightly indignant face of his made me take a glance at my watch – past 3:20. “Sir, you need to order right away, entire order”.  “Can you give me 2 mins? My family is on their way.” He didn’t. Quite naturally, since they close at 3:30pm. “Never mind – take my order.”

  • Chicken Ghee Roast – 2 plates
  • Pepper Chicken Roast – 2 plates
  • Mangalorean Prawn Curry
  • Neer Dosa
  • Steamed Rice

I realized that when at gun-point, one generally tends to deliver the best, albeit in areas around his/ her passion.

Rarely had I sensed such a feeling of relief and intense satisfaction. Order accepted, presumably they will be delivered. But then the wait was a restless one. When the hunger of the body adds up to the hunger of soul, it is terribly tough. So tough that when the entire order arrived, I almost jumped into the star attraction for which I am at Maharaja Restaurant, presumably an iconic place for the legendary Ghee Roast. As a habit, I keep my most yearned-for item last, but here, the stress of being on time and the hunger pranks were too overwhelming to align me to my practice.

The fiery red chicken pieces with ghee oozing out would have been a delight for the eyes, but my eagerness to taste it, marginally spoiled the visual delight and converged all my delight to my tongue and of course to my soul. Ghee, to a Bengali like me, has always been associated with dishes of more moderate taste like steamed rice, or Khichdi or light stew of lentil. But the overwhelming presence of it in the fiery masala gravy of chicken was a taste I can hardly elaborate through the keyboard. Maybe my abilities with the keyboard aren’t as robust yet.

The aroma of the dish floated me back by a decade to the first and so far the best Ghee Roast I have had ever at Coast-to-Coast in Bangalore. I am indeed lucky to have had some of the most delectable foodies as my supervisors at work. But little did I know then that my maiden tryst with Ghee Roast is at a place, whose parents created the famed Ghee Roast decades back in Kundapur, a coastal town near Mangalore. While KFC took the name of the place where it was originated, Kundapur didn’t get that fame because the dish was never named as Kundapur Ghee Roast (or KGR). Poverty forced his parents to get into the eatery business in the late 50s in Kundapur, but theirs was the first place in Mangalore in early 70s (Anupama) which witnessed people queuing up to have their meal.

 “The dish originated in the Mangalorean Bunt community yes, but that community is a dynamic one that sees an overlap of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian cultures. Therefore, one naturally adapts from the other, and almost every community of the area has its version of the Chicken Ghee Roast. My recipe for instance is a mix of each of these cultures, and an experimentation of variations over time. In fact, only recently I began to include a squeeze of lemon juice, along with the curd and turmeric in the marinade. The result has been great,” writes Jane M D’Souza in Jane’s Cook Book.

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The Pepper Chicken would have been a memorable dish had it not been overwhelmed by the excitement that was built around Ghee Roast. But the Coastal Prawn curry’s smoothness with the intermingling of the heat from spices and the cool flavour of coconut made me gobble up a more-than-usual quantity of rice that I otherwise would have.

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A sense of conquest was surely evident in me as I walked out of Maharaja. When you are just there for 2 days in Mangalore, missing out a meal in the city was something I couldn’t come to terms with. Hence that unusual stress and rush for making it to Maharaja in time.

Mangalore can be a culinary destination only. It is a melting pot of cultures and traditions not only from various geographies but also from various points in the tide of time. While, to most, it is that generic South Indian food, but dug deeper, there exists distinct evidences of multiples cultures and their cuisines. It has its own share of delights for both vegetarians’ non-vegetarians’ as well. Tuluva cuisine is the collective cuisine of the Tulu speaking communities of Tulu Nadu in coastal Karnataka. Being a coastal zone, predominance of fish is obvious.  Staying at Gateway Hotel, the live seafood counter at Port Café was irresistible. The ensemble of kingfish, silver fish, pomfret, squid and a larger variety of Indian Carplet was a delight when served straight from frying pan.

 

And so were their continental dishes. Grilled fish creates an image of a nice slab of bhetki served with mashed potatoes and boiled veggies. But to get fresh seer fish instead of bhetki was not only a surprise but a delight which percolated into the taste bud making me a fan of grilled seer fish. Because of the location and nature of the fish, the marination was probably different here with sparing use of spices like pepper.

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But to cherish the absolutely local and authentic fish preparation, a meal at Giri Manjas is a must. There is nothing special about the place. You won’t even pay any heed to many such places in any city. This is a humble restaurant on Car Street (very little space to park cars).

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When it was founded in 1984 by Giri Pai, it didn’t have a name. It was only around 2007 that Manjunath Pai, Giri’s son, gave the unnamed place its name and also introduced the ever popular Tawa Fry. And you get the same Tawa fry for whatever fish you want. It is probably the most common and favourite preparation of fish that is made in households of this city. It catapulted the eatery into a different height. It still retains its capacity of 40 people and serves more than 200 plates of fish dishes everyday.

The standard thali comes with rice (one can choose the local thicker reddish variant or the more fine and white variety), daal, one veggie of the day, a standard curry made with fish portions and pickle. One can now choose the fish and/ or chicken dish to accompany. Anjal Tawa Fry and Bangude Tawa Fry was my pick of the day. I realized why people are okay parking their cars many hundred metres away and still walking over to this place. The taste of the Tawa Fry gravy and the freshness of the fish will linger with you for a long time. What’s so special about this place and their cooking? The answer to that was they always cook with love. No wonder, BBC covered this place as part of a program on tiny eateries in India. The restaurant’s name is a combination of ‘Manjunath’ and ‘Giri’. Both of them are now no more now. Yet their legacy and love has kept the food same over the years.

It is Tuluva cuisine to which many subsequent cuisines owes its origin to. And one of them is of course the famed Udupi cuisine. It is said that Masala Dosa owes its origin to Tuluva cuisine and hence one can connect as to why the vegetarian part of Tuluva cuisine evolved as Udupi. And heralding from Kolkata, the meal that Udupi cuisine associates with the most, is breakfast. Hence a breakfast at The New Taj Mahal Café, Panchmahal Building on KS Rao Road is a destination one wouldn’t want to miss.

Order their ghee soaked tuppa dosa without any preconceived mind-set of how a dosa will look like. Else you will end up charging the waiter for having served the wrong order to you. Slightly crunchy, yet juicy, the ghee laden Dosa will arouse you from the lethargy of early morning sleepiness. Unlike the slightly stronger taste of sambar that you encounter in Bangalore, here the sambar was more light, indicating its lineage to Udupi cuisine. Same can be said about the coconut chutney. But what left lasting impression in me is the taste and balance of the green chutney which was a mix of green chilli, coriander leaves and ginger.  That was the only thing I had to ask for a refill. Mangalore Buns is another key attraction here. Most of the local residents, who are in a hurry, drop in here for a bun accompanied with filter kappi (coffee as uttered in Mangalore).  Now, I am sure, you are not expecting a traditional bun that you have known so far. While this has a swollen look like a bun, but it is closer to a poori with a crunchy outer layer enveloping a soft inner layer. You will get a distinct taste of banana which made me feel banana is part of the ingredients making the dough. By the way, forget you herald from the land of tea gardens in Bengal. You just shouldn’t leave the place without its filter kappi.

Beyond the traditional Udupi food, vegetarian Tuluva cuisine consists of various steamed delicacies like Sannas, Kottige, Dosas like Neer Dose, dry items like Sukka/Ajadina and Upkari, also gravies called Gassi (Tulu word meaning curry)/ Rasa /Pulimunchi . Upkari of Yam and a mix veg gassi was a nice way to taste the vegetarian Tuluva cuisine. It was more by force that I chose to add mutton to this platter, just to taste how they make my most favourite meat dish. And they make it great with the elaborate use of spices nicely overshadowing the dominance of garlic, and the colour of the gravy made irresistible by use of jaggery as the sweetener.

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Limited time in Mangalore meant I need to try out a mid-morning brunch as well. While not strictly a coastal Karnataka dish, Pesarattu, a dish which owes it origin probably to coastal Andhra was great temptation. Made with whole moong dal called as pesalu in Telegu, it is similar to Dosa, but absence of urad dal is what differentiates it from a Dosa. In Andhra, this pessarattu is served with ginger or tamarind chutneys and also with upma and is known as MLA pesarattu as it is probably the most common breakfast platter in restaurant in MLA quarters in Hyderabad. But I did settle for some pongal instead of upma – can’t help my weakness for pongal.

There is so much more to explore still.  Well, there is a distinct culinary trend in Mangalore which has evolved in the last three centuries. Europeans called Mangalore ‘the Rome of the East’ two centuries ago because Mangalorean Catholics are Roman Catholics from the former South Canara district on the south-western coast of India. Their ancestors were Goan Catholics, who had migrated to South Canara from Goa between 1560 and 1763 during the Goa Inquisition and the Portuguese-Maratha wars. The culture of Mangalorean Catholics is a blend of Mangalorean and Goan cultures. Hence their curry uses a lot of coconut and curry leaves while ginger, garlic and chilli are also used. Mangalorean Catholic cuisine has distinct Portuguese influence. Mangalorean Catholics mix pork blood and other parts in most of their pork delicacies as can be seen from Pork Bafat, Cabidela and Kalleze un Kiti. And when it comes to Bafat, what better place than Pereira’s to explore not only Pork Bafat but some of these famous Catholic dishes.

Started by Ignatius Pereira, this place will be 100 years in a couple of years’ time. While it is best paired with sannas (soft spongy idlis made with rice & urad dal), I couldn’t resist my temptation to pair pork bafat with my ever-favourite neer dosa. While it may seem similar to a Goan sorpotel, but use of Shindaap (chopped onions, garlic, ginger, green chillies and bay leaf) along with bafat powder creates a unique and yearning taste for this dish. Even the chicken (Kunkda Maas) liver, infused with that extra pepper on top of  The gravy that accompanies the neer dosa is an orchestra of spices mixed and executed by deft hands.

The fish curry especially their Fish Roe Curry made by Catholic Christians here, is known for its taste in the whole of coastal India while fried fish in their style is well known Pereira’s is a simple joint (possibly with accommodation facilities as well), but the warmth of the waiters and the taste of food will make you regret not to have stayed in Mangalore for some more time.

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What excited me about Mangalore is its flexibility and adaptive approach to creating combination in a meal. A pure crispy dosa with chutney in the morning, but the sambar get replaced with egg curry prepared in a Mangalorean way. It was a super start to a day when you have to hold your emotion back that it is time for you to leave this culinary heaven.

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