We’re talking traditional food that takes a significant amount of time and energy effort to dish up. Dry roasting aromatic spices, using pestle and mortar to coax flavours out of them, slow cooking and simmering the dish was routine for matriarchs who guarded their recipes zealously.
Come to think of it, mealtime was quite like showtime. Only the star-cast, featuring grandmom and a medley of helpers, didn’t know it as they expertly steamed fine strands of home-made shavige (rice vermicelli) and served it with thick, creamy coconut milk and jaggery for breakfast or prised fluffy kotte (idlis) out of leaf cups made with stitched jackfruit leaves for the evening snack.
Be it marvai-pundi (cockles with dumplings) of the Tuluvas in Mangalore; koli barthad, a chicken dish of the Kodavas famed for its smoky flavours and pungent taste courtesy the kachampuli in the masala; or mutton xacuti of the Goans, where the xacuti masala is made from scratch with 14 ingredients, dishes like these are way beyond our level of skill and patience. Who, in this age of cold storage meats and readymade curry pastes, would know how to properly clean and cook the cockles, anyway?
My family’s food mythology stars a legendary brain masala, where sheep’s brains were cooked to custardy perfection with a crunchy topping of onion slivers and freshly ground pepper. It is hard to forget the meaty, spicy, hearty goodness of paya that was left to simmer in a heavy degchi on a charcoal fire all night so that it could be consumed by the bowlful, first thing in the morning!
There are nostalgic tales of timeless food classics, like erachi pathiri or deep-fried, savoury parcels of mincemeat, or spicy erachi ulathiyathu, whose heat could be doused only with toddy.
As generations pass, are we in danger of losing these epicurean delights? Can memories of dishes that haunt us be recreated by recipes alone? Passionate chefs like Naren Thimmaiah of The Gateway and Venkatesh Bhat of Bon South in Bangalore are on a mission to preserve such disappearing delights. They have scoured the countryside for local ingredients and pleaded with grandmothers for precious recipes.
Naren, for instance, recalls the weeks he spent, 16 years ago, with the Bhandary family in Mangalore, perfecting the nuances of Bunt cooking. “I learnt the art of grinding fresh masalas to a fine paste on a stone grinder. The robust flavours of the coconut-rich masalas of this coastal cuisine can easily be damaged by the high heat of the mixer,” he says, adding that apart from the thick and fleshy Kundapur coconuts that he now sources for his signature restauarant Karavalli, he also has a set of mechanised stone grinders!
In Havyaka homes near Vittal, a small town near Bantwal in Dakshina Kannada district, Naren discovered pure vegetarian treasures such as doddapatre tambuli; mavinakayi menaskai, jackfruit dosa made with raw jackfruit, jeegujje podi (breadfruit pakodas), and halasina (jackfruit) payasa, made with sundried ripe jackfruit which is then reduced to pulp with jaggery and preserved for future use.
Venkatesh Bhat of Bon South is convinced that some dishes are so elaborate to make that they will survive, not in home kitchens, but in niche restaurants alone! Going by his description of the Chettinad signature dish Shunti, we are inclined to believe him! The shoulder meat of a goat is boiled for three hours, shredded by hand into fine strips, mixed with spices, shaped into roundels, tied together with banana stem fibre and deep fried. Having sourced this speciality from Sivaji Ganesan’s kitchen in Thanjavur, Bhat is convinced that very few have the patience or the energy to make this treat even for on a special occasion.
In Rayalseema in Andhra Pradesh, he perfected the art of making pootharekulu, a sweet made with rice flour batter, poured in hundreds of paper-thin layers, each layer topped with powdered sugar; then rolled up and cut into neat cyclinders or squares and dusted with more powdered sugar.
While chefs perfecting sous-vide cooking have their followers, it’s tradition-bound maestros turning out perfectly crunchy ambode (masala vade) or vaali ambot (spinach curry) with just the right bite who inspire a ‘back-to-the-basics’ food movement.
At the recent Upper Crust food show in Bangalore, passionate foodies argued that the regional restaurants, including khanavalis in towns like Belgaum, specialising in food ‘just like how grandmom made it’, owed their growing popularity to consumers whose tastes have evolved beyond Chinese, Continental, Thai and Mexican food. These consumers, now want to discover food from India’s many states and communities.
“The traditional Onam lunch in South Indies in Bangalore got us 500 covers this year while a Sunday lunch gets just 250 covers in comparison! This shows that young people in nuclear families want to eat their grandmother’s olan and kalan though they have no clue how to make them,” says Bhat with a chuckle.