Your state on your plate

Your state on your plate

One state. Many worlds. The catchphrase of the Karnataka Tourism Department is arguably more apt for the state’s cuisine than anything else. Unfortunately, the state’s many thriving food sub-cultures and mouth-watering dishes are hidden under the flamboyance of the Mysore masala dose or its drippy cousin Davangere benne dose.

Anecdotal evidence sadly suggest that forget the so-called ‘outsiders’, even Kannadigas themselves are quite unaware of the rich variety of cuisine the state offers.

Ask anyone to name a few Karnataka-specific dishes and, yes, you will get to hear about the same-old doses, the odd maddur vada or two, or that all-consuming behemoth — bisibelebath. Really, we owe it to the diversity of the state to dig a little deeper, don’t we?

Not only is Karnataka’s food highly evolved in terms of variety and taste, but it is also, like most cuisines with a history, deeply scientific in its ethos.

Chef Regi Mathew, who has been championing ethnic cuisines for many years now, says Karnataka’s food habits are different every 100 km.

“Look at the local oota of the region — it will tell you everything about how multifaceted the state’s heritage is.”

Be it the thatte idli with coconut
chutney and Mysore bonda one relishes in South Karnataka, the gassi and neer dosa of coastal Karnataka, the millet rottis (both jowar and sajje) with ennegai in North Karnataka or the kadamputtu
with mudre kanni of the Kodagu region, the delicacies are all deeply linked with the agricultural traditions of the particular region.

Simply put, North Karnataka primarily cultivates jowar, the west rice, and the south ragi. From here have sprung the many delicacies of the state.

Evidently, when the foods are so deeply dependent on the agricultural produce of the region, they are essentially driven by seasons. The local eco-system, the climate of the region and the kind of soil — all make a difference to the food that is consumed. This is where science and nutrition blend into one. As the chef says, if we stick to season-specific food habits like our forefathers clearly did, we are automatically consuming fresh, natural produce that are good for our body (and soul).  More crucially, by doing so, we are getting the “right nutrition for the right season”. Worldwide too, food trends are all about going local and seasonal. Nutritionists and dietitians are crying themselves hoarse that a prominent reason for our ills and deficiencies is our nonchalant ignoring of the scientific and cultural aspects of our foods, not to mention our consumption of over-processed foods loaded with empty calories and sugar.

Sankranthi science

For instance, since Makara Sankranthi is round the corner, consider the traditional Karnataka delicacies prepared during this time.  

“Each one of the foods that are eaten during Sankranthi has a purpose and meaning,” says Neetha Pulakeshi, who has a small business of making sambar powders and pickles at home. The chef agrees.

“Sankranthi is a harvest festival; hence, there is abundance. This is why Kannadigas make huggi (sweet pongal), which symbolises the overflowing of both food and happiness,” he says. However, Sankranthi is not just about huggi in Karnataka — there is a veritable feast out there, if only one cares to look (and eat of course).

As it is still wintry when Sankranthi arrives, especially in the northern parts of the state, bajra rotti is made during the season. This is to be lapped up with kaalu palyas of many kinds; then there is the crunchy and
delicious peanut holige, a ‘warmth-providing’ variety of the traditional sweet dish. Notice that all the ingredients used for these dishes are harvested during Sankranthi.

Even the very popular tradition of ellu beerodu has great scientific significance, explains the chef. “The platter exchanged between women and girls comprises sugarcane, a sesame and jaggery mixture, sakkare acchu (sugar candy), jujube, betel leaves, arecanut and bananas.”

The beauty of the platter lies in its nutritional balance — while the bananas and sugarcane provide energy, sesame and jaggery are foods meant to generate warmth in the system to combat the chills and flu, common during winters.

Nowadays, many also advocate preparing huggi (or pongal) using millets — a nutritionally powerful variant of the one made with wheat.

Avarekai versus sajje rotti!

No, we have not forgotten ‘THE’ bean of the state. Karnataka, especially southern Karnataka’s love for the bean, is now legendary. Incidentally, Chef Mathew has an interesting anecdote about how the humble avarekai came to dominate the winters in Karnataka. In the 1970-80s, there was a sudden and unexplained fall in demand for the crop. It was then that traders suggested to farmers to hold avarekai melas in and around Bengaluru to sell their surplus produce. Soon enough, this not only became a tradition, but also popularised the bean in the region to a great extent.

So much so that in some households, there is no escaping the green bean this season. Averekai shows up its little face in every dish that is prepared — uppitu, rotti, saaru, and yes, even in bisibelebath!

While the bean rules in the southern states, Sankranthi is sajje season in the north. Sajje is a millet variety and is grown during this period.

The preparation of these rottis though is a fine art by itself and will take a while to master. But once prepared, they go very well with several accompaniments — from powders (pudi) such as shenga pudi, agasi pudi and uchchal pudi to fresh greens (like methi) and the aforementioned kaalu palyas.

There’s more

If you have not yet run to the kitchen hungry, there are a few more Sankranthi-specific foods waiting to be explored. For instance, there is the til chikki and the til laddoo, both prepared with sesame (another seasonal queen), jaggery, peanuts and dollops of ghee. Not to forget the traditional chakkara pongal or sakkre pongal, prepared with coconut, rice, jaggery, milk, chana dal and a generous helping of all the dry fruits you can lay your hands on!

While it is true that we don’t often pause to wonder about the food we eat, there is certainly a resurgence of interest in local food and a growing awareness of the nutritional benefits of eating fresh and seasonal produce.

The many delights that Karnataka cuisine has to offer in this season of abundance and harvest will make that journey back to one’s roots only that much easier.

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