A melange of flavours

A melange of flavours

From creating stunning puttus to building the finest repository of pork dishes, Karnataka’s food culture has been a melting pot of many influences driven by trade, communities and royal politics, writes Madhulika Dash


When we talk of Karnataka cuisine, we think of the benne dosa, ghee roast, Mysore pak, Dharwad peda, the iconic pandi curry. But that is till we are reminded of the coffee belt of Coorg, the temples of Udupi and the royal Mysore, and suddenly the thali seems like an expansive feast that not only has the fascinating vegetarian fare of kootu, saaru, sweets like obbattu and chiroti from the Chharodi community who came along with the Bahmani Sultanate, but also of a regal array of mutton, fish and chicken dishes from the coastal and coffee belt like the sukka and kane fry from the Bunts of Mangaluru, the kaima unde (meatballs) and ragi mudde of the Gowdas, the Shaiyya biryani of the Nav-ayath community or the range of puttus by the Kodava community of Coorg and the pork and mutton dishes from the Malnad region. And yet, at the end of the count, one would be covering only a single layer of what today is loosely defined as the food of the Canara region, which was in the past part of not only a successful trade route but the epicentre of most of the political changes that took place in Deccan.

“Just think about it,” says culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “even though erstwhile Canara wasn’t a part of any single kingdom, it remained in the cusp of all major political and trade exchanges. Whether it was its different regions that were part of some powerful kingdom, be it the Vijayanagara or the Bahmani Sultanate or later as part of either the Madras or Mumbai Presidency or as a major port to the Silk Route. The result, Canara, through history, remained one of the most advanced societies with many communities that made this region their home — and in doing so, created one of the most fascinating culinary spreads that date to the early part of Dravidian culture till the British.

So while we have the thalia puttu and nool puttu from the pork-rich Coorg in one hand, there is also the bisi bele bath and karadantu, which is a nutty fried sweet chewy treat from Gokak, and the tale mamsa (brain curry) and karadu (spicy) mutton from the Somavamsha Sahasrarjun Kshatriyas community who,
much like the Iyengars and Siddhis migrated to this prosperous region as part of the army or trade and
contributed to the cuisine of Karnataka.”

Community driven

In fact, adds Mangalurean food expert Chef Praveen Shetty, “a generous part of the Karnataka cuisine — at least the cauldron you see today — is influenced by a few prominent communities the warriors like the Bunts and Kodavas, the migrants like the SSK, Siddhis and the Muslims of Vijayapura who introduced the region to the charms of wheat and varied spice mixes and of course, the hybrid communities that helped infuse the Middle Eastern flavours into the food like the Nav-ayaths, who are solely responsible for contributing not only meat dishes like the Bhatkali biryani, half-cooked in steam but also the concept of sweet preparations like godan and malida.”

Fascinatingly, says Chef Gorai, “these hybrid communities along with the Bunts and those in Mysuru were at the forefront of developing newer techniques that helped create newer versions of traditional dishes. Like for instance, the pandi curry from Coorg when moves towards the rain happy Malnad takes on the form of the Malnad Pork, which then with few tweaks to the spices turns into pork baffath in Mangaluru.”

“Another such example is,” adds Coorg food authoritarian Chef Naren Thimmaiah, “gojju, which becomes saaru in central Canara and kootu curry in Kodava region — the change is in terms of vegetables used, the spices, especially the ratio of chilli and coconut, and the consistency, whether it is a wet paste or a dry rub.” A good instance of this quizzical re-tweaking of masala, adds Chef Shetty, “is the koli barthad of the coffee region, which uses kanchampuli. The outcome is a stunning change of taste.”

Flavour is king

This interesting spice play is in fact what lends the ghee roast from Kundapura, which originally was a chicken dish, its distinct taste and characteristic. “The secret is the chilli-based masala that is folded into the sweet ghee from Hassan,” says the culinary expert, who finds the different community’s ingenuity in creating exceptional spice blends one of the key reasons for the uniqueness of the Karnataka thali. But what remains one of the most fascinating aspects of the cuisine, says the puttu expert, “is that while the region had enough influences thanks to communities migrating through history, the culinary weave and waft has been based on creating flavours rather than reinventing the food wheel. The outcome, we have a nool puttu (our version of noodle puttu) that not only goes well with the Hassan mutton curry but also the Mangalurean chicken curry and even the Konkani influenced chinchecha thecha.”

Fascinatingly, it is the same culture webbing that has also shaped the sweet corner of Karnataka, which begins from popular pedas and vermicelli payasam to Hoorana Holige, a cousin of puran poli and the godi huggi, a delicious pudding made from fresh wheat-germ boiled with varieties of sweet condiments, jaggery and topped with ghee — a wedding special, adds Chef Gorai, “from the Lingayat community.”

No wonder that the tourism tag line too says ‘One State. Many Worlds’. After all, the food of Karnataka isn’t just one thali, but the cauldron of many, even those tribes who were simply passing by.

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