The subtle & diverse flavors of Karnataka

The culinary map of Karnataka is very interesting and exciting, thanks to its vast geographical area and the diversity of its gastronomic styles. Having lived in Karnataka for almost two decades and traveled across the state to know the cuisine in depth and study the original regional cuisine in these varied social and cultural customs that are inseparable in parts of the regions, one could almost map the geography and cultural diversity across these cuisines – dishes that are spicy and tart, bland, as much as spongy or crispy.

Some dishes that started in royal kitchens have become signature dishes. The royal kitchens of Mysore had a culinary repertoire of wholesome delicacies like Kosambari, Puliyogare, Palyas, Gojju, Huli, Obbattu and many others but also the famous Mysore Pack which was accidentally invented by its royal chef Kakasura Madappa when he cooked gram flour, ghee and sugar together. Also, the ubiquitous Bisi Bele Bath, another popular palate delight, which, again, is said to have been made here first. As it emerged from royal kitchens and became popular, it evolved to include vegetables and became a meal that farmers typically ate after working in the fields. The other two gastronomic kings who established the descriptions of food, cooking techniques and eating etiquettes, vegetarian flavors and meat are described by King Someshwara of Kalyana in Bidar in Manasollasa and also King Basavaraja of Keladi in West Karnataka who started eating from banana leaf in an organized way. Mangaluru is a melting pot of cultures with its diverse communities like the Tuluvas, Saraswat Brahmins, Gaud Brahmins, Catholics and Bunts, which bring an eclectic mix to the culinary spectrum. The repertoire is striking in all its flavor profiles – sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent which combine in countless ways to create the incredible diversity of this cuisine. Fish curry with raw kokum, tamarind or mango flavor, fermented pillow sannas, neer dosas, Kori Gassi – very slim kori rotispongy Goli Baje and Patrodewould lose its flavor if not steamed and stuffed in colocasia leaves. Kane or quick-fried ladyfish, a variation of hoppers called kappa roti which is served with mackerel curry – locally known as Bangude Ghassi. And a few kilometers away is Kundapur which is best known for its ghee-roasted chicken, mutton with shrimp and also Kundapur Koli which is India’s best served chilli chicken in my opinion.

Let’s go a few miles further to Udupi and find joy in an entirely different cuisine better known as Madhava cuisine which was based on the Vaishnav principles of Krishna Mutt – to be managed and served by Shivalli Brahmins. These masters of gastronomy or Pakashastra, the Shivalli Brahmins of Old Udupi created a clever blend of prasadam which became very popular, so quickly that it was commercially transformed into vegetarian cuisine. I think that’s what gave Udupi cuisine a significant edge. As for Coorg’s kitchen, Pandhi Highland Kodvas curry and bamboo shoot curry come to mind. The Kodavas prefer a cuisine around hunting and agriculture served with steamed rice puttus and expert use of Kachampuli, the concentrated vinegar of the kokum fruit. Some of my favorite native specialties are the absolutely buttery and delicious pasta masala dosa dumpster in Davanagere, melting milk Peda from Dharwad, Vijayapura Jolada Rotti Ootathe milky dessert that makes your lips smack Kunda of Belagavi, the famous Mandige Bellary sweets, the must-have Mirchi Bonda of Chitradurga, and Maddur Vada from Maddur which is a highly sought after donut. The list is exhaustive but that is what makes Karnataka unique.

(The author is an award-winning chef, mentor, maven, and food and beverage master with over three decades of experience in leading world-class hotels and restaurants around the world.)

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