The aroma of asafoetida, the hiss of the pressure cooker and the sandiges drying on the porch, all engage your senses as you walk through a residential neighbourhood in Bengaluru. The spluttering of curry leaves, dry chillis and mustard, before they plunge into the main dish with another hiss add to the typical setting of a South Karnataka kitchen.
In a typical household in the Bengaluru-Mysuru region, rice is consumed with tovve (dal), sambar, rasam and buttermilk, usually in this order, with a palya (stir-fried vegetable), chutney, sandiges (crisps) and pickles making fleeting appearances, only to be polished off in a flash. Each region has its distinct cuisine and this region is no different. "Every region has its own ecosystem. Tumakuru alone is said to have around 200 different types of edible herbs," says K C Raghu, a food expert.
Food in this region has known to be dominated by rice. "It's a mountain of rice and rivers of sambar," food enthusiasts say. And as if that is not enough, there are the pre-mixed rice preparations like vangi bath, puliyogare, curd rice and bisie bele bath. Chitranna or lemon rice is prepared by mixing cooked rice with a seasoning of cumin seeds, dals, dried and green chillis, and turmeric, with a dash of lemon juice, and is garnished with grated coconut and corianders leaves. Vangi bath is a rice dish made with brinjal and a choice of vegetables like capsicum, carrots and beans. It is flavoured with spices like cinnamon and black stone flower. Bisi bele bath is a version of sambar rice and is also flavoured with spices like cinnamon.
K T Achaya in his book Indian Food-A Historical Companion, while explaining the 'six tastes enjoined by Vedic practice' states that, "Broadly speaking, the south has a common order in the way food is served and consumed and the arrangement of food items on the banana leaf used for eating is similar in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala."
"In Karnataka, after the rice is served, tiny mouthfuls of it are tasted mixed with the kosambri, vegetables (palya, cooked in many ways) and tovve already in position on the plate," Achaya states. After the huli (sambar) and other mixed vegetables (gojju, kootu), more rice is eaten with a spicy thin dal extract (saaru, rasam). After a choice of sweets like the payasam, or kesari bath or a solid sweet like Mysore Pak or jilebi, salty snacks like vade or bonda are munched. "And finally to soothe the palate will come rice with curds or buttermilk," Achaya adds.
Though rice is a staple in this region, ragi (finger millet) is gulped down in its various incarnations like the mudde, malt and hurihittu. According to Raghu, in a book called Ahaara, regions are distinguished by the cuisine of the area. The South Karnataka region is called the 'Mudde Seeme', with ragi being popular across all districts of the region. Mudde is relished with a host of accompaniments. Bassaru, with its vegetarian and meat variant, masoppu, molake saaru (sprouts), kat saaru, koli saaru (chicken curry), meenu saaru (fish curry), and greens are some of the popular accompaniments. Curries are made of a variety of greens like the anne soppu, huli soppu and masale soppu using various masalas. There are a variety of halu sarus or rasams where milk is an ingredient, like the podavalkai (snake gourd) halu saaru and the dantu (amaranth) soppu halu saaru.
The moderate climate of the region is conducive to the growth of a range of vegetables and greens. Some of the vegetables the homemaker would pick off the overflowing carts are the region's specialties, like avarekai, which is said to thrive in the misty conditions around Bengaluru, like Magadi and Kanakapura.
Today, chapatis are also regulars in most homes in the region, which along with the puris, are consumed with a stir-fry curry or a sagu, which could be a gooey potato dish or a mixed vegetable preparation.
Though breakfast dishes like idli, vada, dosa and chow chow bath (upma and kesari bath) are associated with most of South India, the discerning diner will find a subtle difference in the ones prepared in Bengaluru and Mysuru. The fluffy, perforated set dosas and khali dosas are seldom found outside Bengaluru and Mysuru. The masala dosas of Bengaluru and Mysuru, with their crisp, glistening, golden brown exteriors and red interiors with a smearing of the spicy chutney and the enclosed potato curry, differ from their cousins elsewhere. The humble idlis come in the standard size as well as the larger disc shaped ones called thatte idlis. The rava idli, which is made of rava and curd, has a dense suspension of dals, chillis, coriander leaves and cashew nuts.
The region has some celebrated sweets as well. Mysore Pak is said to have originated from the royal kitchens of the Mysore Palace. The karjikais or kajayas are well known sweets from the region. The holige variants, one made of dal and the other with coconut are old favourites with new innovations like dry fruits, carrot and beetroot emerging in recent times. Various varieties of payasams are scooped off plantain leaves on special occasions, like the dal variety, khus khus payasam, vermicelli payasam and the sago variant.
The kosambris, which are dals softened by soaking in water and garnished with salt, mustard seeds and fresh coriander are a must for special occasions. Vegetables like carrot and cucumber are also added to kosambris. Tubers are relished in the region too with sweet potatoes and yams lending themselves to many dishes. Palyas, made of a variety of vegetables like gourds, carrots, beans and cabbage are popular side dishes in the region.
The tovves, which are a standard fare in South Karnataka meals, come in variants like the plain dal with just the basic seasoning, the greens dal and those made with vegetables like the snake gourd, bottle gourd, ridge gourd and brinjals.
The region also has its unique meat dishes. Mutton, chicken and pork are some of the most commonly consumed foods in the region. Non-veg restaurants called the 'Military Hotels' attract customers with fare like the mutton chops, brain curry, boti and the leg soup.
There are some foods that are specialties of a small geographical area. Passengers on trains between Bengaluru and Mysuru rush to the doors to make the most of the train's brief halt at Maddur to grab their favourite Maddur vada, a local crunchy delicacy which is made of dal and a liberal supply of onions, giving it a sweetish taste. Chintamani, a variety of spiced peanuts, gets its name from the place of its origin.
Of late, many eateries in Bengaluru claim to specialise in Bangarpet chaat, where the pani into which the hollow puris are drowned and pulled out, tastes pungent despite being clear and colourless. There are others that dish out the Mulbagal masala dosa, which they claim has a distinct taste. An outlet in Kunigal claims its biriyanis have distinct taste because of the type of firewood used for cooking. The fire from the wood of the tamarind tree is said to give the biriyani its unique taste.The people of the region are known to savour snacks like nippat, chakli, kodbale and churmuri.
However, some commonality of cuisine is inevitable in South India because of what Raghu terms as homogenisation of cuisine. "Cultures interact, identities mingle and cuisines overlap," he says. The cuisine in a region is meant to be a balance of taste, nutrition and the availability of ingredients. There is just enough of sweet, spice, salt and sourness, besides carbohydrates, protein and fat.