Travel for food: Join a few chefs on an epic adventure for authentic regional cuisine
When the folks at JW Marriott Bengaluru invited us for a Coorg Coffee Trail with award-winning executive chef Anthony En Yuan Huang, we weren’t sure what to expect. “It’s a coffee-themed food festival in Bengaluru, after a field trip to Coorg,” we were told enigmatically. And thus, a motley group of writers, foodies and chefs set off for Kodagu. We pulled over at a side road for a pop-up breakfast of JW Marriott’s signature soft-centre chocolate cookies, croissants, cupcakes and sandwiches.
That was just an appetiser for the lunch at Cuisine Papera in Gonikoppal. In a museum-like setting amid old vessels and traditional implements, we tried vonekk yerchi (smoked pork), pork chudals, bemble (bamboo shoot) and pandi curry with akki otti (rice roti or flatbread). The meal wasn’t ideal prep for a berry picking exercise at Tarun Cariappa’s coffee estate at Valnoor, but we sluggishly went on to learn how coffee is grown, harvested and processed, while savouring some sweet paputtu (rice cakes), mushroom toasties and traditional Kodava hospitality.
By evening, we reached The Bungalow 1934, a heritage property run by rallyist Amrith Thimmaiah. With a backdrop of mist-laden hills, Chef Anthony conducted a Master Class on coffee-inspired dishes such as the Drunken Chicken, marinated with Coorg coffee, green pepper, parangi malu (bird’s eye chilli) and a can of beer, staying true to the region’s love for a good tipple.
Heading back to Bengaluru, we enjoyed a coffee spa and a coffee-themed buffet at the JW Kitchen. With coffee-crusted beef tournedos, tiger prawns marinated in Coorg coffee, espresso desserts and coffee-based cocktails — this was a caffeine fix of a different kind.
From food festivals, pop-ups to theme restaurants, ‘eat local’ is the new mantra and chefs are moving out of the comfort of their kitchens. They often travel miles to ensure that their food is ‘zero-mile’ and locally sourced. Westin Hyderabad Mindspace, for instance, relies on the cultural roots of their chefs for culinary inspiration. At the restaurant Seasonal Tastes, Chef Mukesh Sharma from Gwalior delved into traditional tastes from Madhya Pradesh to develop a gharana cuisine of royal flavours from Gwalior, Indore and Bhopal — featuring bhutte ki kees (spiced grated corn) and Bhopali gosht korma.
Westin encourages its chefs to regale patrons with unusual offerings the way royal cooks delighted the Maharajas of yore — vada burgers and gol gappas with guacamole, and sol kadhi (a digestive curry or drink made of coconut milk and kokum). At Kangan, their Frontier fine-dine restaurant, an artisan from the Old City crafts a lac bangle for guests, gratis — a wonderful way of keeping both cultural and culinary traditions alive.
Goat balls and fire ants
That brings us to a recent pan-Karnataka food adventure, to discover authentic regional flavours, traditional cooking techniques and local cuisines across the state. With a video crew and two talented chefs in tow, we set ourselves a broad itinerary across Karnataka, which frequently led us to cook at homes, iconic hotels, temple kitchens and even smoky village huts.
On our team was Chef Suresh Venkat-ramana who, after 18 years at UK’s top restaurants, returned to his roots to rediscover Karnataka’s traditional cuisine. Joining him was self-taught chef and F&B consultant Manjit Singh of Herbs & Spice fame, who has also launched many a restaurant from Indira Nagar to Aizawl. An avid biker, Chef Manjit’s driving skills and fluency in Kannada made him an asset on our food adventures. He haggled with fisherwomen, bargained at village markets and made ‘Gowda hunter-style’ sand-baked fish by the river, earning him the nickname, Manjit Singh Gowda or MSG.
Planning it by circuits — Coorg, Malnad, Coast, North and South Karnataka — the coast was initially supposed to be one linear trip with stopovers at Mangalore, Udupi, Bhatkal, Gokarna and Karwar. But we could not even cross Mangalore in our first attempt, as we were ensnared in a delicious web of sukkas, seafood, goli baje (fried snacks), sajjige-bajjil (sweet, spicy seasoned beaten rice commonly eaten with upma for a light breakfast) and Mangalore buns, always referred to in plural even if you ask for one.
We quickly realised that there is no such thing as Mangalorean cuisine, but you can find Bunt, GSB (Gaud Saraswat Brahmin), Catholic, Jain and Beary cuisines — each a rich representative of various communities. So what’s the food scene in Mangalore, we asked our foodie friend, Arun Pandit. “After Ramzaan, cholesterol, after Christmas, cirrhosis, after Ratholsavam (chariot festival), flatulence…” he said, summing up the hazards of the feasting season.
We stuffed leitão (pigling) with the Britto sisters and chickens with Luna and Lunita, made tindli-moi (cashew-ivy gourd) at the Pereira Hotel, and savoured fish meals at Narayana and pork meals at a home-style Catholic eatery named, Mary Bai ‘mai jowan’ (literally ‘mum’s food’). In Udupi, we tried the ‘Gadbad’ ice cream at the Diana Restaurant, where it was rustled up in a gadibidi (great hurry). Near Yellapura, we encountered Siddis, descendants of African slaves brought by the Portuguese, and cooked wild ferns like aame soppu, literally ‘turtle greens.’ From being goaded to eat goat balls at a Sauji eatery (good for virility, said the owner with a wink) to waking up before dawn to harvest a nest of fire ants to make chigli chutney in Malnad — we did it all.
“Hum pet pe kafan baandh ke nikle hain” (We’ve set out with shrouds on our stomachs), was our popular refrain, as we devoured everything from gurudwara langar at Bidar to cycle khova (sold on bicycles) in Bellary. By the time we were done, we had clocked 20,000 km over two years, covering 25 communities, as virtual strangers opened their homes and hearths to help us document their rare culinary treasures. Eventually, after extensive food trials, Karnataka’s culinary heritage was showcased at Oota, a themed restaurant in Whitefield, Bengaluru. Our travels went on to inspire mixologist Neil Alexander to concoct indigenous cocktails using local ingredients — such as, Mandya Sour with honeycomb infused whiskey and sugarcane juice and Varthur Overflow, using Gokarna’s pink-hued Saneykatta salt.
Unique composite cuisines
In Chennai, the ITC Grand Chola’s Chef Varun Mohan researched India’s imperial kitchens for Royal Vega, a pan-Indian vegetarian restaurant with a season-based menu, while Avartana serves South Indian dishes with a contemporary twist. For ITC’s new hotel WelcomHotel Coimbatore, Chef Praveen Anand travelled across the Tamil hinterland to research Kongunadu cuisine, stopping at local eateries, parotta joints and homes to understand culinary nuances and techniques. WelcomeCafe Kovai now has a small regional showcase of kadai thengai curry (quail in dry coconut and red chillis) and kalakki (soft scrambled egg masala).
Meenakshi Meyyappan, the octogenarian owner of The Bangala in the heritage town of Karaikudi, has dedicated her life to hospitality, showcasing the cuisine of the Nattukottai Chettiars of Tamil Nadu. After years of serving traditional meals on banana leaf at her heritage hotel, she also co-authored the books, The Chettinad Cookbook and The Bangala Table. Even today, Mrs Meyyappan personally fixes the daily menu at
The Bangala, a day in advance. The assimilation of various flavours to form a unique composite cuisine can be best seen in Kochi. Like a UN potluck, the Portuguese introduced coconut milk, the Jews contributed the appam, while the Dutch infused culinary influences from their colonies — Indonesian satay to Sumatran rendang (caramelised curry). CGH Earth’s Eighth Bastion Hotel offers a tantalising ‘Dutch Route’ at their restaurant East Indies with Dutch Bruder bread and lamprais (a Sri Lankan Dutch Burgher dish). Brunton Boatyard’s History Restaurant, on the other hand, showcases 32 cuisines of various communities in Fort Kochi — Syrian Christian duck moilee, Anglo Indian cutlet, Jewish chuttulli meen (fish with roasted shallots), Ceylonese string hoppers and Railway Mutton Curry.
At the Queen’s Table
On our travels to north India, we found several heritage hotels reviving heirloom recipes that were handed down for generations. At Ramgarh Heritage, a 300-year-old haveli near Chandigarh, the Chandail family gave us a cooking demo of rare dishes such as babru (a crispy malpua), Kulhad Wala Kukkad (roast chicken leg in earthen cup) and 21 Masalon ka Raan (whole lamb shank flavoured with poppy seeds, dry fruits and spices). Rajasthan’s culinary repertoire, often stereotyped with laal maas (spicy mutton curry) and gatte ki sabzi (gram flour dumpling curry) is seeing a culinary renaissance through recipes documented by various thikanas (fiefdoms). At Bikaner’s Laxmi Niwas Palace, at a low-lit long table inside Rajat Mahal the Gold Room, we feasted on boti marinated with kachri (wild melon), red chillis and wild country fowl with warqi paratha. At Narendra Bhawan, the avant-garde residence of Bikaner’s last Maharaja Narendra Singhji, we relished a Bikaneri nashta of mirchi vadas, bajra poori, kesar lassi and pista chaach. The Marwari Lunch at the Queen’s Table in P&C (Pearls & Chiffon) had carefully curated dishes from Bikaner’s royal kitchens — Maans ke Sule, Khargosh (rabbit) Kachra and Murgh Tamatar Nagori, apart from the Maharaja’s eclectic European tastes — goat cheese mousse and Arancini Biryani.
One place that takes culinary exploration to another level is the majestic Suryagarh heritage hotel, near Jaisalmer. At their specialty restaurant, Legends of Marwar, host Manvendra Singh regaled us with stories of Marwar’s lesser-known fare from court kitchens and royal hunts. The hosts at Suryagarh go to great lengths to present their food in dramatic outdoor settings — waking up before dawn for Breakfast with Peacocks, the never-ending Halwayi breakfast, sundowners, Dinner on the Dunes with a nomadic hunt menu, and Jaisalmer grill and curry dinner at The Lake Garden.
The starry Thar sky mirrored the twinkle of lamps on our low table as Kalbeliya girls danced to the tunes of Manganiyar musicians, and the smoky aroma of char-grilled bater (quail) and khad khargosh (smoked rabbit cooked in a pit) mingled with the ballads of kings. We relived the past with the taste of centuries-old flavours