Gourmet Traveller

Why Bangalore is Blessed to Have Karavalli, Chef Naren Thimmaiah’s Garden of Gastronomy. Plus: At 94, MTR Looks Set to Score a Century, and More.

Posted: June 27, 2015 at 1:03 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

WITH Middle India’s palate rooting for local flavours, and with the glamourisation of the tastes and textures we have grown up with, the rise of regional specialities to national prominence was only to be expected. This national wave of nostalgia for ‘my grandmother’s kitchen’ owes its origin and sustenance to restaurants that have given a second life to local cuisines that were struggling to survive even in the communities that gave birth to them.

As it turns 25 on June 20 at the Taj Gateway Hotel on Residency Road, Bangalore, Karavalli can proudly proclaim that it is one of those pioneering institutions that literally rescued Indian restaurants of five-star hotels from the basements that used to be assigned to them. Five-star hotels then used to seriously believe that Indian restaurants were too ‘smelly’ to be positioned above the ground.

The success of ITC Maurya’s Bukhara, which celebrated its 35th birthday last year, gave other hotels the confidence to bring their Indian kitchens out of hiding, but it was not before 1989-90, with Dakshin at the Park Sheraton (till recently an ITC hotel in Chennai) opening a year before Karavalli, that Indian restaurants finally got their pride of place in five-star hotels. And as people flocked to them, it was clear that the disdain the five-star hotels had for these gems was just a legacy of the blinkered vision of their European general managers.

Karavalli showcases the many cuisines of the country’s south-western coast, starting from Goa, moving on to Karwar and Mangalore in Karnataka, and ending in Kerala, where the Palghat, Moplah and Syrian Christian kitchens have centuries of culinary excellence behind them. This is the cuisine Trishna, Gajalee and Mahesh Lunch Home subsequently made popular in Mumbai – without Karavalli, they may not have found a welcoming market.

A conversation with Karavalli’s celebrity guardian angel, Executive Chef Naren Thimmaiah, will lead you to realise that there’s a universe of difference between ‘South Indian food’ as we have grown up to understand the term and South India’s smorgasbord of cuisines created by unique geographies. When fresh out of catering college, Thimmaiah joined Karavalli 24 years ago, the then mentor of the newborn restaurant –- Camelia Panjabi, the brain behind the Taj group’s most successful brands, including House of Ming, Thai Pavilion and Konkan Café, and now an international restaurateur –- sent him to Mangalore, his old college town, to master old recipes from families that were willing to invest time in teaching him.

On going back to Mangalore, the young chef, who’s from Coorg, discovered that just this coastal district is home to five distinctive cuisines –- those of the Kshatriya Bunts (Aishwarya Rai is their most famous face), who are passionately non-vegetarian, the devoutly vegetarian, Konkani-speaking Goud Saraswat Brahmins, the Shivali Brahmins of Udupi (who have given masala dosa to the world), the Havyakar Brahmins, and the Mangalorean Catholics.

Extending his vision around him, on both sides of the south-western coast, Thimmaiah came across seven distinctly different souring agents used in the kitchens of this region. Two of them, used in ethnically diverse parts of the south, are from the same ridge-skinned fruit from the Garcinia family. The juice of kachampuli (Garcinia cambogia or brindleberry) is used to make the tart Coorg vinegar, which has a long-lasting sweetish finish. When Masterchef Australia’s Matt Preston took a bottle of it back home, the vinegar made local headlines. When the same fruit is dried and turns dark-skinned, it becomes known as kudampuli in Kerala, and it lends an unmistakable tang to the state’s famous fish curry (meen vevichathu). For the Mangalorean fish curry, however, nothing less than the hog plum would do.

Even the accompaniments are in a league of their own. If Mangalore’s kozhi gassi (chicken curry) tastes best with neer dosa, the attirachy ularthu (griddle-cooked lamb cubes with an unmistakable taste of fennel) from Travancore makes a perfect pair with Malabar parotta. We are talking about three states here –- Goa, Karanataka and Kerala –- and the wealth of food we have out there. We need more restaurants such as Karavalli to discover and romance this diversity.

DON’T LET MTR’S SQUALID ADDRESS MISLEAD YOU

WHEN you visit the Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR) in one of Bangalore’s shabbier neighbourhoods in the vicinity of the historic Lal Bagh, the repository of the country’s largest collection of tropical plants seeded by Tipu Sultan, you’d have to pinch yourself to believe it is Bangalore’s culinary landmark — and that its lineage goes back to 1924.

Its kitchen makes you squirm, its regular rooms are as dingy and unwelcoming as the ‘deluxe’ versions, and the folded-up dhotis of the waiters get grimier by the minute, yet the crowd of those waiting to savour MTR’s immortal favourites keeps growing. The whole of India seems to have converged to pay obeisance to this gastronomical institution – from Hindi in its many forms to English spoken with an immigrant American twang and even a smattering of Bangla, the languages floating in the waiting room speak up for MTR’s pan-Indian appeal.

What is it about MTR, also known for its packaged food products, that draws admirers from across the country? Certainly not the burly gatekeeper who keeps muttering under his breath as hopefuls breathe down his neck. Certainly not the quality of the service style of MTR’s waiters. When I was served chandrahara, a lavang latika dipped in a pool of sweet thickened milk, at the beginning of the meal, my host urged me not to get agitated. The waiter had just got us what was available first because he did not want us to waste our time discussing the weather.

We never got down to doing it. I was digging what was coming to the table like a man who’d just been rescued from an abandoned island. The rawa idli — an MTR invention to cope with the government’s price control orders in the days of the Emergency (rawa, or semolina, was cheaper than rice so it was possible to make a profit after following the price control orders) — was as fluffy as it would be in a gourmet dream. The accompanying coconut chutney spiked with coriander was also a winner. The Mysore masala dosa was made to perfection –- the crepe was crisp outside but it melted in my mouth the moment I bit into it. The karabat, a peppier version of the standard masala upma, was unputdownable. Even if MTR is the world’s shabbiest restaurant, I shall keep going back to it.

— These articles first appeared in my bi-monthly column, Fortune Cookie, in the Mail Today dated June 18, 2015. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers.

– See more at: http://indianrestaurantspy.com/blogpost/why-bangalore-blessed-have-karavalli-chef-naren-thimmaiahs-garden-gastronomy-plus-94-mtr#sthash.6N5atRRB.dpuf