Travel, on business or for leisure, is always an opportunity for the taste buds to explore new cuisine. The challenge of entertaining an out-of-town guest in Bangalore reminds me of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink”.
Not because of any dearth of water (though it is not rare to have flooded roads and dry taps) but because while there’s enough fare from around the world: Spanish, Japanese, Korean, French, Italian and I dare say, even German, when a visitor asks to sample local food, it’s not an easy wish to fulfill. I love entertaining people at home but it’s not always possible to invite someone for a home-cooked Kannadiga meal.
There are specialty restaurants like Karavali at the Taj Gateway which do coastal food but this is not the food in the average local kitchen as Bangalore is not on the coast. Dakshin at ITC Windsor comes close enough at a pinch but not if you want to be out of the five star ambience.
It’s absolutely galling when visitors perk up at the thought of an Andhra meal. I do not want to be a bad neighbour and undoubtedly the spicy cuisine at Bhima and Nagarajuna is good, but honestly, it is not Kannadiga food. It would never do to take anyone to the dime a dozen Darshinis and Sagars with their stereotypical soda-infused fare either. The generic masala dosa does taste good but they are not a great choice and clones of such restaurants abound in many places in India.
There are a handful of modest eateries sprinkled around the city that offer ‘tindi’ or snacks that could also serve as breakfast or tea-time food –the generic South Indian idli and dosa. But I would say perhaps a couple offer true local flavour through the day. Heading the short list is undoubtedly Mavalli Tiffin Room aka MTR. (The other being the humble Ramprasad across the road from my office, which serves Dakshina Kannada style ‘buns’) Still in the original building that it is has occupied from 1960, near the main gate of Lalbagh, MTR is an institution that is unique and has a zealous following of people who have grown up here.
The day after our local IPL team, the Royal Challengers Bangalore were outclassed at the finals by the Chennai Super Kings, I found succour in oota (meal) at MTR. I posted a photograph on Facebook and was not surprised that the most number of ‘likes’ and comments were from expatriate Bangaloreans. The very sight of the delectable fare adorning a simple plate was enough to evoke the taste and scent of the meal, wafting my friends back to this city. For gourmands, I share here the highlights of the meal kosambri, kootu, saaru and godhi payasa.
The family-owned restaurant, which was first started in 1924, is today run by the dainty Hemamalini Maiya. For the faint hearted who baulk at the thought of waiting for more than an hour for a table, the good news is that there are now five full-fledged outlets across the city. In the not so very distant past, there were brief experiments with frozen food that were reheated and sold at outlets. The intention was to retain quality control while keeping up with the concept of fast food. The concept tanked and the memory of the frozen food is a challenge that the new outlets have to dispel.
Legions of people in India and abroad open up a packet of the MTR condiments and ready mixes almost daily. This business now belongs to the Norwegian company, Orkla Brands which bought MTR Foods from a branch of the family after the company split.
While heat and eat is all very well when there is no other choice, it can’t match the pleasure of piping hot food served by friendly waiters. MTR is the authentic Kannadiga taste and I hope it remains the standard bearer, without falling prey to the urge to offer other cuisine.
This is adapted from a column that I originally wrote for the Oheraldo