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Now is an exciting time for South Indian food

Perhaps it is time to put aside that bhatura and to try an appam instead.

brunch Updated: Mar 11, 2017 20:15 IST
Udupi restaurants sprung up in Mumbai in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

It’s strange but in most of India it is actually easier to get ‘Chinese food’ than it is to find a South Indian restaurant. And nearly everywhere abroad, when you ask for ‘Indian food’, you will get some variation of North Indian cuisine: tandoori chicken or rogan josh or naan.

When you do get South Indian food in North India, it consists of dishes that would be considered snacks in the South: dosas, idlis, medu vadas and uttapam. Sometimes these snacks are cooked to high standards, but generally they are canteen staples, popular because they are cheap. And even those who enjoy them rarely bother to venture further and try other South Indian dishes.

Such canteen favourites as the masala dosa were popularised in Mumbai in the late ’50s and early ’60s by restaurateurs from Karnataka (most of them Bunts from Mangalore) who wanted to service a growing South Indian immigrant community. In those days, Mumbai was full of what were called Udupi restaurants (because many of the restaurateurs came from Udupi near Mangalore) and though idlis and dosas were meant for the general public, the staple dish at Udupi places was rice with vegetables and sambar, which is why they all had signs outside reading ‘Rice Plate is Ready’.

Over the years, the Bunts came to run canteens at companies all over Mumbai. Their idli-dosa dishes were popular in a largely vegetarian city because they were cheap and relatively easy to make. Many of today’s great restaurateurs started out in those canteens. Jayaram Banan, the millionaire owner of the Sagar and Swagath chains, ran away from an abusive father in Mangalore when he was in his early teens and found a job washing dishes at a canteen in Mumbai.

While most Indian chefs will concede that Malayali food is terrific, it has still not found the acceptance I imagined it would.

It is a measure of Banan’s entrepreneurial skill that he rose from such humble beginnings to running his own canteens and finally, to journeying to Delhi where he set up the first Sagar and introduced Punjabis to the simple charm of the masala dosa. There are many such stories of entrepreneurial South Indians who became Dosa Millionaires.

The next generation of Bunt restaurateurs moved from dosas to shellfish and though they run many of India’s most famous prawn-and-crab restaurants, there is nothing authentically South Indian about their food. Some do serve a few Mangalorean gassis, but they don’t understand the cuisines of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala at all and their menus are a mishmash of Malvani recipes (Malvan is in Maharashtra) and Indian-Chinese (the famous Crab in Butter Garlic Sauce is as South Indian as Jackie Chan; it found fame on Trishna’s Chinese menu).

Karavalli at the Gateway Hotel in Bengaluru is a coastal restaurant based on home recipes from South Indian families.

The hotel chains have traditionally been much more adventurous with South Indian food than the stand-alone sector. The leader was the Taj Group, whose Camellia Panjabi discovered the (non-vegetarian) Chettinad cuisine of Tamil Nadu in the ’80s. The Taj Group opened The Raintree at the Connemara in Chennai to showcase that food. Other South Indian specialities (including many meat dishes from Andhra Pradesh as well as Kerala’s appams) turned up on the menu of Southern Comfort at the Taj Residency (the hotel now has some idiotic Vivanta-type name; though fortunately not for much longer) in Bengaluru and finally, in what might have been her greatest creation, Panjabi opened Karavalli, a coastal restaurant based on home recipes from South Indian families at the Gateway Hotel in Bengaluru. Karavalli turned Sriram Aylur, its brilliant chef, into a star; he later went to London and won a Michelin star at Quilon for the same sort of food.

Though the Taj Group was the first Indian chain to discover the secrets of homestyle South Indian cooking, ITC retaliated with Dakshin in Chennai. This wounded the Taj Group so deeply that Ajit Kerkar, the group’s boss and Shankar Menon, its Southern head, commissioned chef ‘Nat’ Natarajan to locate ancient recipes from families all over South India. Natarajan started Southern Spice at the Taj Coromandel in Chennai in 1996 and it is a tribute to the Taj Group that both Karavalli and Southern Spice are all still among India’s finest restaurants.

The success of the Taj Group restaurants led me to believe that South Indian cuisine would take off nationally. I thought Andhra food (already popular in the South through such restaurant chains as Amravathi and RR) would sweep India. I was wrong. Then, I believed that the cuisine of Kerala (in my view, India’s finest) would be the next big thing. And while most Indian chefs will concede that Malayali food is terrific, it has still not found the acceptance I imagined it would.

But ITC now seems ready to carry on the work started by the Taj Group all those years ago. Over the last decade, the chain has worked beyond its reputation for North Indian biryanis and kebabs by opening excellent East Asian restaurants (the Japanese Edo in Bengaluru and the hip Tian in Delhi) and three very good Ottimos (Italian restaurants) in Bengaluru, Delhi and Chennai.

Now, it has taken everyone by surprise by preparing to launch a modern South Indian restaurant at the Grand Chola in Chennai. The restaurant, to be called Avartan (they are insisting on spelling it Avartana, like Rama and Lakshmana, which is just stupid so I will call it Avartan), is not ready to open yet. But because Anil Chadha, ITC’s brightest General Manager, values feedback and because Ajit Bangera, the chef, is an old friend, they gave me a preview last week.

Slated to open in April, Avartana restaurant at ITC Grand Chola in Chennai is three generations ahead of the Group’s famous restaurant, Dakshin.

I was, quite frankly, stunned by what Ajit (a Taj and ITC veteran who has cooked in Australia, but is, essentially, a South Indian from Mangalore) and his team have come up with.

Not every dish I tried will make it to the final menu but over 90 per cent of the food was sensational. Dosas were served taco style with a filling of chicken with imli and chilli. Karela was slit open, dehydrated, fried till crisp and then topped with aloo and shallots. A local pork belly was slow roasted and served with a masala inspired by Coorg’s Pandi curry. Curd rice was transformed once a little sago was added to vary the texture and the pickle turned into a sauce. A local mud crab claw was fried in tempura batter and placed on a bed of red chilli chutney. Bheja was turned into a light and airy fritter. Slices of buffalo meat were tossed with black pepper and served with a masala uttapam. And a delicious rasam came with dehydrated vegetables.

Ajit Bangera is clear that he does not want to tart up or reinvent great South Indian classics. Instead, he wants to take South Indian flavours and masalas and pair them with a few staples (appams, dosas, uttapams, rasams etc.) to create a cuisine that is recognisably South Indian in the mouth, but is not gimmicky or show-offy. There is science involved in the cooking, but most of it stays in the kitchen and does not ponce around on the plate.

Other great chefs have had similar ideas. Manish Mehrotra uses classic South Indian spice mixes, Gaggan Anand makes the world’s lightest idli and Srijith Gopinath puts beluga caviar on a mini-appam. But, as far as I know, nobody has planned an entire restaurant around a reimagining of South Indian spices, flavours and textures.

Avartan is an extremely ambitious restaurant. It is three generations ahead of Dakshin and two generations ahead of the Taj Group’s Southern Spice. More risky still, they are opening in Chennai, where there is already a resistance to reinterpreting the food people eat at home.

At Avartana restaurant, crab claws are fried in tempura batter and placed on a bed of red chilli chutney.

I don’t know when Avartan will finally open (they say, April), but if they can maintain the standards of the food that I was served, then ITC has a winner and Bangera has the restaurant he will be remembered by.

In a month or so, the Taj Group’s two Michelin-starred Malayalis, Sriram and Srijith, will be cooking at much-awaited pop-ups in Delhi and Mumbai. And the stand-alone sector is finally showing a few signs of wanting to engage with the cuisine of the South.

Things have never looked better for South Indian food. Perhaps it is time to put aside that bhatura and to try an appam instead!
Finally, the South shall rise again!

From HT Brunch, February 26, 2017

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First Published: Mar 11, 2017 20:05 IST