Bangalore Talkies: What does Karnataka’s new CM like to dine on?
What does Karnataka’s new chief minister, Basavaraj Bommai like to dine on, I asked my journalist friends in Bengaluru. Through a variety of channels, the answer was the same. He likes Uttara Karnataka’s banana leaf lunches. The ingredients are well-known: jolada-rotti (jowar rotis), badanekayi palya (brinjal sabzi), kadalekai chutney (groundnut chutney) and curd. The CM “used to eat non-veg ten years ago, but now is a pure vegetarian,” his office says.
North Karnataka or Uttara Karnataka looms large in the food memory of Bangaloreans. Its green forests, verdant vegetation, delicious foods and gentle people are revered in poetry, prose, the books of Kuvempu, movies and music. The food in Uttara Karnataka in particular fits all the flavour profiles that make Karnataka cuisine special. It is both robust and subtle, incorporating masalas that are doused over meats and vegetables. There are also a variety of salads, called kosambari, that are served with meals. There is a dizzying array of pickles, enough to make Andhra Pradesh jealous. Then there are powders, condiments and sandige or fritters.
In Bengaluru, there are many humble darshinis or eateries where you can have the famous jolada-rotti with all the aforementioned accompaniments. I recommend Kamat Yatrinivas in Gandhinagar, if you can find parking. The last time I ate there was before the Covid-19 pandemic. On the top floor here around lunch time, you are shown a table without a word. The items are then served one by one by men carrying those stainless steel vessels where one handle carries four containers. Being a hotel, these men offer more items than the simple home-food listed by the CM’s office.
Here at Kamat, there are two powders, one deep brown made with black sesame seeds and other reddish one with ground peanuts. There is chutney with groundnuts and coconut. There is some raita, the famous Karnataka kosambari made with yellow moong dal, shredded carrot, chopped cucumber garnished with black mustard seeds, green chilies, and if you like, diced coriander. There is also a soppu saaru made with greens. Saaru in kannada is some sort of gravy, like sambhar. There is also a dal-type preparation, usually made with sprouted green moong, which is very healthy.
The prime mover of this meal is the famous jolada-rotti made of jowar flour. At Kamat, you can peek behind the dining room to see industrial quantities of jolada rotti being prepared by two or three persons. One rolls deftly and the other tosses it over the griddle at lightning speed. It puffs up and is then served. White in colour with a low glycemic index, this is a great bread for those with diabetes. There is usually a slab of butter that is offered with the jolada-rotti.
If jolada-rotti is the Gangubai Hangal of Karnataka meals, the accompanying tabla player, Sheshagiri Hangal in Gangubai’s case, is the badanekayi ennegai. This literally means stuffed brinjal in oil (enne means oil). It is a luscious spicy preparation, that is vaguely reminiscent of paneer butter masala. There are those who argue that jolada-rotti is not the main player but the side dish. After all, the jolada-rotti only transports the delicious stuffed brinjal from leaf to mouth, they say. But these are quibbles. One cannot exist without the other. They are like pita bread and hummus, a symbiotic relationship that sings.
The brinjal that is used for this is the matta gulla, the tender purple ones with streaks of white. This is stuffed with a masala and then cooked in a gravy made with ground coconut and a variety of spices. If potatoes define Punjabi cuisine, then the brinjal defines Karnataka food. They make a variety of dishes with this vegetable.
Bommai hails from north Karnataka, from the Hubli-Dharwad belt. I had assumed that he would pick the Dharwad peda, also very delicious. But it turns out that he is not very fond of sweets. There is another famous sweet from this region called Godhi Huggi, in which whole wheat kernels are cooked with jaggery, ghee, milk and garnished with cashew nuts and cardamom. It resembles the kheer or the payasam in consistency but tastes very different.
One of my favourite dishes is called Karindi. It could give all the fermented foods that have become popular a run for their money. It is made with flax seeds which are lightly roasted and then grounded. Separately, you make a ginger-garlic paste. You cut some carrots and cucumber into long thin slices, add salt and turmeric and mix everything. You then add water and pour it into a glass jar. Cover with a piece of cloth and put a rubber band around it to hold it in place. You then place it under the sun till it reduces to half its volume. This will take a few days in north Karnataka. Then you can use this fermented karindi, which is spicy-sour, along with your regular north Karnataka meals. You may never look at Korean kimchi again once you try the Karnataka karindi.
As for Mr Bommai, here is raising a jolada-rotti to you. May the roads of Bengaluru be less pot-holed in your government.
Shoba Narayan is Bengaluru-based award-winning author. She is also a freelance contributor who writes about art, food, fashion and travel for a number of publications.