Sync and swim: An Udupi seafood trail with Kunal Vijayakar

Once they had conquered Mumbai’s tastebuds with their impeccable idlis and vadas, the Shetty restaurateurs branched out — into marvellous, mouth-watering seafood.
Butter-garlic lobster at Mahesh Lunch Home. This is just one of the many mish-mashed Mangalore-inspired seafood recipes that the city now cannot do without.
Butter-garlic lobster at Mahesh Lunch Home. This is just one of the many mish-mashed Mangalore-inspired seafood recipes that the city now cannot do without.
Updated on Nov 08, 2019 08:47 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By Kunal Vijayakar

So who are these people who came to the city in the ’50s and ’60s and got generations hooked onto a hitherto unknown diet of idlis, dosa, medu wada, uttapam, sambhar and rasam; who institutionalised these dishes and traditions under a roof called the Udupi Hotel? They are the Shettys of Mangalore.

Traditionally Hindu, they were part of a Tulu-speaking community called the Bunts — successful landed peasants in the north Malabar and south Konkan coastal regions. A draconian land reforms act displaced them. Not to be left behind, these Bunts, with a sense of pride in their language and culture, and with great business acumen, stepped out of their comfort zone to flourish in big cities like the then Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. Restauranting was only one of the professions they pursued, and they pursued it with dignity, honesty and innovation.

By 1970, Mumbai had an Udupi eatery in nearly every nook and corner. So the Shettys decided to venture into another cuisine that was close to their hearts — Mangalorean seafood (and meat). Kori Rotti is a spicy creamy dish from this very Tulu Udupi-Mangalorean cuisine.

Many years ago I did a food trip down to Mangalore and Udupi. Before we drove up to Manipal, I stopped by a village called Kathapady, a place of lush green fields with the fish-rich Papanaashi River flowing through the land.

My producer Johncie Rodrigues Correia had a family home there and we settled in for the afternoon. As we sat staring out at the gentle river, a small fisherman emerged from a little dingy with a handful of fish. I think it was her uncle, and her aunt was about to cook up a fresh coconut curry right there out in the open. There was mackerel and kane or ladyfish.  

In a deep orange masala made of Byadgi chillies, turmeric and shallots and fresh coconut milk, the cleaned fish were let in gently, to simmer. A short walk into the village revealed women drying rice pancakes (called rotti) in every other home. These are like crisp, dry wafers made from boiled rice and can be preserved and are eaten with kori (or chicken).

The chicken is cooked in spices and coconut, like a gassi. In your plate, the rotti is crushed in your fist and the chicken and curry mixed into that with your fingers and then scooped up to your mouth. What a sense of satisfaction, especially after a couple of chilled lagers or strong freshly tapped toddy, called kali. No wonder they all say ‘Bale kali parka’, which in Tulu means ‘Come let’s drink toddy”.

Probably the very first Mangalorean eatery in Bombay was Pratap Lunch Home at Janmabhoomi Marg, Fort, founded by KC Amin in 1961. Nearly 60 years later, it is still widely regarded as one of the best seafood restaurants in Mumbai. 

Later came Mahesh, opened in 1977 by SC Karkera, another enterprising Mangalorean. In those days, Mahesh Lunch Home had only one branch, on Cawasji Patel Street, also in Fort, and was a dark and dingy watering hole that was frequented by locals, hungry for a plate of Mangalorean Fish Curry Rice and thirsty for an early drink.

The whole restaurant smelt of a mixture of cheap beer and fried fish. The lower floor was hot, steamy and seedy, with taxi drivers, blue-collar workers and broke college students knocking back bottles of strong Haywards 5000 beer with one hand, while the other shoveled mounds of Fish Gassi and Rice into their mouths.

The air-conditioned mezzanine was dark, damp and dingy and crowded with young advertising and marketing yuppies knocking back Old Monk and Director’s Special and eagerly devouring fried prawns, fish curry and crab. It was the same in all the Mangalorean sea-food and booze joints in that old Bombay precinct. There was Apoorva, which for my money still serves the finest Mangalorean seafood, at the most affordable prices.

Ankur, which I frequent quite often, opened in 1941 as a ‘respectable’ pure-vegetarian Udupi restaurant. In 1973, they decided to introduce the bar, and in 1994, added non-vegetarian food.

But it was Trishna, the cramped and overpriced Kala-Ghoda eatery, that set the ball rolling and made Mangalorean seafood fashionable. They were probably the first to bring wriggling live crabs to the table for you to choose from, and pack fish tanks with live creatures waiting to be consumed.

Bharat Excellensea, formerly Bharat Lunch Home, now seeing bad days, was the epitome of glamour as the chic set of Mumbai rushed over to devour Butter Garlic Crab and other mish-mashed versions of Mangalorean seafood, including Tandoori, Rawa Fried and Koliwada varieties.

Meanwhile the suburbs spawned their own Mangalorean restaurateurs, and they brought their cooking skills to Harish Lunch Home and Gajalee, including dishes from the broader coastal region of the Konkan. Over time, these once-drab eateries were transformed into chandeliered monuments of chrome, marble and Plaster of Paris. The crabs became larger and larger and menus were expanded to include lobster, squid, tiger prawns, pomfret and surmai, and Gassi Kori-Rotti and Neer Dosa became terms in common parlance.

It’s never been easy to displace the monopoly of the Punjabi and Chinese restaurants in the city. But over the years, with patience, diligence and invention, this community stole the rug from under the rest.

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Sunday, October 17, 2021