Food For Gods And Humans Alike: The Story of Udupi Cuisine 

Food For Gods And Humans Alike: The Story of Udupi Cuisine Masala Dosa
  • From the pious corridors of temples’ kitchens to the corner restaurant, how Udupi food built India’s habit of dining out.

Centuries ago, when Madhavacharya established the Krishna Matt based on Vaishnav principles – to be managed and served by the Shivalli Brahmins (his disciples) - little did the Krishna devotee knew that soon the matt will emerge not only as a Vaikunth of religion but of the culinary world as well. And that- it would be instrumental in starting India’s first chain of restaurants.

Back then, something like this would have looked like a distant dream. Established on the Vedic principles of local, sattvic food steeped in tradition, the Madhava cuisine (which forms the basis of Udupi food as we know it today) appeared as a culture of exclusion. Besides onion and garlic, the matt cuisine also banned tomatoes, carrots, beans, radish, papaya, cabbage, beetroot, cauliflower, brinjal, gherkins, drumsticks and even basale, the local spinach. And yet, by the 20th century, Udupi was considered a synonym to not only good “South Indian food”, but also to a delicious, filling, nutritious meal with a mass palate appeal. So what gave Udupi cuisine that defining edge?

Besides the advantage of being temple fare, the rise of Udupi cuisine is a story of how Brahmanical culinary tradition got modernised over the years. Unlike other temple towns, Udupi, even before the famous Krishna temple was established, was a revered seat of Vedic learning and site of two ancient temples - Sri Ananteshvara and Sri Candramauleshvara (the former, a temple of the companion of Lord Shiva, and the latter, a Shiva temple). Udupi, thus, had a food culture that was a predominantly temple cuisine. So, when Madhavacharya, who was visiting Udupi to advocate his learning, decided to build a temple to honour the child Krishna idol, it was akin to modernizing an existing cuisine with newer influences. In this case, that of Shivalli Brahmins, who were followers of the acharya and the first sevaks of the Krishna temple.

So it won’t be wrong to say that the first iteration of the prasad served at the Krishna temple was a clever mélange of the Shivalli Brahmin (who were experts of paka shastra-gastronomy-and masters of masale podi) cuisine and that of old Udupi.

Temples, says culinary legend Jiggs Kalra, “back then weren’t only schools of learning, but catalyst that evolved a society – and its thoughts – and the best way to do so was through food. Hence, it was essential that each temple had its own unique cuisine that was traditional yet fostered a certain form of newness in life.”

That thought coupled with the fact that gods and goddesses then followed the same food pattern as humans ensured that the priests travelled far and wide in search of newer dishes. In fact, it was mandatory of the sevaks to travel not only in Udupi but beyond, propagating the Vaishnav culture – and in doing so sampling newer fare (mostly vegetarian) and getting fresh ideas. These ideas would then be further developed in the temple kitchen and presented to the toddler god, who, as popular lore goes, still stays in the temple because of its excellent food.

This was one of the reasons that despite the chaturmasya vrata, where certain ingredients were given up completely during some periods, the temple soon developed an enviable culinary repertoire – that was curiosity evoking yet familiar in taste. (In the chaturmasya vrataJuly to mid August, no pulses except horse gram was and mango and pepper as spices were allowed from July to mid August and all pulses were banned from mid October to mid Novembe).

What enhanced the cuisine further was the inclusion of the shepherd caste into the ideology by Sri Vaadiraja in the 16th century, courtesy Kanakadasa (on whose honour the Kanakana Kindi was constructed). This decision opened the matt to visitors from all caste, who often would add little things – like the use of mango to sour the curry when tamarind wasn’t allowed – while taking the cuisine to different parts of India. The coastal area had its own influence on the culinary ledger too. A good example of this, says chef-curator Arun Kumar of Zeaside, a southern cuisine specialty division, “is the vangi bhaat – or eggplant rice, which many believe was influenced by the Greeks who landed on the shores in search of spices way before the Arabs. The other dish of course is the iconic masala dosa.”

Palaya, as the potato mixture for masala dosa is called, adds chef Kumar, “was the creation of such influences. Of course, in Udupi, it is still made minus the onions, which is still considered tamasic. If needed, onions are served in a separate bowl in restaurants here.”

The Udupi cuisine that we know today was built by the Madhava Brahmin cooks and their culinary ingenuity. Take, for instance, the majjige palidya, which is a delicacy made of ash gourd with coconut and cumin in sour yoghurt or the drakshi gojju, which is raisins in sweet, sour and spicy gravy. The all time-favourite, gulliappa marbles, made with rice and urad dal flour which may have inspired the Mangalore bonda, peppered with chilly slices and coconut, and the huli, cooked vegetables with coconut, curry leaves, and a number of pungent spices and a sweet, tangy and spicy stew called gojju are all showcases of the their culinary ingenuity. A generous segment of masale pudi used in South Indian cooking was created by them.

Chef Kumar adds that “a few came with an interesting legend or story.” Like the hayagreeva maddi, a delicacy made using cooked Bengal gram with jaggery and coconut. It came to be called so of Lord Hayagreeva– Lord Vishnu’s horse faced incarnation. It is said that the lord had appeared in Sri Vadiraj Swami’s dream and asked him to worship the idol-which a disillusioned goldsmith had thrown away in anger. The goldsmith had tried to make the idol with an elephant’s head but ending up making it with a the horse’s’ head every time  after trying to make him with elephant’s head but ending up making the horses’ every time. Likewise for modakka, which was designed not as a treat, but as a treatment whenever the Lord when fell ill. Or the bisi bele hulianna, a dish of spicy red gram, rice and vegetables, which was filling yet light enough to allow Lord Krishna to play afterwards.

While the temple tradition gave the Udupi cuisine a strong foundation, the modern transformation began when it moved from the holy corridors of temples to the bylanes of big cities (the Vilas Brahmin Hotel being one of them). This was-thanks to the business acumen of Shettys and Nayaks, who are credited with being the first caterers to take Udupi cuisine to various parts of India – and in doing so made sambar, idli, dosa an integral part of the meal.

The Udupi restaurant’s period of glory came around the 1900s, when industrialization ensured people moved to cities for earn a living. And so did Udupi cuisine, which, informs chef Kumar, “by then courtesy the caterers and small hotels had included popular dishes like sambar, chutney and ingredients that were banned on the temple list – like onion, sugar, carrots, drum sticks and potatoes.”

The Manglorean Shettys and Nayaks further tweaked the cuisine to appeal to the palate of the target audience. This could explain why the sambar in Maharastra has a hint of jaggery.

Two men pioneered the change – and in doing so developed it to appease the tastebuds of the colonial powers. One was K. Krishna Rao, an uneducated-Puthige matt trained-cook, who started the first Udupi cuisine-based Sri Krishna Vilas Hotel in 1927, and later built the iconic Woodland brand. The other was K Seetharama Rao, an educated-catering-trained cook, who started Dasaprakash in 1954. While both the brands followed the kitchen principle of madi (ritualistic cleanliness), where food was served by Brahmins and on banana leaf, each cuisine was designed for a certain audience. Woodland, it is said, was for the sahibs, while Dasaprakash was for the neo-rich and aristocratic. And thus, Udupi cuisine which came from the temples was further divided into two delicious branches .

Of course there were staunch Udupi style believers like the Mitra Samaja and ‘Udupi Shri Krishna Boarding’, the first Udupi restaurant in the world to open in Bombay, that still followed the temple culinary principles and practices, albeit with a few little changes in spices and vegetables. While these “little tweaks” while made food palatable to all – and helped create “snacks/tiffin items like dosa, vada and sambar and chutney” that earned them loyalist; it was the other revolutionary change that helped Udupi (restaurant and cuisine) get the real mass appeal.

These restaurants, says Kalra, “brought in the culture of designated meal areas like family room, common room and others, which enabled a single woman to walk into a restaurant and eat a meal without raising eyebrows.” For a time, when the caste system and restriction on women was on an all time high, this liberty came as manna. And just like that Udupi became a staple for many singles who stayed in cities for work or studies. The fact that they served simple tasty vegetarian food at an economical price just added to their popularity as the best place “for home food.”

Image credits: McKay Savage/Wikimedia Commons

Madhulika Dash is a writer with over 13 years of experience writing features from tech to cars to health. She is also a seasoned food appreciator who writes on Indian restaurants and cuisines across different platforms. She has also been on the food panel of MasterChef India Season 4.

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