South India mainly includes the Deccan plateau (a three-sided tabletop peninsula) and its surrounding areas. This unique geographical relief forms two low-altitude mountain ranges, the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats. Beyond these hills lie the vast expanses of the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal respectively.
Canara was the region comprising of 3 main towns, located South of Marmagaon in Goa, Karwar (towards the North), Udupi (in the center) and Mangalore (further South). Collectively, these cities share the Konkan coast. South of this starts the Malabar coast in Kerala.
Nestled between the Western Ghats and the sea, this region has immense historical significance. Although being a part of the larger state, Karnataka, the culture and food here is different from their inland counterparts. The sea brought with it many visitors, each of whom add something to the identity of this region. This is a melting pot of people with similar cultures but different religions.
To understand Konkani cuisine, I first travelled to the most popular Konkani town, Udupi.
This little town is a reflection of inland South Indian cuisine. It’s quite accurate to assume that many iconic South Indian dishes were first made within this very city.
Udupi houses the famous Krishna Temple (Krishna is considered the most popular avatar of Vishnu, a part of the Hindu holy trinity). It’s not hard to miss. This temple was built in the 1300s and is famous for serving food to many devotees who eat here every day. Being a Hindu temple, everything here is strictly vegetarian, and as expected, ingredients like onion and garlic (root vegetables) are omitted as well.
People think vegetarians have limited options, but that is far from the case here. Vegetarianism is taken very seriously. This is why the region has sprouted its own sub-cuisine, now famous all over the world.
Udipi cuisine is known all over to sell “snacks” such as idli (steamed fermented rice cake) and vadai (deep fried fermented lentil batter- like a savory donut). Dosai, the iconic wafer-thin fermented lentil crepe, is said to have originated here as well.
Usually, whatever found here is divided into ones, served inside the temple as offerings and those served outside the inner temple premises, as snacks, bartered for money.
Service inside the temple involves strategically placing all components onto one single “plate”; in this case, A huge banana leaf.
This ancient ritual ensures standards and hygiene is maintained. Tradition and religion go in tandem. The temple offers holistic vegetarian food to anyone who enters with an empty stomach. Everything is done meticulously and for a particular reason. Centuries-old recipes are followed as well. It is known that temples and other religious institutions across India feed thousands of devotees everyday as offerings, by seating them in rows. In this part of India, auspicious occasions such as marriages usually follow this service-style.
As far as the meal itself is concerned, the following describes my experience:
At some point, you’ll realize that no one’s going to offer you cutlery. Indian temple traditions have no place for them. Luckily, in most cases, you wont need them. The meal starts with Rassam, a healthy tomato based aperitif. Chutneys and pickles certainly play their role as “accompaniments”, quite effectively. These are meant to add an extra dimension. Their bases vary as well. Coconut, tomato, chilli and coriander is generally used. This meal is primarily based on a heap of rice surrounded by a few savory curries. Local produce such as yams, squash, gourds, beans, okra and even raw mangoes are used in the most famous one ; Sambar (a house-hold staple in South India). Gravy-less vegetables and Papad (spiced dehydrated lentil puffs) usually add texture to this otherwise mushy combination of sambar and rice. A single or few sweet dishes are served after or in some cases, while you’re still eating. These meals are time bound, so service is quick. If you want a second helping of something, they’ll know and gladly oblige. The food is minimalist. The fact that the hall I ate in has been in use for over 500 years cannot be overlooked. It reminded me where I was.
Snacks, sold outside are more familiar to us. Idlis, vadais and masala dosai are the most popular dishes. These are meant to be enjoyed as “snacks” during teatime. Filter coffee is more popular than chai (tea). The western ghats have some of the finest coffee plantations around. Vendors sell all kinds of banana and yam crisps in stalls around the temple. All over the country, people automatically associate vegetarian south Indian food with just these dishes, now served at popular south Indian restaurants across the world. They are true success stories as these dishes are uncomplicated, genuine and inexpensive.
Food, being a sacred entity, must be respected. I believe the dishes served inside reflects home-made vegetarian south Indian cuisine. I say this because my meal mainly included dishes assicated with the same ; Rice, rassam, sambar, chutney, papad and curd
All these dishes are eaten at home throughout all four Southern Indian states. Maybe with slight variations.
While growing up, my father used to say “There’s no difference between a temple and home”. Now I realize, it makes sense after all.