ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY travelled 20,000km across Karnataka on a food research project for a restaurant, sampling and cooking local cuisine with two chefs and a video crew. This story covers their North Karnataka leg to jola (sorghum) country.
Gangamma Kashiappa Benagi, an octogenarian vegetable vendor from Dharwad, had more creases on her face than the currency notes she handled everyday. She sat singing in her kitchen, involuntarily rotating her arm over an imaginary grindstone! We smiled. Embarrassed, she confided it was out of habit.
The tune, typically sung while grinding grain, recalls a rich oral tradition where everyday chores and harvesting were celebrated through song. Over the next few hours, Gangamma shared recipes and secrets she had learned from her mother Lingamma who started the vegetable shop in 1905.
We were two writers accompanied by two chefs and a video crew driving through Karnataka, cooking and sampling local delicacies as part of a food research project for a restaurant. While we had stuffed our faces all day, Gangamma had vended vegetables, tilled her field, changed two buses to meet us and rustle up a great vegetarian spread. She even slapped out 18-inch jolada (jowar or sorghum) rotis by hand. This was Shravana masa cuisine, she explained, using native vegetables available in the monsoon.
On offer were jowari doddmensinkayi palya (stuffed country capsicum), so pungent, it had to be tempered down with curd, gulagayi yenagai (country cucumber fry), jowari mensinkayi (pan fried country chilli), majjige saaru (buttermilk curry) and karchikai palya (Momordica cymbalaria), a little pod that must be consumed right after harvest, before it bursts open. In the old days, the Benagi ladies gave vegetables to local hotels on credit and settled accounts only after the day’s cooking and feeding was done!
This was North Karnataka, the famous jowar belt where sorghum/millet is used to make unleavened bread or jolada roti, served at Lingayat eateries like Basaveshwara Khanavali in Hubli (now Hubballi). In the 12th century, philosopher saint Basavanna started the Veerashaiva-Lingayat faith, marked by Shiva worship and vegetarianism. In Dharwad, every morning Hotel Nataraj displays the saint’s vachanas (sayings) on a board outside.
Lunchtime business is brisk at Basappa Khanavali, a legendary Lingayat eatery started by Basappa Malgond in 1930 with set meals of jolada roti with yenne badnekayi (brinjal curry), hesarukaal palya (green gram curry) and jhunka, steamed gram flour cubes dusted with sesame and coriander leaves. The region is known for its pudis (powders) that supplement the diet as sources of protein – agasi (flax seed), yellu (sesame), shenga (groundnut), puttani (chana dal) and gural or ucchelu (Niger seed), commonly sprinkled on salads and curries or stuffed into brinjal or okra.
In the Amingad home, we discovered unusual delicacies like tingal avrekayi palya, a local bean available only for a ‘month’ (tingal in Kannada). Soute Bija Huggi or broken wheat kheer resembles tiny soute bija (cucumber seeds) and features in all Lingayat marriages and functions. The process of rolling out the little pellets of broken wheat dough was tedious. Ashok, who runs Amingad Cool Drink with his father, joked, “In North Karnataka, we also have traditional momos and pasta!”
The ladies rolled out kuchida kadabu (wheat dumpling), kudisida kadabu (stuffed dumpling) and uggi chapattis, steamed on green cornhusk and served with spicy kempu (red) chili chutney and ghee! Little dough beads were pressed on a comb for stripes and shaped into miniature shells or ‘shankha’. “Bro, it’s like Orecchiette” (ear-shaped pasta), exclaimed Chef Manjit. Epiphanies lurked around every corner.
At L.E.A. (Lingayat Educational Association) Canteen, we tried thuppa avalakki (beaten rice with ghee) and their signature Masala Toast with chatnipudi, benne (white butter) and sauce. Slathered together, it was as good as a desi peanut butter sandwich! ‘Hotte’ (Pot-bellied) Nanjappa was literally a heavyweight in the local food scene.
This sweet stall owner with a heart of gold distributed free treats to children and the poor, before selling mandakki (puffed rice) and sweets to customers. Meghdarshini offered an outsized poori, unlimited sabzi and chutney for those with smaller pockets! Philanthropy ran deep in culture-rich Dharwad.
The Dharwad peda story began 175 years ago, when Ram Ratan Singh Thakur migrated from Unnao due to the plague and started making pedas for a living. His grandson Babu Singh Thakur popularized it and people formed such long queues at the shop that the area was named ‘Line’ Bazaar.
In 1933, a penniless Avadh Bihari Mishra settled in Line Bazaar and got into the same business. Today, Mishra peda, with its industrial production and multiple outlets across cities, has made Dharwad peda a household name!
Dharwad’s twin-town Hubli is dotted with Lingayat khanavalis like Basaveshwara and Savaji eateries like Nakoda and Devika standing cheek-by-jowl with brass bands and ammunition shops. Durgada Bail, the city’s legendary Khau Galli (Eat Street) fires up the evening with snack stalls serving masala dosa and ‘tomato’ omelette!
But it’s not all vegetarian up north. The bold flavour of Sauji or Savaji cuisine is like a beacon for lovers of meat and spice. Savajis or SSKs are Somavamsha Sahasrarjun Kshatriyas who claim descent from the mythic thousand-armed warrior Kartiveerya Arjun. They migrated to Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra’s borders from Central India.
As kshatriyas, meat, blood and chili dominate their cuisine. During Dussehra, they offer edimi (wheat-gram flour dumplings), arithi (wheat flour diyas) and lalpani (liquor) to Goddess Bhavani. We cooked classics like keema ball and khara boti at Hotel Milan Savaji with the Kabadis and traditional delicacies with Vidya and Vishwanath Kathare – rakti (blood curry), tale mamsa (brain curry) and karadu (spicy) mutton. If Savaji cuisine uses blood, its spiciness extracts an equal measure of sweat and tears!
Northwest Karnataka shares a border with Maharashtra and the Maratha love for spice is evident in Belgaum (or Belagavi). Be it rassa (fiery curries) or sukka (spicy dry fry), red chili is essential! Manjula’s chicken sukka and mutton rassa at Pai Resorts left us teary-eyed in more ways than one. An erstwhile British cantonment, Belgaum is famous for its kunda, a milk and khova sweet, best at Camp Purohit. Anyone naïve enough to advertise his travel plans to these parts is saddled with requests for boxes of sweets!
Overshadowed by Belgaum kunda, is the city’s other sweet, mande or mandige. A crepe with a thin filling of sugar, ghee and khova, it is whirled like a roomali, baked on an upturned tava and folded like a rectangular dosa. At Krishnamurthi Saralaya’s Mandige on Konwal Gali, Vijaykumar shared a fascinating legend.
A devout Brahmin was in deep penance when the Lord appeared before him. Since he had nothing to offer, he rolled some dough, sugar and ghee and baked it on his bent back with the heat of his tapas (penance). Thus the mandaka or mandige was born! A must in Brahmin weddings, it’s often displayed unfolded in large baskets. Many a marriage has been called off because no mandige was served!
North Karnataka loves its sweets as much as spice. Kardant was invented in Amingad, though popularized in Gokak. In 1907, Savaligappa Aiholi of Amingad mixed dry fruits like pistachio, almonds, cashew, dates, fig, kopra, jaggery and antu (edible gum) and fried them together, creating the karadi-antu (fried gum).
Like a nutty granola gym snack, it became extremely popular among those frequenting garadimanes (wrestling akhadas). Gulbarga is famous for its paan mithai and malpuri, created by Khasim Ali but immortalized by Mamu Jaan, while Ballari is known for its ‘Cycle’ khova sold on bicycles!
From sheep farms in Haveri, Karnataka’s ‘Chili town’ Byadgi to the erstwhile Muslim principality of Savanur known for Shivalal’s legendary ‘khara’ (mixture) since 1931, we went into virtually unchartered terrain on our food trail. Just past Almatty Dam, Korti-Kolhaar on the Hubli-Bijapur (Vijayapura) highway attracts travelers with fresh fish from the Krishna river. The matka curd, served with puttani-avalakki (beaten rice) for Rs.25, lasts for days without souring.
Menthya (fenugreek) is another staple and sprigs of the smaller-leaved country variety are served at every meal, made into a pachadi (salad) or steamed into kadabu (dumpling). With our Bijapur ‘oota’ (meal), we got crunchy country cucumbers as well. Here, people love their jolada rotis kadak (crisp) and their mensinkayi bajjis fiery. “But why such spicy food in a hot climate?” we cried. Thippanna looked at us incredulously. “It’s a hot arid region; people eat spicier food so it makes them sweat and keeps the body cool.” Baffling, yet believable!
At Gulbarga (now Kalaburagi), the Maratha-run Chaddi Hotel got its name from the owner who wore shorts. Gajanan of Chetak Sauji Hotel recounted how on a busy night, he ran out of food and had to cook a fresh batch in a pressure cooker, which patrons tagged ‘seeti rice’ after the whistle! The small-grained rice goes perfectly with kavala (tender) mutton, mutton keema balls and anda curry.
The Hyderabad-Karnataka region, bordering Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, has culinary influences like gongura (Sorrel leaves), made into chutney or cooked with lentils or mutton. Hyderabadi dishes like biryani, dalcha (meat with lentils) and bread ka meetha are popular in these parts, explained Lalitha Jawali.
In 1512, Guru Nanak came to the Deccan during his second udasi (spiritual journey). When people lamented about the brackish water in Bidar, he tapped a stone with his foot to create a fresh water spring (jhira) that flows to this day. The langar (free kitchen) at Gurudwara Nanak Jhira feeds thousands of visitors daily while Rohit Restaurant nearby serves excellent Punjabi food.
We stopped for Iduga cuisine at Dandina Hirehalu, the historic camping ground for soldiers marching from Bellary Fort to Chitradurga Fort. The Idugas migrated from Andhra to Karnataka centuries ago and are known for meaty cuisine and fondness for chilli. At HRG Farmhouse, Mahadevi explained, “Mutton kebab is best marinated with papaya flowers. Every part of the goat is utilized – trotters for kaal (leg) soup, blood added to boti (intestines) becomes nalla vanta and spleen and liver mixed with hand-pounded chilli makes batti chutney.” The round appetizers tasted like paté!
Beyond Hamp’s Hebrew signboards advertising shakshuka, babaganoush and Israeli fare, there’s local food aplenty. At Uramma Heritage Home in Anegundi, we cooked with Sharda and Hemlatha of Bhuvneshwari self-help group, who specialize in traditional cuisine.
They whipped up unusual bhendekayi (okra) chutney, alasande gugri palya of cowpeas or lobia, country brinjals roasted on open fire and mashed into badnekayi chutney and hesaru bele (green gram) payasa (kheer) and kosambri (salad).
Davangere is synonymous with the benne dosa, made with generous dollops of white butter and served with alu palya (potato mash) and coconut chutney, best savoured hot at Kottureshwara Benne Dosa Hotel. Professor Ganesh took us on a street food tour with a cooking session at Vinutha Ravi’s home.
Davangere has hundreds of bhattis (mills) that produce mandakki (puffed rice), served with mensinkayi bajji (chilli fritters) at street stalls. At TS Manjunath Swamy Masala Mandakki Angadi, puffed rice was furiously stirred into masala, khara or nargis mandakki. An entire street was dedicated to shavige (vermicelli), dried like screens of silken yarn on terraces. The tantalizing aroma of oggarne (seasoning) hung in the air as someone busily tapped a ladle against a vessel.
There’s a daily flight from Bangalore to Hubli, from where Belgaum is 101km, Davangere 151km, Hampi 164km, Ballari 214km and Bijapur 193km. From Bijapur, Gulbarga is 151km and Bidar 112km further northeast.
Where to Stay
Places like Davangere, Bijapur, Gulbarga and Bidar have regular city hotels. At Bellary, try Hotel Royal Fort, Pai Resorts opposite Killa Lake in Belgaum, Uramma Heritage Home at Anegundi and Orange County’s Evolve Back at Kamalapura near Hampi.
Where to Eat
Sri Guru Kottureshwara Benne Dosa Hotel
Medical College Road, Kuvempu Nagar
TS Manjunath Swamy Masala Mandakki Angadi
Lawyer Road, Jaydev Circle
Opp Old Bus Stand, Kamaripeth
Opp Civil Court, PB Road
Hotel Milan Savaji
Jubilee Circle, PB Road
Ph 0836-2435450, 9341998875
Kathare’s Savaji Hotel
Line Bazaar, Opp Sangam Theatre
Ph 0836-2441956, 2435450
Ph 0836-2442855, 9964607800
Megh Darshini Restaurant
Amingad Cold Drink House
Ph 0836-2442437, 9740013177
Babusingh’s Thakur Pedha
Near Sri Ram Temple, Line Bazaar
Court Circle, SH-1
Krishnamurti Saralaya’s Mandige
Opp Shringar Cinema, High Street, Camp
PB Road, Opp Market Police Station
SH-20, Raichur Highway
Uramma Heritage Homes
Shri Sai Prasad Khanawali
Sainik School Road, Opp KSRTC Workshop
Mamu Jaan ki Malpuri
Inside Kamaan, Guru Nanak Colony
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.