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Oota, Thindi, and Tiffin – Tracing the Expanse of Udupi Cuisine

Written by Shreyasi Rao, 16th August 2020

My earliest memories of Udupi are a motley mess of colour, family, a spot of worship, and strangely, food. I remember a red and gold checkered langa ravike paired with glittery, aluminum bangles that were a little too big for my wrists; a string of mallige (jasmine) stubbornly pinned onto my hair and a reluctant bottu (bindi) plastered on my forehead. I remember clinging onto Ajja’s fingers, running to catch up with his long strides as we walked around the Udupi Krishna Matha complex. I remember prayer bells and aarathis, the famed Kanakana Kindi, and the sharp, intoxicating smell of camphor that seemed to fill the air. And I remember the food. I remember queuing up outside Mitra Samaj in the mornings, spending the afternoons slurping tomato saaru and payasa off large banana leaves, and spending evenings at my Mami’s house – blessed by the company of mangoes, jaggery, and coconut milk.

Spending most summers between Mangalore and Udupi, I quickly grew to associate eateries titled “Udupi Bhavan” or “Udupi Upachar” with the taste of home. The ‘Udupi’ tag came with a promise of authenticity –  a guarantee of rich, coconutty, mustardy flavours, a cure to homesickness, if you will. College would see me frequent ‘Vaishali’, a popular South Indian restaurant on Pune’s FC Road– it came with no real Udupi tag but to know that it was run and frequented by Tulu speaking Mangaloreans made up for an otherwise average dosa. The ‘Udupi’ moniker, as I have noticed, has come to be commodified and has achieved a cult status of sorts. Hotels prefixed with the tag have popped up across the country, with some enterprising individuals even setting up shop in major cities around the world.

And yet, there is something so very axiomatic about the true blue Udupi hotel experience. There is the promise of a browned Masala Dosa, a generously lathered Tuppa Dosa (ghee), a plate of idli that threatens to melt in your mouth, and a final dose of filter coffee, guaranteeing a second visit back. Udupi cuisine, as it has positioned itself today, seems to speak for a  generic ‘South Indian’ cuisine. A very particular, vegetarian, brahmanical, gastronomy of Karnataka’s South Kanara district has been conflated into a blanket South Indian dining experience. This brahmanical orthodoxy that is associated with Udupi restaurants is not one that is removed from the town itself. Udupi restaurants as they have been conceived, and as they are evolving, seem to religiously follow the gastro-semantics of the Udupi Krishna Matha.

Udupi Krishna Temple

The famed local temple has long been associated with food – owing to the multiple mass feeding rituals that the temple pontiff performs through the year. Just as the deity of Krishna in Pandharpur is called Nad-Brahman (Musical Brahman) and the deity in Tirupati is called Kanchan Brahman (Golden Brahman), the idol in Udupi is revered as the Anna Brahman (Food Brahman). While the distribution of prasada/ food is believed to be removed from casteist practices, there is an explicit distinction between spaces where brahmins are served and where the ‘general’ public is served. 

Prasada is served in four spaces – the mristhanna bhojan, chowki, the first floor bhojanshala, and the second floor bhojanshala. The first two of these are spaces where sanyasis are served, alongside their Brahmin devotees. The prasada served here consists of the staples of rice, saaru, and sambar – savoury side dishes mixed with rice. In addition to these, brahmin devotees are served vast quantities of sweets and yoghurt, owing to a ritualistic, brahmin diet that emphasises the ‘madhura’ (sweet) rasa of the 6 flavours for food.  

In contrast, the first and second floor bhojanshala do not serve sweets with the prasada. The dishes here are limited to the staples of rice, saaru, and sambar; with the yoghurt being switched out for buttermilk. The act of cooking and serving the food in both spaces also operate within a brahmanical framework – with strict norms of purity being observed for brahmin devotees. The serving of oota (meal), in the Matha, is also characterised by the rapid speed at which it is served, and the ability of the cooks to reproduce the same taste over and over again. 

Udupi restaurants seem to mimic certain parts of this very temple culture. For one, the Udupi hotel experience is rested on the pillars of cleanliness, fast service, and consistency. Udupi hotels have historically been owned by Brahmins from South Kanara and have tended to specifically employ these Brahmins for their cooking staff as well. While this has been changing over the years, it is, almost, a redeployment of ‘traditional’ brahmanical work to suit an evolving business framework. As they have grown and expanded, Udupi hotels have adapted the Matha’s model of brahmanical hospitality to an economic model of catering and hoteliering

The 1900s were a time when eateries and hotels occupied a dichotomy – on one hand were the high end Taj Mahal hotels that catered to the Indian and British elite; and on the other were the small dining halls that served lunch for working men. An uncle remembers the first Udupi eateries as extensions of houses – a veranda where one could get a chai and a small snack. Run by Udupi brahmins – usually from the Shivalli sub-caste – these were usually frequented by travellers. 

As India’s middle class began to grow in the early 20th Century, so did the need for establishments that matched the tastes and aspirations of this bracket. Founded in the 1920s, in the erstwhile Madras Presidency, the Woodlands and Dasaprakash hotels sought to serve this very market. The Woodlands group of hotels finds its origins with a certain Krishna Rao, who was born in 1898 in South Kanara’s Kadandale village. Rao quit his job at Udupi’s Puthige Matha to join Madras’s Sharada Vilas Brahmins Hotel as a kitchen boy. In 1926, Rao moved out of Georgetown and set up 2 restaurants on Mount Road: the Udupi Sri Krishna Vilas and the Udupi Hotel. 

Twenty two kilometers away from Kadandale, is the village of Kuthethur, the birthplace of Seetharama Rao. Born in 1899, a year after Krishna Rao, Seetharama Rao’s tryst with the hotel business started after he quit a government job to help his brother’s tiffin business. In the late 1920s, Rao set up the Dasaprakash group of hotels – a chain that expanded along the colonial axis of leisure; with estates in Madras, Mysore, and Ooty. The Dasaprakash and Woodlands Hotels were pioneers in the hospitality sector and revolutionized the Udupi hotel business. ‘Dasaprakash’ soon became a household name, with boarding houses, dining halls, small eateries, and restaurants popping up in major cities in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. 

However, evolving tastes due to a growing consumer base, and the growing cultural capital of the “idli-dosa-sambar” holy trinity, has led to a minimised affect of the Udupi culinary tradition. Udupi Hotels and Darshinis, now widely serve a pan – South Indian range of foods. According to one member of the Dasaprakash family, some favourites are very specifically from South Kanara – the famed tuppa and masala dose are products of the Udupi hotel boom. More niche, traditional items like ‘moode’ – idli batter cooked in a mold of — leaves, served with ‘kairasa’ a coconut gravy, are served at older Udupi hotels. 

The expansion of Udupi cuisine has also resulted in a fairly monolithic interpretation of South Indian cuisine as a whole. Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada or South Kanara belt is home to a variety of distinct linguistic and religious communities. Languages spoken here include Tulu, Kannada, Havyaka, Konkani, Beary, and Kota. Each of these linguistic communities has their own distinct cuisine and culinary tradition. Tuluva or Mangalorean cuisine makes one think of seafood, ghee roasts, and pork bafat. Gowda cuisine in Karnataka is famed for its mutton chops and ragi mudde. Across the state border, in Kerala, beef is a staple in most diets. The pervasive nature of a pan – South Indian cuisine, one characterised exclusively by brahmanical “Udupi Veg” standards, tends to invisibilize many of the nuances between these communities and negate the rich culinary diversity that South India really has.

My mother remembers visiting Dasaprakash’s Hari Niwas, their first boarding unit in Madras, in the 90s. The meal she had at Hari Niwas, she recollects, took her back to the elaborate meals she enjoyed at the chowki during her school days in Udupi. The thalis were apparently filled with the very items you’d expect to see back in the Matha, with the taste intact too. The economic model that the hotel facilitates, allows for a wider access of brahmanical cuisine and culinary tradition. That the chowki meal has been commodified and can be consumed in a non segregated space seems to allow for processes of secularisation to occur. The South Indian ‘meal’, as it is widely sold today, my mother laments, has fused into a strange, generic set of dishes that are now rendered stateless. As Udupi cuisine has moved from the chowki to the darshini, so has the elaborate oota been reduced to the quick thindi; it’s always 5pm somewhere and I guess that’s where the tiffin comes in. 

Experience Further: While It may not really seem to fit the content of the article, the lyrics reflect my evolving relationship with my roots and the politics they stand for. Also, the track was on loop while I was writing this piece.

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