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How the food we ate melted our hearts
Day 1: Breakfast in Madduru, lunch in Mysore, dinner in Palakkad
Day 2: Breakfast in Coimbatore, lunch in a town ahead of Salem, dinner in Pondicherry
Day 3: Breakfast…
…Day 5: Breakfast in Palolem, lunch at Yellapur, dinner at Tumkur and Bangalore
5 days and almost 3000 km later of eat-drive-eat, we came back with a bountiful of food discoveries! It was 5 days of eating awesome food. And conversations with the people behind making this awesome food.
Fancy keeps it simple which makes simple fancy!
A good old masala dosa at a roadside stall outside of Bangalore. The sand lobster cooked to perfection in a seafood restaurant in Pondicherry.
One, a family stall set up by a family from Begur. Wake up at 4 AM, get to the location by 5, do the preparation and start serving by 6 AM. Most of their customer base was people commuting on the busy Bangalore – Mumbai highway.
The other was a restaurant housed in the Le Dupleix hotel. A heritage hotel which housed the seafood speciality restaurants. People on a holiday looking for a relaxed fine dining experience would come here.
Seemingly, places on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Yet, both had one thing in common – they kept things simple.
The Begur family made their own flour and served freshly on-site steamed idlis and dosas customised to the customer’s need!
At the seafood restaurant, they stuck to the most local source – the Pondicherry seafood market. Having this fresh produce meant they already had the best ingredients of their most important component – the fish.
From there on, all they had to do was do justice to the freshness of the fish – which meant keeping it simple!
You can’t argue with an honest intention
In Coimbatore, we had breakfast at a place called Shanthi Social Services Canteen . The name sounded intriguing so we decided to check it out. It turned out to be the biggest, cleanest and the cheapest place we have eaten at – ever!
Before entering the dining space, you had to stand in a queue behind the coupon counter. A screen above displayed the rates.It also told you how much of a particular item was cooked for that shift and how much of it was left.
You paid (our breakfast that morning – medu wada, upma, tea and coffee cost us a grand total of Rs. 45!), got your coupon and walked in.
Here, we saw the first board warning, “We have mobile phone jammers here. In the case of emergencies, step out to make your phone calls.” We ignored it and walked further.
Walked to the serving counters. They gave us two shiny steel plates. Served the wadas, pointed us to the counter was getting upma. Tea and coffee counters were further ahead. Everyone serving patiently. Behind the counter, everything looked under control – each object and each person doing exactly what their job was.
The dining hall was massive – 450 people could eat together. A lot of seats were already occupied even at breakfast time. You sat at the long tables, ate, gave your plates to the cleaning counters and left.
Since you weren’t allowed to use mobile phones, you didn’t “waste” time answering phone calls or taking pictures of the food. There was a system in place for everything. Which is how such a massive operation worked smoothly.
We tried to “hustle” with this system. The orderliness of the place was fascinating, we would’ve loved to take pictures and shoot some videos. We were sternly but politely refused. “If we let you do this, we would have to allow everyone to do it”, the officer at the canteen told us. “Our objective is to serve food to as many people as we can.” If people started shooting videos inside, they would want to talk to the staff, the cooks. That would deviate them from the focus of serving food. “Which is all we want to do.”
The place reminded us of the langar we’d had at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. There’s no argument to be made with such an honest discussion.
Some recipes are a family, community or a regional legacy
One bite and you join the league of millions who came before and those who will follow. It’s food that your forefathers approved of.
A specific kind of rice from West Bengal. Hand grinding the spices for the entire operation (They have 19 branches now!). Having these hand grinding centres right next to your house, so you can personally supervise each batch.
On that plate sitting before us was a piece of tradition carefully, painstakingly, passionately preserved. Imagine serving out plate after plate of the exact same taste each day, through generations! Imagine making each morsel a little piece of biryani heaven.
Sameer’s grandfather had started Hotel Sea View, the place we had lunch at in Karwar, on the west coast in Karnataka. They came to Karwar from Thekkady in Kerala. Karwar had an abundance of fresh seafood. A place that housed a defunct courthouse was going up on sale.
His grandfather thought they should start serving seafood with a touch of spices from Kerala. A unique blend of northern Karnataka-Kerala flavours was born.
Be it the fried kingfish fish or the soft pomfret gravy, for three generations now the exact same dishes are being whipped out day after day. Be it the locals of Karwar, the leisure travellers who stop by here on their way to Goa or the commuters getting off the bus at the bus stand opposite the Hotel Sea View.
”Cook from the heart” is not a cliche
Simple “village food” – as Nafeer liked to call his biryani at NMR Biryani in Palakkad. A total of just ten ingredients with a spice powder his wife grinds at home for all the kilos of biryani they whip put at NMR. It was the intoxicating smell of this spice which first drew us into the small lane which houses NMR biryani.
What’s in the spice powder? “Oh, just some cinnamon and cloves. Let me give some to you.” A small part of Nafeer’s life now sits in our home!
The multi-textured, hot and cold dessert looked complex. Until chef Abhimanyu explained the vision behind each component of the dessert. And the dessert just came together perfectly in a spoonful of sensory delight!
We spoke in just a few expressive words for our lack of common language at Maddur Tiffany’s when we asked the guys how the famous Maddur wadas were made. We got a vague understanding of rava (semolina) and deep fried. But the pride in their eyes when they said the place was 150 years old and people from USA and London came to eat, was unmistakable.
Very rarely does a boss openly praise his staff. But the pride in Mr.Thalappa’s shy voice narrating the story of Madan, his head chef single-handedly cooking food for 1500 pilgrims over a span of just 2 days didn’t go unnoticed. It was almost 5 o’clock when halted for lunch, and what better place to be than at the legendary Sarvana bhavan. The food was almost over, but we told Mr.Thalappa, the owner that we were really hungry. They can’t say no to that. Within minutes a beautiful soulful thali with hot piping rotis (no rice, there was a long way still left to drive!) was ready to be devoured.
Loads of memorable food was a given on this road trip planned around food. What came as a surprise though were the stories. Told to us with love, passion and pride by the chefs, the owners, the managers, the servers.
In a dusty little town, along the road, in a nondescript coastal village hidden in a tiny lane, an idea germinates. Hands toil, backs break, standing in the heat for hours. Their only gift is the smile on your face – celebrating, resting, creating memories – as you devour the labour of their love. In a new little town where you know no one else, they are the ones who feed you, become your friends.
For someone to open their hearts and share with you the story of their lives and the many other lives that they touch through their food – that was our privilege, our biggest takeaway of #MissionGoodFood.
Like in all our travels, it was the people we met that made the lasting impression!