Bangalore. Bengaluru. Bengalooru. Its sometimes chaotic, sometimes confused urban identity finds expression in the city’s gastronomic heritage and traditions. It’s close to impossible to arrive at a consensus on food that truly reflects us. Yet, it is possible to identify some culinary specialities/restaurants as unique to Bangalore.
If there were one item of food that could possibly lay claim to Bangalore, it would have to be the raagi mudde. It’s essentially dough made of finger millet and hot water that is rolled into very intimidating-looking, dense balls, andis traditionally swallowed (never chewed; try chewing one and you’ll understand why) with a gravy accompaniment that can be vegetarian or meat-based. The Chinese said, “It makes you strong!”, and our very own H.D. Deve Gowda popularized it, if only in name. Available at all good military ’otels across the city.
Then, there’s the redoubtable MTR—its fame now spread, some say diluted, far and wide by way of processed and packaged foods. The general opinion is that one goes to MTR for its bisibele bhath, kesari bhath, rava idlis and its masala dosas. However, the best bet is to book a seat at its elaborate table d’hôte lunch or dinner.
If you do go in the morning, go early, as there is an old Bangalore ritual that involves genial grandfathers taking a slow perambulation across Lal Bagh and a quick calorie fix at MTR that more than offsets the modest gains to be had from their unhurried exercise. And one must make mention of Vidyarthi Bhavan where, some say, the best masala dosas are on offer. It doesn’t look like much, but the crowds will attest to the quality, and the quality explains the longevity of their fame.
The Imperial-Empire divide is older than the Coke-Pepsi rivalry and far more hostile. Friendships have been made and lost over this and it’s a battle waged over chicken kebabs, ghee rice and Kerala parothas, Empire being the young upstart. A few words of warning: Despite their regal names, they are essentially greasy-spoon diners and be warned not to expect kebabs of the tandoori persuasion; these are deep fried, though similarly coloured. Recommendations regularly include the brain pepper fry in addition to the above and, if you are vegetarian, the dal fry will do well, in a cinch. That said, it’s best to form your own opinions and propagate them, with passion of course.
When it comes to meat, you need look no further than the Shivajinagar-Coles Park-Frazer Town area. The restaurants there have a strong tradition of Muslim food that is now unique to Bangalore and ranges from stewed lamb trotters for breakfast to biryani for dinner. Notables are the Taj in Russell Market for breakfast, Siddique for kebabs, Richies for their biryani and Albert Bakery for their unbeatable mutton samosas that sell out faster than tickets at an India-Pak cricket match, and with good reason.
There’s also Fanoos—famous for its Mumbo, Jumbo, Rambo classification of rolls which refer to the quantum of meat in a given roll—but the general consensus seems to be that it’s past its prime. In its heyday, Fanoos enjoyed a well-earned reputation for quick, cheap and very tasty meals but has now been overshadowed by other establishments, chiefly, the Shahi Roll Centre in the Coles Park area.
In a league unto itself is Koshy’s. It is to Bangalore what the Coffee House is to Kolkata, an easy-going place with an air of the intellectual and an artsy whiff. They will not disturb you even if it’s only a coffee you’ve ordered and you’ve spent hours dawdling over it with a book in hand. Its coffee is famous and other worthwhile nominations range from its “pot tea” to its chicken sandwiches, but it’s the iced tea that ought to take pride of place. Though it stands to be said that Koshy’s isn’t particularly cheap.
Speaking of coffee, there’s the old faithful India Coffee House on MG Road that has been a bulwark to change; bearers in once-white uniforms with red turbans; a kitchen that has possibly never seen the light of day; patrons with designated tables and a general air of decay and ennui that can only inhabit a government office. Its menu is resistant to the metric system and still offers extra ketchup by the ounce. The coffee is famous, but it ought to be justifiably proud of its scrambled eggs on toast and dosas as well. Its single concession to modernity has been the introduction of a cash register that has had the unfortunate effect of reducing the bill to a mere formality from when it became a source of entertainment, as you could never really be sure of what you’d pay for identical meals on different days.
Mangalorean and coastal food has, of late, found a new voice in Bangalore, and even Fishland in Gandhinagar and Anupam’s Coastal Express are having to contend with a raft of newcomers to the scene though they have maintained their arguable position of dominance. The fish curry-rice combination and the prawn biryani at the former and the ghee roast chicken or prawn-pundi combination at the latter deserve a mention in any annals of Bangalore food. Among the start-ups, Kubay, Kudla and Mangalore Pearl come recommended.
The city also has a curious profusion of Andhra restaurants that vary from the mediocre to the excellent. The menus are indistinguishable but the highlights are chilli chicken, biryani and the “meals”. RR is sadly past its prime but it was the harbinger of things to come. Among the current lot, Eden Park, Nagarjuna and the Nandhini chain are worth a visit.
And then there is, of course, Corner House. It started out as a full-fledged, single location cafe serving “American” food, but has reinvented itself as a dedicated, multiple-location ice-cream and dessert parlour, and a damn good one at that. This is the source of much inter-city angst, Nirula’s in New Delhi and Bachelor’s in Mumbai being unworthy contenders to the crown. Its hot chocolate fudge sundae is a legend and more so its Death by Chocolate.
Bangalore has, with some dubious reasoning, been called a pub city and, while there is a profusion of these, successive paternal governments have doomed them by enforcing a Cinderella-like closing time.
But for an old Bangalore experience, Dewar’s cannot be beaten. Wide planter’s chairs, large tables and an in situ clientele make for a memorable experience that is only amplified by their reasonable pricing and excellent bar food. Must-trys include crumb-fried fish and brain fry.
Would you then try out the new, staple fare mushrooming in Bangalore: the Thai, the Continental, the Chinese? What’s a Tom Yum soup or a Peking duck you get in Bangalore that you don’t in New Delhi or Mumbai?
Gautam John is a project manager at the NGO Pratham Books. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org