South Indian food and flavours, I will admit upfront, have always been something of an enigma to me. I love them, don’t get me wrong. But as someone (you know who you are) told me in the context of filter coffee, you need South Indian blood in your veins to get some things just so. And South Indian food—especially the apparently simple flavours that I adore—always needs to be just so.

Growing up in what was still Calcutta, my introduction to South Indian food was through the dosa and idli. They were everywhere, in part-air-conditioned restaurants with determinedly Bengali names, in five-star breakfast buffets and, of course, in the ubiquitous Udupis, with bench seating, stern-looking servers and coffee in steel tumblers. It was a while before I figured out that South Indian food extended far beyond these two preparations—generations of Bengali tourists to the region might tell you otherwise though—and that much of it came from Udupi, not the eatery, but the region.

Masale Pudis: Sarina Pudi; Vangi Bhat Pudi; Chutney Pudi and Menthe Hittu
Masale Pudis: Sarina Pudi; Vangi Bhat Pudi; Chutney Pudi and Menthe Hittu

It took several evenings with The Udupi Kitchen to figure out why. The first requisite for doing justice to this cuisine, as my friend pointed out so astutely years ago as I was lamenting my inability to get filter coffee right, was probably blood. And, in its absence, I realized, it had to be a grandmother-figure, standing by as you roasted, pounded, blended, chopped and sautéed your way through the exacting repertoire of Udupi’s temple food.

Her eyes would be sharp, never missing an extra pinch of pudi, but her nose would be sharper, picking up imbalances with a single whiff. Her measures would be unerring, her repertoire of dishes deep, rather than wide. She would be exacting about the freshness of vegetables and the ratio of Byadige chillies (for colour) to heaty-chillies in spice powders. She would turn up her nose at packaged coconut milk and tamarind paste, demand that you set out every ingredient of a recipe before starting to cook and do everything the hard way, and then she’d sit back and let you soak up all the praise for the dishes when they finally reached the table.

Smartly divided into Masale Pudi (spice powders), Anna (rice), Beles (lentils), Gojjus (vegetables in gravy), Palyas (dry vegetables), Raitas and Yogurt Gravies, Kosambaris (salads) and Chutneys, Tiffin, Thindi (savoury snacks), Desserts, Halwas and Sihi Thindi (Confections), and supported by handy tips and a glossary, the book’s biggest obstacle is perhaps scale. For instance, the recipes for the pudis —rasam powder, sambar powder, red gram powder and more—all make an average of two cups. Now, that’s a lot of pudi to roast and blend and cool for a single recipe that calls for, say, one tbsp of the mix. Playing around with the proportions of the powder is obviously not advisable, especially for a novice.

So, if, like me, you aren’t planning to cook Udupi on a regular basis, the best options lie in the recipes that don’t demand home-made spice mixes. There are plenty of those, thankfully, ranging from warming saarus and the legendary rice dishes to the palyas and chutneys. I tried Nimbe Hannu Saaru (Red Gram Soup with Lemon Juice), dal to you and me, crushing together cumin seeds and black pepper—a spice combination peculiar to the Udupi region—pressure-cooking tuvar dal, adding salt, jaggery and lemon juice, and tempering with the cumin-pepper powder, ginger, green chillies, asafoetida powder, red chillies and curry leaves. Of these, the cumin-pepper powder was a novel addition for me, and I was quite astounded at the layers of flavour it added to an otherwise innocuous dal, even ringing the faint bell of a long-ago “rice meals" at a Udupi restaurant.

If I have one complaint with the book, it’s the unapologetic labour-intensiveness. Consider the Bisibele Bhath, a Karnataka classic. The recipe here lists 27 ingredients. MTR’s Bisibele Bhath masala, which has on a permanent place on my kitchen shelf, takes care of about eight of them. Frankly speaking, it’s unlikely to go anywhere in a hurry.

On the other hand, I’m nurturing ambitions of making my own dosa from scratch now, complete with Alu Gedde Palya (potato stuffing) and Kadalabele Chutney (red chutney). No pudis required!

The Udupi Kitchen by Malati Srinivasan and Geeta Rao; Published by Westland; Price: 495

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