I first tried a traditional ghee roast in all its fiery simplicity a few months ago at a Mangalorean Oota (meal) pop-up hosted by chef Shriya Shetty in Mumbai. An alumnus of Mumbai fine-dining restaurant Ellipsis and Bangkok-based Michelin-starrer Gaggan, Shetty has returned to Mangaluru to learn all about her ancestral cuisine. The pop-up was one of the first in a series which will aim to showcase the diverse cuisine of this region.

Shetty says the ghee roast was invented as recently as 50 years ago at Shetty Lunch Home, a legendary restaurant in Kundapur, a small town around 90km from Mangaluru. The recipe is simple, with just three-four ingredients, but it is the slow cooking process that transforms the dish. The red Byadgi chillies are soaked overnight, ground into a paste and then cooked for up to 5-6 hours with ghee, giving the masala a silky texture. “It took me four months, umpteen trials and eating crazy amounts of ghee roast to perfect the recipe for my pop-up," says Shetty. She now makes the masala on order and retails in both Mangaluru and Mumbai.

While the masala looks near deadly, it is surprisingly not spicy. The complete intermingling with ghee brings down the spiciness of chillies while highlighting its underlying sour notes. The cashew powder adds another layer of flavour. Some restaurants also finish the dish with fried cashews. Needless to say, this conversation with the chef convinced me to make a trip with her to Mangaluru, a place I had so far associated with Udupi restaurants and sweet sambar, to try the ghee roast in its original home.

The food of Mangaluru is defined by four prominent communities—Bunt, Goud Saraswat Brahmins, Catholics and Konkani Muslims. While the style of cooking varies slightly from one community to another, seafood remains the preferred choice for all meals.

First up on our trail is the highly recommended Foodlands in the bustling Lalbagh neighbourhood. This is one of the oldest restaurants in the city specializing in the food of the Bunt community, the original inhabitants of this part of Karnataka. It is a traditional Mangalorean lunch home furnished in bright red upholstery, a non-vegetarian-centric menu and chilled beer to wash it all down. We order bondas ghee roast (calamari cooked in the ghee roast masala), chicken Kundapuri (chicken cooked in a thick coconut gravy), chicken sukka (dry preparation of chicken), mutton uruwal (mutton fry with lots of onions and spices) and bangude (fried bangda fish) with parottas. Every dish on our table is distinctively different, with no overlapping flavours. But the hero of the meal is obviously the ghee roast.

At Maharaja Restaurant, another old-style family lunch home in Balmatta, the star is a cashew-topped chicken ghee roast. The restaurant has over 40 preparations dedicated to the bird on the menu.

If it was the squid ghee roast at Foodlands that got us started, the crab ghee roast at Machali had us hooked. This six-year-old restaurant has earned quite a reputation for its lunch thalis and its crab ghee roast. The standard fish thali offers rice, sambar, rasam, fish curry and a dry sabzi and you can pick your choice of seafood based on the day’s catch. Mangaloreans, I am told, love eating seafood during lunchtime, which is why they are omnipresent across these restaurants. The place is packed with locals and it’s clear how dedicated they are to the cause.

The crab is the freshest and sweetest I have eaten. “Scrape off the masala from the banana leaf using your thumb nail and eat that," Shetty tells us. The banana leaf (on which the ghee roast is served) adds an extra layer of flavour.

Apart from the ghee roast, another Mangaluru icon is the kori rotti. The traditional version of this dish mixes together a red hot chicken curry with a crispy rice roti. The rotti is also available ready-made in most grocery stores and is a staple across households here.

For our next meal, we try something different and head to the all-vegetarian Anmol Family Restaurant which specializes in Gaud Saraswat Brahmin food. This place is popular for its breakfast and snacks though it also serves full meals. It also has a surprisingly decent north Indian thali and their dosas come in a variety of fillings, though the classics are the best. Other things to try here are the avalakki upma (upma covered with dry raw poha mixed with boondi, chilli powder, turmeric and salt with a tempering of coconut oil, curry leaves and dry red chillies); Mangalore buns (soft fluffy pooris made with a mix of fermented flour and banana); and semige rasayana (string hoppers with coconut milk and jaggery). What catches my attention is thove, a special dal with the kick of asafoetida (hing), black mustard seeds and jeera. Hing, quite ubiquitous in Gaud Saraswat Brahmin cooking, is used in the form of a paste rather than powder, imparting a unique pungency to the food. As much as we love our ghee roasts, these flavours add a new dimension to our palate. We finished our meal at Anmol with their signature chikoo sheera, a rich halwa doused in ghee with chunks of fresh chikoo.

No trip to Mangaluru is complete without at least one helping of churmuri, the city’s favourite street food. This local take on bhelpuri has puffed rice mixed with grated carrot, grated beetroot, chopped onion and tomato, raw mango, masala peanuts, boiled egg, lemon juice and coconut oil. The cart near Mangala Stadium makes an exceptionally good version. Another Mangaluru speciality is the “gadbad" ice cream, a crazy mess of many flavours of ice cream, jelly, nuts and sauce which has somehow found many takers.

As a last stop, I visit local grocery stores to stock up on staples under Shriya Shetty’s guidance. She recommends the local hing paste, kai holige or a Mangalorean puran poli made with coconut and jaggery, jackfruit papad and valle bella, or palm jaggery spiced with ginger and pepper and, of course, some Byadgi chillies. These will keep the wonderful flavours of Mangaluru alive in my own kitchen for the near future at least.

Mangaluru food picks

Foodlands: Try their squid ghee roast and chicken Kundapuri with neer dosa or parotta

Machali: Crab ghee roast

Maharaja Restaurant: Chicken ghee roast with neer dosa

Anmol Family Restaurant: Mangalore buns, chikoo sheera and filter coffee

Hotel Karthik: The restaurant-cum-boarding house is famous for tuppa (ghee) dosa and a “reverse" filter coffee which comes in three layers of milk, topped with the coffee concoction and foam

Pabbas: While the iconic parlour is known for its gadbad ice cream, the Chocolate Dad is also worth trying

Hotel Narayana: This hyper- local hole-in-the-wall place is known for its fresh catch of the day

Shetty’s Kori Rotti: This is, without a doubt, the most famous place to eat the famous Mangalorean kori rotti—they also do takeaway parcels

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