On the Udupi food trail of divine flavours

udupi cuisine

The domain of the gods has been always as much about the divinity permeating through the morsels of what is revered as prasadam as it does through the courses of devotion and belief and sanctity on which the spirit of religion is based. And while this concept of food served within the very precincts of the expansive place of worship itself, as a blessing invoked of the Almighty, is something very peculiar to the religious practices in Hinduism and Sikhism, all religions of the world still harbour that special connect with food along the extents of their many a festivals that celebrate both the power of the divine and the lure of the gastronomic.

As something that therefore carries across its every offering the spirit of godly means, the food associated with religions and religious observances is indeed very remarkable. Particularly in the context of the Hindu religion, this affiliation of their 33 crore deities with the realm of food is all the more prominent and distinctive, shaping up as distinct offerings to the divine that taste of a uniqueness supposed to be the endowment of the grace of the gods. And while every temple presided over by any of the many gods and goddesses revered through the practice of Hinduism as a religion has their own significance and their own specific ‘recipe’ for the taste of the divine that they grant, steeped in an essence partaken of in utter devotion and respect by devotees and non devotees alike, that which in itself is no less godly an assertion of inclusivity, there is one particular assertion of this food of the Gods originating from a particular region in India that has taken on an identity that transcends the norms of any geography and culture, reinstating therefore globally its prominence as a distinctive cuisine in itself that surely is the true marker of what all regions aspire for in all their encompassing embrace of humanity.

An integral component of South Indian food, understood ubiquitously as that staple fare of dosas and idlis and sambars and chutneys and the like, is the spread of simple delectability that hails from the temple town of Udupi in the state of Karnataka. Elaborate and ceremonial in the essence of it while still being rooted in such flavours that are simple and light, yet no less scrumptious and hearty, is the foundation of Udupi cuisine that goes back by many centuries to have its origins in the years of the 1200s. And yet, despite its more than obvious stemming as a culinary revelation that comes across today as being the revered serving of and from the Gods, the food of Udupi is also as rooted in the gastronomic essence of it. As a phenomenon of sorts that started what is among India’s first chain of restaurants, the ‘Udupi brand’ today thrives in a global manifestation upon the thrust of its deliverance of nutritious, filling and quality foods free of the needless, too mainstream fuss emerging as as an additive of the too rampant mode of commercialisation.

In its beginnings though, the Udupi culinary tradition rests in a history that revolves around the establishment of what is the city’s most famous landmark even today. The famous Sri Krishna Temple founded by the Vaishnavite saint- philosopher Madhavcharya in the 13th century was where this now globally popular stuff of many a vegetarian delights came to assert itself as a specific route along the food world. As a part of rituals that entailed the worship of an infant Lord Krishna, a total of at least a fourteen different delicacies were offered as naivedya to the deity every single day. The tradition continued and over time became even deeply ingrained into the popular religious conscience so much so that Udupi cuisine began to be seen as a different strand of the culinary altogether that prevailed still in its deep devotion to the religious. As a continuance of the temple tradition then, the food thus characterised as part of Udupi cuisine retained though its many a defining aspects. Strictly vegetarian in nature, so much so that does away with the use of spices like onion and garlic because of their tamasic qualities, while also mandating the exclusion of certain veggies especially during a four month period during the monsoon season known as the Chaturmasa is this particular exploration of food that is noted for its flavour derived from local ingredient. This compulsion of having to make to do with only a handful of ingredients sourced from nature also led Udupi cuisine to attain its distinctive appeal, of residing in a taste profile that indeed is the result of innovation necessitated by a strict set of restrictions of very religious leanings.

Tied to this doctrine of religion but influenced not entirely by the notion of having to appease the Gods are the many a diverse elements of Udupi cuisine that evolved as a means of the culinary skills of the brahmins themselves who came to be the masters behind the preparations going on everyday in relentless manner within the fore of the temple. In fact, Udupi cuisine might even be a reworking or a development on the food that marked the premises of the two other ancient temples of Sri Ananteshvara and Sri Candramauleshvara. As the Shivalli Brahmins devised their own mode of cooking while catering to the rituals deemed necessary for the worship of Lord Krishna, what emerged was a unique fusion of sorts that came to rest in such premises of remarkable decadence that have managed to till today entice a young Krishna enough to keep him residing through every facet of existence in Karnataka’s very own temple city. Playing out other such simultaneous influences on the cuisine had been many a developments that came to characterise the happenings in and around the temple, such as the inclusion of the shepherd caste who brought along with them their own perceptions of the epicurean to further diversify the realms of the temple food by the 16th century.

Intertwined therefore in such aspects of rituals essential to invoking the blessings of the divine and an understanding of the dynamics of what would be wholesome, intriguing and balanced food even when limited by the choice of ingredients is the repertoire of the men behind the creation of a cuisine fancied in all its simplicity. For in all its worth, the cuisine of Udupi owes its all to the temple brahmins who allowed for their ingenuity and experience to work their way into the offerings of a prasadam that today sees wide relishing not just as temple food but also as a distinctive element of the popular culinary parlance. In devising trademark dishes out of local produce, tweaked a bit here and there to allow for regional preferences to find way or to make up for the restrictive fore of usage of ingredients, Udupi cuisine today has churned up a phenomenon ubiquitous to its predominance as offering some of the finest vegetarian fare that one can relish and indeed crave for. It indeed also is the divine taste of their many an interesting dishes of nativity that allows for this form of cuisine to have pervaded the realm of the global flavours, that which came to assert its identity beyond its religious link by a certain crisis in existence. With the premises of the historic temple not providing adequate employment opportunities for all Brahmins who by then had come to master the proportions and techniques of the recipes meant to cater to the Gods, they instead turned to catering to human needs for flavors and uniqueness, in the process setting in motion the evolution of a world cuisine that is one of the most balanced, perhaps in the whole wide world.

The development of Udupi cuisine as a ‘modern’ phenomenon in the food world began in the 20th century when it ventured out of the limits of the temple city and found stronghold in bigger cities across the country. In particular, it were the cities of Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai wherefrom Udupi cuisine began this aspect of its journey, from where it manifested in a dimension that would come across as immensely commercial, as would be apparent from the many Udupi restaurants that dot today every big and small town and city across India. This growth in popularity though has also meant that many a not really authentic eateries claiming to serve authentic food has proliferated through the fame of the servings of the God himself but by and large the distinction of Udupi cuisine as wholesome and balanced is what still prevails in it boasting its own legion of dedicated followers.

Associated with this cuisine of global prominence is the origins of the dosa, one of the most popular foods attributed to the southern part of India. Variations like masala dosa and neer dosa are also exclusively Udupi in origin, making therefore south Indian cuisine incomplete without the mention of Udupi food. Other specialities include fried delights like the goli baje, idlis steamed in jackfruit leaves devoured as kotte kadubu, or a lentil based sambar variation called the bol huli, the lentil and curd based Uddinahittu, the fruit based sweet, spicy and tangy curry menaskai, a dry veggie dish called the Ajethna, another sambar like preparation of huli or another yogurt based soothing delight called the tambuli, salads like the kosambari, the rainy season special preparation of the undla kai sweet delights like the bakshya or the sheera served with spicy upma or the Bengal gram halwa known as hayagriva or the commonplace kushmand halwa or for that matter even the humble rice halwa relished as halbai, Udupi cuisine is as steeped in variety and flavours despite its traditional limitations in the count of ingredients. The belief of the religious persists as well, in case of preparations like the porridge of Huggi (kara pongal) that is otherwise a specialty offering during Dhanur Maasa at the Sri Krishna Matt. In this and similar other manifestations, Udupi cuisine prevails as a palate of influences that acknowledges the divinity in food, either as a form of connect with the Gods or as one that is the basis of sustenance of all life, preferring to tread therefore along the trails of simplicity while still delivering flavours and tastes and plates full of healthy deliciousness.

Ingrained in the midst of such exploration of food that is only but an extension of the cultural expression of a place revered in its fineness, be it in adherence to the spirit of the religious or in residing in an essence that makes the best use of nature’s bounty, eking out such a delectable specimen of the culinary even when honoring the time standing traditions and customs, is also another uniqueness characteristic of the whole Udupi gastronomic experience. Central to this whole realm of exploring the culinary tradition of Udupi is a certain way of relishing not just the flavors of it but letting its essence imbibe deep into the soul in partaking of a cuisine so phenomenal that is the product of cooks believed to be granted a boon by the gods that whoever takes one bite of their food would turn into believers of them. Traditionally served on green plaintain leaves on the floor, a typical full course Udupi meal comprising of the kosambari, spicef rice, saaru, bonda and the payasa and such other specialities are always served in a particular sequence and only on particular spots on the lead. The meal is also often shared by a many number of people who are expected to begin and end eating the meal together. In fact so essential is this mode of eating in the collective Udupi consciousness that none of the persons can get up in the middle of the meal even when they have finished their share. It is customary also for all meals to begin and end with the chant of Govinda, in devotion to Lord Vishnu. The mildly spiced, easy to digest, soothing, filling and nutritious meals that the Udupi cuisine has come to be synonymous with today rests in quite a few strands of unflinching loyalty, whether it be in terms of not resorting to ingredients shunned for use in the name of the Lord or in not interfering with the prevalence of the customs and traditions thereof that govern the essence of the culinary exploration along these strands of surprising uniformity. Indeed, in serving the world such a palatable palate of intriguing fare that has been effective enough to capture the fancies of the Gods themselves, Udupi cuisine has charted out a course of its own rooted in the supreme power and premises of an unrelenting devotion to God, to food and to all things scrumptiously simple.