Let The Feast Begin
Out comes mokka junna miriyalu fry – baby corn marinated in tamarind, sprinkled generously with freshly ground black pepper, dusted lightly in besan, and deep fried. I must dwell a few moments on this dish. Having always thought of baby corn as a relatively recent addition to our grocery shelves, I was very surprised to learn that it has featured on the tables of agriculturists in Andhra Pradesh for several generations. Chef Bhat’s version doesn’t leave the slightest trace of oil on your fingertips. It’s light and crisp, with a barely-discernible batter – nothing like the thick, tempura-like baby corn fry that seems to feature on vegetarian menus elsewhere in the city.
We’re also served a portion of podi-tossed idlis. These are “cocktail” (if you’re from the North) or “button” (if you’re from the South) idlis that are coated with gunpowder instead of being served alongside it.
Venkatesh keeps coming back to the fact that South Indian food gets short shrift in Bangalore. Other than a couple of specialty restaurants at five-star properties, he points out, food from the four southern states is relegated to darshinis or banana leaf Andhra eateries. “South Indies is an amalgamation of the cuisines of all four southern states,” he says. “It’s where you can bring your family, your business associates, or visitors from out of state who want to experience something uniquely South in an upscale, contemporary ambiance. The food is traditional; the sensibility is contemporary.” Contemporary it is indeed. From the soaring atrium to the wooden floors, the classy white crockery to the clean lines of the furniture and the interesting photo-décor, there’s nothing old-fashioned about South Indies except the food.
By now we’ve been served mirapakaya pattani curry, a cashewnut- and coconut-based gravy of yellow chillies and fresh green peas. The flavor is unique, and it’s not as spicy as I expected. There’s also the perfectly balanced Karnataka specialty called kaipekkai kari, bitter gourd in a sweet and sour curry; and from Andhra Pradesh kothmir vonkaya koora, aubergines in a coriander-based curry. Kerala’s kai kari stew is good but predictable, especially in the face of paal katti vengayathaal masala – cottage cheese (yes, the ubiquitous paneer) and spring onions in a cashewnut- and coconut-based curry more reminiscent of the North than of Tamil Nadu, the state of its origin.
All of these curies marry well with accompaniments such as akki rotti, kal dosa, and appam, all of which the South Indies kitchen does to perfection and serves piping hot.
Chef Bhat confesses that although he himself is a vegetarian, he is actually far better as a non-vegetarian chef. “I had other chefs who used to taste the non-veg I was cooking and tell me if it tasted okay,” he laughs. “I learnt to cook non-veg without tasting a single morsel!”
Revisiting An Old Favorite
Regretfully turning down portions of curd rice and bisi bele baath, I opt instead to sit back and wait for a childhood favorite – badam halwa. This fondly remembered confection is found very rarely in Bangalore these days, more’s the pity. “Crushed almonds, sugar, ghee, milk, and saffron” in the correct proportions are all that should go into an authentic badam halwa says Venkatesh. He recalls sitting on his grandfather’s knee and watching as the patriarch himself measured out exactly two teaspoons of the halwa, spread it on wax paper, flattened it and folded it for sale at the princely sum of Rs. 2/- per serving. “It was a most expensive sweet and no one else could be trusted to measure it out,” he tells me.
Although a quick taste reveals that the Kasi halwa served alongside the badam halwa is superlative – crunchy and not too sweet – I stick with my decision to finish my meal with the latter. As I savor the last morsel, I’m glad that I saved the best for last. Thank you Chef!