When I was first introduced to Rajesh Pai a few years ago, all he had was a notebook filled with notes and drawings in black ink. That, and a dream. Flipping through his book, he excitedly explained to me that he was going to open a restaurant that served only traditional Konkani food. His mission, he said, was to “rediscover, recreate, and revive” the cultural and culinary history of Dakshina Kannada, aka South Kanara. He was going to call it Kanua, after a variety of rice that has, over the years, been replaced by easier-to-grow hybrid varieties.
I nodded politely, promised to help him shape his menu when the time came… and shook my head in wonder. Traditional Konkani food? I’m a Bolar married to a Kamath. We’re both Konkanis. This was a cuisine I knew intimately. Was the man a complete, raving lunatic? Who would eat it? Assuming, of course, he could find people who knew how to cook it in the first place!
Sarjapur Road: site of the Great Konkani Revival
Two years and umpteen menu tweaks later, Kanua not only does thriving business – it has a staunchly loyal clientele. Despite its impossible-to-find, hard-to-get-to location off Sarjapur Road (in Kaikondrahalli, to be precise); its draconian “no kids under the age of 12 on weekends” rule; the fact that no liquor is served; and yes, its purely Konkani food (management resolve has not crumbled in the face of demands for parathas and paneer.)
I decided to schlepp my husband and a guest over for lunch the other day – a Konkani settled in Mumbai. On a Saturday afternoon, Kanua is a quick 15 minute drive from my home in Koramangala. Drive along Sarjapur Road, past the lake, until you see apartments called “Soupernika” on your right, and take the first right after that. It’s a mud road, but don’t let that deter you. Kanua’s on the second floor terrace of the last building on the right.
A taste of nostalgia
Before I move on to the food, a word about décor and service. To my mind, this is one of the very few specialty restaurants in Bangalore where the wait staff knows every item on the menu – its ingredients, method of preparation, spice level, and availability – off the top of the head. And if there’s someone who doesn’t know, they’ll refer you to someone who does. The décor is simply outstanding. Bits and pieces – including trusses and tiles – of Mangalore homes, contemporary replicas of temple lamps from the Konkan coast, elegant furniture with simple lines, chattai screens… classy, uncluttered, and unhurried.
Lulled into culinary nostalgia by our surroundings, we ordered way too many starters: Ghare Happol, sundried jackfruit paapad; pohdies (lightly spiced fritters) of sweet potato served with a mouth-puckering bilimbi dip; Raw Banana Kismuri, a sort of “quick munch” of finely diced banana fried with grated coconut, chillies, and other seasonings; and Bolanjeer Fry, whitebait deep-fried in a semolina crust. We opted to wash it all down with freshly crushed sugarcane juice.
Except for the Kismuri, priced at Rs. 45, the portions were generous. Because we’d ordered so much else, we hardly noticed – but be warned, if you’re ordering this as a snack, you’re going to be left wanting. In terms of flavors, my dining companions declared everything “okay” – high, high praise, coming from not one, but two Konkani males. For my part, I think the Kismuri, the Ghare Happol, and the pohdies tasted just the way my 73 year-old mother-in-law might make them, but I like my Bolanjeer marinated with a little more spice.
For our entreés, we ordered Dalithoi and parboiled rice and – just to round out our meal – Kanua Ghee Roast, Yetti (or prawn) Tava Fry, and Vaali Ambat, a region-specific curry of vine spinach and raw papaya.
Let’s take it from the top. Dalithoi is a simple – and in my opinion, inexpressibly vile – dal seasoned only with asoefetida, red chillies, and mustard seeds. It’s thin, watery, and pale (no added turmeric!) I can’t stand the stuff. Every self-respecting Konkani male loves it. Kanua’s version was decreed “good, but not great” – read, “not as good as our moms make it.”
At Rs. 290, the Yetti Tava Fry is a decent deal if you order it as an accompaniment rather than as a starter. You get eight plump prawns, spiced just a little beyond prudence, and done so they’re still tender and succulent.
Room for improvement
The chicken Ghee Roast and the Vaali Ambat struck a discordant note. While the portions were more than generous for the price (Rs. 220 and Rs. 140 respectively), both these dishes need work.
The ghee roast masala was close to burnt, and the chicken was overcooked to the point of being dry and stringy. Nowhere near inedible, but definitely not the way I remember this dish from Kanua’s early days. On the plus side – it passed my “finger test”. If, after washing your hands, your fingers are stained red, the chef has used artificial food coloring instead of (or perhaps to supplement) good red chillies. In this case, my husband’s fingers washed clean, with no telltale red stains.
The Vaali Ambat tasted just right, but the quality of the vine spinach was substandard – instead of being tender, the stems were thick and fibrous, causing us to resemble cows chewing cud. Women of the Konkani community would never buy vine spinach of that size and age for this dish, so I fail to understand why Kanua’s kitchen staff chose to do so.
You won’t find these on any other dessert menu…
Unbelievably – and foolishly – we chose to order dessert. Pattoli, grated coconut and jaggery pressed between turmeric leaves and steamed, arrived at the table first. We actually managed to finish it; it tasted just right. I’d suggest that you ask for a dollop of ghee to go with it. That’s how it’s supposed to be eaten, and the restaurant should serve it that way in the interests of authenticity. Since they don’t, go right ahead and ask for it – they’re very helpful.
I also ordered Kaelenché, a very rich, sweet, steamed banana dessert. Should’ve known better; I was just plain stuffed. After I forced a couple of spoonfuls past all-too-willing taste buds, my poor, overworked digestive system began to show signs of rebellion. Reluctantly, I asked for the remains to be packed in a doggie bag… and took it, my two sated companions, and myself home to rest after the exertions of the afternoon.
(above the Quetzel Outlet)
Bangalore – 560068
Closed on Mondays