Kanua: A Revival of Konkani Cuisine

Kanua has an interesting menu card... in more ways than one

Kanua has an interesting menu card... in more ways than one

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 He was going to call it Kanua, after a variety of rice that has, over the years, been replaced by easier-to-grow hybrid varieties.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.

Memories of a simpler time img_65121 img_6490
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.

Raw Banana Kismuri

Raw Banana Kismuri

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.

Vine spinach

Vine spinach

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.

Ghee Roast... disappointing

Ghee Roast... very disappointing

... the results of the finger test

... the results of the finger test

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.

hot, sweet, and drenched in ghee

Kaelenché: hot, sweet, and drenched in ghee

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.

Survey No.6/2,
(above the Quetzel Outlet)
Kaikondrahalli Village,
Carmelaram Post,
Sarjapur Road,
Bangalore – 560068

Ph: 6530035

Closed on Mondays

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13 thoughts on “Kanua: A Revival of Konkani Cuisine

  1. Dhalithoi, Vali Ambat, Patholi, Ghahre Pappad, etc…..takes me back to the good ol’ days of my Mamama’s cooking. Gosh, how I miss her! Thanks for bringing back some amazing (and aromatic) memories of days spent at my grandparents’ house in Bangalore. Glad to say that I still enjoy some of this traditional Mangi cuisine, courtesy of my aunts. What I wouldn’t give for a restau like this in my neck of the woods!! Suman, you’ve done it again…made me walk down Memory Lane.

  2. Aparna: finger test applies to any red or green masala-based dish. As a vegetarian, I think you’ll love this restaurant. Heaps of interesting stuff for you to try… and no paneer!

    Neets: Maybe someday DC will be blessed with another Rajesh Pai who has the balls to follow his heart against all good sense. He is doing a lot to not only dish out KOnk food but also document it, preserve it, and revive it. To my surprise, people are open to the idea of a purely regional cuisine!

  3. i agree… it’s totally vegetarian friendly. i love that curry with sugarcane in it. and that snake gourd + potato starter with the killer tamarind+onion dip like thing. the hubby, a fish and rice guy from assam, pronounces the fish “pretty nice”. read “not as good as the one my mom makes”. i went kanua crazy for months at a stretch till the staff started giving me these knowing looks. the only thing i hate is getting there with the crap traffic on btm main road. shit… reading all this in a cyber cafe in kathmandu is making me crave spicy south indian desi food like mad!!! btw, there are some EXCELLENT restaurants here – esp for meat eaters. that and the mountains are the only two reasons to visit nepal. kathmandu itself is 3 and a half world.

  4. I have been there only twice and loved it both times. Glad to read the details beyond the dishes from a Konkani. For me, this was an introduction to a new kind of food because most restaurants usually do a Konkani meets Kerala meets everything South. And may be it was because they had just opened, they did suggest the ghee with pattoli. Mmmm….

  5. This restaurant looks it is straight from my mom’s kitchen. Will check it out with the boss herself during my next visit. Could not believe that someone would actually think of opening a konkani cuisine restaurant. I always believed that you should judge a restaurant by tasting the most basic dish and in this case the dalitoi. If they make a good dalitoi I can bet the restaurant will do will. Just had my lunch an hour ago but reading this article has got my stomach juices going crazy.
    Good luck Rajesh Pai!

  6. Hahaha, “Choc”… I’d completely forgotten that nickname of yours! Yes, I have my favorite restaurant benchmarks while tasting too. And you’re right – often the simplest things are the most telling. I’d taken my father in law to Kanua once. He mainly grunts at food, it’s meant to be eaten, not appreciated, he thinks. His comment to Mr. Pai at the end of the ten-dish meal: “Layak ashile”.

  7. wow, though I’m Mangi from Mangalore, our style of cooking is different from the one that you outlined above. the menu looks like its focussed towards the Saraswat cuisine.

    I got to try these dishes only at friends houses, guess I will have to visit when I’m in Bangalore next. 🙂

  8. hi girl,
    tho i’m saraswat, my mom does NOT make valli ambat the way it sounds here, and this is the first time I’m hearing the word ‘kaelenche’. Both the recipes are something I’d love to get. possible?

  9. we went there with family and found the place hopeless eat out very less choice on the menu! Not suitable for authentic konkani food lovers 😦 thumbs down! and towards the end they dont serve mouth freshners too! huh!
    only crab curry was ok types, rest spice less hopeless!

  10. Having had my fill of Konkani food from as far back as memory permits, i was was more than curious to read this article. As usual, you’re written in elegant detail. Years ago,a small regiment of family ,me included,were in the vicinity of this restaurant but either because of not being able to find it, or because it was closed,the planned lunch did not happen. Next time i’m in town, i’ll definitely try to visit this place (helped no doubt by your detailed navigational tips). i’d seen whitebait in far-away menus, didnt realize that it was fried in my own backyard! i’ve yet to try a tasty ghee roast.. was surprised to note your repulsion towards Dalithoi…anyway, thummi he review bhaari chaang barela !…tc

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