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In Udupi, food is the greatest binder

By Aditi Phadnis in Udupi
Last updated on: May 05, 2004 19:37 IST
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The whole country may be fighting an election -- but in this town where cooking is a religion, all political, ethnic, and linguistic differences vanish when it comes to food. Udupi went to the polls on April 26.


If Tirupathi is Kanchanabrahmakshetra (where religion means money), Udupi is Annabrahmakshetra (where food is the religion).


And Achuth Holla, the owner of Mitra Samaj, a chain of small restaurants that serve authentic Udupi cuisine, says workers of all political parties come to his restaurants to not just to talk politics, but to bite into light as air Goli Bajje (virtually hollow bajjis or pakoras as they are known in North India, fried in coconut oil, made with flour and rawa and other ingredients), and the family size dosa that is around 3 feet long and requires three plates.


These are eaten with fiery chutney, followed by seera and pumpkin halva that is rich, dark and gooey has no resemblance at all to the vegetable that served as Cinderella's coach.


Udupi has taken itself to all corners of India on the strength of its food. "I went to Nainital and found a restaurant with a board, proclaiming itself as Udupi. I ordered a rava dosa and found it simply didn't make the grade. So I called the cook. He was not from Udupi at all, but from Tamil Nadu."


"So I told him, not only are you ruining Udupi's reputation, you are also spoiling Tamil Nadu's culinary name. I told him what to put in the rawa dosa and made one for him. Then I asked him to make one for me. That is what a rawa dosa should taste like, I told him," Holla said with righteous indignation.


His family belongs to the orthodox Brahmin community of Shivahalli and his father was a pioneer who took the cooking talents of this community to Mumbai.


"Our caste could either perform rituals, or cook for those engaged in the rituals. Everything had to be pure, clean and cooked ritually without any trace of onion or garlic. Many priests from the Krishna temple would come and eat here, so We had to ensure those standards," he said, pointing out that the restaurant was actually within the boundaries of the temple complex.


Udupi's cooks don't know just how to cook, they have also evolved a business management model for the fast food trade that is unparalleled.


Holla is a Chartered Accountant by training and appreciates the finer points of the system.


"We make our money by preventing waste. Most big restaurants don't know their customers so they charge paying customers for the food that goes waste. Not we. I come into the restaurant at 5 am and am here till 11 pm. As a result, we are able to monitor quantity closely. Our system works on speed. The turnover of customers has to be quick. The sooner covers are replaced, the more customers we can accommodate. No one has to wait to eat. We can't afford to turn away people," he said in the tiny cafe that can seat 60.


Holla's father went to Mumbai in 1949 to get a job, after being a cook for 10 years. That spawned the trend of the Kamat, Shanbhag and Mangalore hotels. Today, politics is top of the mind recall in Udupi.


But as he recounted history, he was also barking out orders for a parcel of 30 coconut holige (puranpoli or coconut and jaggery pancakes) that Chief Minister SM Krishna, visiting Udupi that day, wanted to take with him back to Bangalore. "Food knows no politics," he said with a grin.

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Aditi Phadnis in Udupi