Traveling through southern India was easily the most stimulating part of our trip. All the images of India that might come to mind greet you the moment you step out of the airport. Intense heat, heavy air pollution, deafening traffic noise, and vibrant street life are the overriding similarities we experienced in the urban areas we visited. We seldom felt as if we wanted to spend a prolonged time outside due to the sheer shock on one’s system. Friends and acquaintances living in India tell us that you become accustomed to the sensory overload eventually, but as travelers passing through, getting inside was a welcome respite. Plus, for those of us with bellies not yet hardened to the innumerable bacteria seeking to bring us to our knees, eating inside a restaurant or in a home is the only safe option. The street food stands selling dozens of delicious looking fruit juices and the buzz of activity around the tea stalls certainly looked enticing but I learned the hard way on a previous trip to India that the short pleasure of a mango lassi of questionable origin is not worth the pain it might wreak on one’s body shortly thereafter.
Inside, away from the hustle and bustle of the street, was our haven to discover the wonderful culinary treasures of India. Both in the restaurants we dined in and in the home-cooking class we took in Mysore, we were able to experience new and fantastic food during our whirlwind tour of southern India. Below are the highlights:
Mavalli Tiffen Room (Two Locations: St. Mark’s Road and Lal Bagh Road, Bangalore)
This Bangalore institution opened in 1924 and has been serving classic dishes from Karnataka, such as dosas and idli ever since. Dosas, the any-time-of-day meal of large, thin pancakes of fermented rice and black lentils stuffed with potato, onion or a myriad of other vegetables and starches are fantastic here – filling, flavorful and extremely reasonably priced (a hearty meal for two will run you about $6). MTR is also well known for their line of pre-packaged food products developed in the 1970s and they claim to have invented the rava idli, made from a combination of fermented rice and semolina. A must-visit on any trip to Bangalore.
Traveling by car on the highways of South India can be a painfully slow mode of transportation, given the very loose road rules in effect (Stop lights? Traffic circles? Crosswalks? Who needs them!) Luckily, there is no shortage of roadside eateries if hunger pangs prove too great to wait for your destination. On a road-trip from Bangalore to Mysore (120 kilometers, 3-4 hours!), we experienced one of the best breakfasts during our time in India. At a busy roadside restaurant packed with families taking break from the stresses of driving, we chowed down on uthappam (a pizza-like flatbread with tomatoes , vada (savory donuts made with lentils and rice) and idli (a spongy, savory cake of steamed fermented rice and black lentils possibly originating in Indonesia) served with coconut chutney and sambar. All washed down with several cups of bittersweet South Indian coffee. The perfect road-fuel!
Shaila’s Cooking School (Mysore)
On an otherwise discouraging trip to Mysore, Shaila’s cooking school was a bright star. Shaila has been running her cooking classes from a small, but meticulously organized kitchen for years and has developed a dedicated following amongst the foreign yoga students visiting Mysore. We spent a whirlwind four hours preparing 10 different dishes that reflected the bounty of vegetables and cooking traditions of Southern India. From light refreshing curd rice, to spicy semolina upma to rich, creamy vermicelli kheer, Shaila’s recipes were flavorful, healthy and often surprising. Who knew that beets played a prominent role in South
Indian cuisine? Out of deference to Shaila, we will not be posting her recipes here without her acknowledgment, but they were all delicious and a trip to Mysore would not be complete without a taking a cooking class or two.
Shaila’s Cooking School
1015/A 9th Cross, 3rd Stage
Near Doctor’s Corner, Gokulam, Mysore
Tel: +91 2513265/+91 9886653001
Sheesha (Roof Top Shoppers Stop Linking Road Bandra (West), Mumbai – 400 050)
Sheesha specializes in North Indian food, but the method of cooking and the combination of flavors we experienced there was a true thrill and deserves to be mentioned. With 360-degree views of the city of Mumbai and an open kitchen with flames shooting dramatically out of a wood burning oven, the environment makes for an exciting meal. The food itself matched the setting, with richly flavored dishes such as smoked pomfret with garlic and cloves, black dal simmered overnight on a charcoal grill with tomatoes and ginger and Lucknowi-style tandoori mushrooms encrusted with black pepper. In a city as intense and crazy as Mumbai can be, it’s a good balance to know that the city also has some of the best restaurants in India. The experience at Sheesha was certainly worth the hassle of Mumbai public transport to get there.
Where are the Chinese?
Something we noticed with some degree of puzzlement was the proliferation of “Chinese” cuisine in metropolitan areas of India where no Chinese immigrants were to be found. A good fifty percent of the restaurants we visited specializing in Indian food had a solid selection of “Chinese food”. Great, right?
Not so fast. After trying a few dishes, we realized with dismay that what Indians consider Chinese food is something quite different than what we are accustomed to. Some quick research revealed that “Indian Chinese food” is a very popular style of cooking that developed with the influx of Chinese immigrants to Calcutta a century ago. It spread from there to many large cities in India such as Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore. As with any cuisine in which the original creators are not present, Indian Chinese food is adaptation of Chinese cuisine to suite Indian tastes. Imagine adding turmeric and yogurt to a traditional stir-fried vegetable dish and you start to get the idea. If you are craving authentic Chinese food in India, you might have to catch a flight to Hong Kong to satisfy the desire.
For those not familiar with Southern India, you might be interested to know that instead of chai, a small cup of “filter coffee”, a mixture of strong brewed drip coffee and chicory blended with milk and plenty of sugar, is the caffeine of choice.
While very unique, it was not the most inspiring cup of joe we had sampled on our trip and so one of the unexpected pleasures of spending several days in Bangalore was discovering the vibrant café life of the city. Starbucks-style coffee shops seemed to be everywhere which, for a dedicated coffeephile like myself, was a pleasant surprise. At first glance it seems as if the mega-chains have a firm stranglehold of the Indian upper-middle class coffee market with the ubiquitous Café Coffee Day and Barista Lavazza strategically placed in convenient spots throughout the city. While Café Coffee Day offers a clean, friendly spot to sip an okay, expensive cappuccino, I wanted to challenge myself in finding an independent or at least less cookie-cutter place to sip coffee in Bangalore. Here are three spots I found to offer a relaxed atmosphere and great coffee:
Café Noir (2nd Floor, The Collection UB City, 24, Vittal Mallya Road, Bangalore)
Located on the roof deck of the massive luxury mall in the UB City building, Café Noir has a French bistro-style menu, with a large and impressive selection of pastries and French artisan cheese. If you want to feel completely removed from Bangalore, this is your spot. The steamed milk based coffee drinks here are their forte.
Ice & Spice (22 St. Marks Road, opposite SBI, Bangalore)
St. Marks Road is home to a bevy of restaurants and eateries and Ice & Spice was apparently one of the first. More a fast food joint than café, Ice & Spice nevertheless brews a good cappuccino and offers a cozy spot to sit and watch the busy street life of St. Marks Road. Indian cafés seem fond of making spectacles out of their coffee drinks (imagine a dozen plus versions of a Starbucks Frappacino, each grander than the previous and you will start to get the picture), and this place would be good spot to experience this unique culture. The well-brewed cappuccino I had here was what made me a fan, however.
Mocha Coffee Bar (25/2 Lavelle Road, Bangalore 560001)
On a winding, vegetation-filled section of Lavelle Road, Mocha Coffee Bar is almost invisible, nestled amongst the greenery. I was pleased to find that they offer 18 different kinds of coffee from all over the world, in a personal French press or a generous bowl of café au lait. I tried a cup of Monsoon Malabar, a coffee not often found in New York which was brewed to perfection. Although they are a chain with multiple locations throughout India, the Mocha on Lavelle Road offered a relaxing setting and did not feel commercial. They also have a large menu of continental foods (and hookas!) which I did not have the opportunity to sample. Top Pick!