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Utterly Udipi



Scrumptious menu at Mathsya — Pic. by R. Ragu

THIS STORY began in a temple in Udipi, on the west coast of Karnataka, more than a century ago. "My great-great grandfather was a priest," says Ram Bhat, owner of Mathsya, one of Chennai's oldest vegetarian haunts. "In those days, when kings sponsored priests, his main job was to prepare food for the gods. So, when he left Udipi and moved to Madras, cooking was the only thing he knew."

And, obviously, when the former priest found that he needed to support himself and his family, he set up a restaurant. A restaurant that his family continues to run today. But, perhaps, the most surprising thing about

Mathsya is the fact that, although noodles and pav bhaji did gradually manage to sneak into the menu, Udipi-food wise, nothing changed.

"Actually, many big vegetarian chains in the city come from Udipi, but they conceal the fact because they want to be identified with Chennai," says Ram, adding that, as far as he knows, Mathsya is the only restaurant that still offers Udipi meals. "Because these are our roots, and we're proud of them."

Elaborate spread

For a substantial slice of history, order one of their Udipi meals. Elaborate and ceremonious, it's a class in geography, topography, history and cuisine, all rolled into one.

To begin with, the waiter totters in bearing steaming bowls of rasam vadai. Spicy, afloat with generous handful of coriander and redolent with ghee, this brisk starter is followed by a plate piled with sizzling gulliappas, Mangalore bondas and Mangalore buns accompanied by pots of green and white coconut chutney.

The gulliappa marbles, made with rice and urad dal flour, are interesting, but overshadowed by the maida Mangalore bonda, peppered with chilly slices and coconut.

"It's a delicacy," says Ram, adding "Making it is simple, but a fine art. You have to be really good to get it right... The guy doing it here, for 40 years he hasn't been doing anything else in life!" Both, however, were eclipsed by the semi-sweet Mangalore bun, made with curd and twanging with the taste of banana.

They're followed by uthappam, stuffed with greens. "Udipi has mountains, backwaters and the sea. It's a dream location... and traditionally, people use all the greens and veggies from these areas for their cooking," says Ram, explaining why their uthappam stuffing changes with the season. "Even today, my mom goes into the garden, chooses leaves, rips them up and puts it in our food."

When the main thali arrives, the centrepiece is the kara uppu puli dosa, thick, substantial, reddened with tamarind and jaggery, and served with rapidly melting butter. "Traditionally, it's given with a huge chunk of desi butter — but, today, people will get psyched if we give them that," Ram laughs.

Surrounding it, there are bowls of piping hot bisibella bath, cooked with sambar and vegetables; chitranna rice, made with coconut; fruit pachadi; grainy kadibu, steamed with spices; and curd rice.

But the best part, perhaps, is the exceedingly simple ending: bajari dosa, made with raw rice and served with a scrumptiously moist mix of grated coconut and chunks of golden jaggery. An Udipi thali costs Rs. 80.

Call 28191900 for reservations.

SHONALI MUTHALALY

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