Cooking Hoysala Karnataka Food with Three Sisters
Updated: Apr 15, 2020
The map of the cuisines of Karnataka is intricate and complex. It varies widely from the fish-forward specialties of the coast to the hearty cooking of the Western Ghats, and there’s plenty of diversity between those poles too: the Maratha-inflected food of the north of the state, the complex and lovely Brahmin cooking of the areas around Mysuru and the robust farmers’ food that you can find in almost every part of the state.
And yet, it’s one of the least documented cuisines in the subcontinent. Even in a city like Bangalore (the capital of the state of Karnataka), it can be hard to get a good view of the variety and depth of Kannadiga cuisine. Restaurants, beholden to their own economic exigencies, have developed cuisines that are a thing entirely their own, and it’s only in someone’s home kitchen that you can experience some of the truly wonderful dishes that make up the staples of Kannadiga cooking.
So I was especially thrilled when Vinay, a friend from New York, suggested I cook with his mother Vijaya and her twin sisters Meena and Vishala, who live in Bangalore. His mother, he told me, was eighty-one, and his aunts were eighty-eight, and all three still cooked. The sisters grew up in Shimoga, home of some of the greatest writers in Kannada literature, and then variously moved to Bangalore, Mysuru, and Channarayapatna, so the notion of cooking with them was made even more tantalizing by the prospect of being able to see aspects of all these parts of the state reflected in their combined culinary repertoire.
When I arrive at Vijaya and her husband Anantha’s home, I’m greeted by her daughter, Aparna (Vinay’s sister), who’s going to help out with some of the heavy lifting and running around that my visit will no doubt necessitate. All three sisters are dressed in immaculately pressed silk saris and Meena and Vishala’s, I’m delighted to note, are matching.
I’m unsurprised that there is neither sound nor smell of cooking in evidence when I walk in the door. One of the great beauties of Kannadiga cooking is how quickly it can seem to come together. Though there may often be protracted grinding, chopping, and other prep operations involved in each dish, the actual cooking is often brief and almost gestural.
The afternoon speeds by in a kind of organized frenzy. The sisters take turns in the kitchen with me and Aparna, and though she and I both often try to take on some of the more burdensome tasks, like stirring pots, or lifting heavy pans, all three sisters are resolute in their commitment to their work. Vijaya, forming the quenelle-shaped lentil dumplings called nucchina unde, finally relents and allows me to help her. It’s a dish I’ve eaten and enjoyed several times, and yet, even with something so familiar, Vijaya brings her own minute preferences to bear on the final shape of the dish. She tells me that she prefers to steam the lentils slightly before grinding them. If I don’t have the time, she says, with an unsure half-squint, it’ll probably still turn out fine. Then, half a beat later, she adds after some consideration—but it’s better if you do.
Every motion of her cooking is studied, practiced, and assured. With machine precision she fills a thatte, a broad plate, with well-ordered ranks of the little dumplings before they go into the steamer. And when they emerge, steaming, aromatic, and hot from cooking, and I ask if I can take a picture, she painstakingly rearranges them, scattering cilantro and onion over them, examining the plate once, twice, thrice, before handing it over to me.
Vishala toasts the semolina for her gul paavte, a sweet from the northern part of Karnataka close to Maharashtra, that is made with toasted wheat flour, ghee, jaggery, and dried fruit. She smiles wryly at me and asks if I know which of the twin sisters she is. I suggest Vishala, fairly confidently. She smiles conspiratorially and turns back to her toasting semolina, shrugging her shoulders mischievously. With quick, almost brush-like motions, she chases the semolina around the pan, allowing it to turn a light golden brown and gain a wonderfully nutty aroma before she turns it out into a bowl. The little ball-shaped sweets are deceptively simple: just a pressed-together amalgam of semolina, ghee, jaggery, and some nuts and raisins, but it’s the little gestures of care that go into its making that transform it into something utterly unique. The slow, observant toasting of the semolina, the flash-frying of the raisins in ghee so that they puff up to nearly their original grape size, the patient kneading of the mixture and rolling it into morsels—all operate like spells to ensure that they taste like more than the sum of their simple parts.
One of the dishes that is new to me is a soupy preparation called Mysuru kootu. While I’m familiar with Tamil-style kootus, I’ve never had a Kannadiga one before. As Meena makes it and I ask her what makes a Kannadiga kootu a kootu, her sisters weigh in from the living room, which has turned into a sort of break room for the sisters when they’re not cooking. After some conferring and some initial disagreement, they agree that a kootu has to have lentils in it.
Kitchens all over the world have their staples: elements of cooking that are prepared in quantity in advance, to make the daily grind of cooking go a little faster. The Kannnadiga kitchen is no exception, and it’s rare to find a traditional Kannadiga kitchen that isn’t supplied with freshly grated coconut that’s prepared once or even twice a week. And, new to me: a pot of pre-cooked togribele, what most cooks in the West know by its Hindi name—toovar dhal. The coconut, which is often just called “kayi” (the word simply means “fruit,” a shorthand that is a true sign of its centrality to the cuisine), is brought out of the fridge and examined. Aparna and her aunt both agree that it is past its prime and open a fresh box for one of the dishes. I smell it and am embarrassed to realize that in New York, where truly fresh grated coconut is so hard to find, this coconut, so summarily dismissed over here, would have probably passed muster.
The kootu itself, most of its components prepared ahead of time, comes together in a pot in a matter of minutes. A ground masala mixture is cooked with chopped chayote squash, beans, carrots, and peas and a small portion of pre-cooked togribele and then seasoned with black mustard, peanuts, and the all-important hingu—the Kannada word for asafetida. “Don’t forget to mention the hingu,” the sisters tell me in chorus. Improbably, despite its brief cooking, the flavors of the kootu are deep, complex, and comforting.
We sit down to a late lunch that’s rounded out by bili holige—rice flatbreads similar to the more famous akki roti but softer and more pliant, and a gojju made with eggplant and potatoes.
Vijaya and her sisters preside over the table, commandeering the lazy Susan to make sure that everyone eats. Her husband, Anantha, who is seated by my side, makes a still life of his favorite homemade chutneys from the day’s spread and gives me a detailed tutorial on which chutney goes with which dish. He laments that there wasn’t time today to make the chutneys from scratch—they are perhaps his favorite part of Kannadiga cooking. I taste them and find it hard to disagree: layered, nuanced, and utterly addictive, they’re a wonderful accompaniment to this delicious and varied spread.
Once we’re all done eating, the three sisters assemble for a photo. One of the twins (they still won’t tell me who is who) has put out a plate of a homemade sweets made from crushed Marie biscuits, dates, and other dried fruit. Aparna asks her mother, who has a curiously set, sphinxlike, look on her face, to smile for the photo. When her expression remains unchanged, one of her sisters announces to the room that she has been sneaking bites of the date and biscuit balls and that’s why she can’t open her mouth. Her secret revealed, Vijaya covers her mouth and doubles over in laughter.
Long after I’ve left, I’m still charged with the energy of these amazing women—I find myself chuckling at their remarkable wit and astounded by their resourcefulness and their deep knowledge of food. And though it’s hard to pinpoint in the moment, I realize when I think back on our cooking together, how special and rare it felt to be in the company of three such charismatic, knowledgeable, and generous cooks and to be able to glimpse, even if only briefly, the depths of their knowledge of Hoysala Karnataka cooking.
(L-R) Meena, Vijaya, Vishala
Find the recipe for Meena's Kootu over here.