A Madhwa Brahmin kitchen is packed with spices and flavours. Photo: Suma Rowjee
I was born and brought up in a fairly conservative Madhwa Brahmin family in North Karnataka. And I can safely say I grew up eating mostly traditional fare almost every day till my sister started experimenting in the kitchen. But after 16 years of having my own kitchen and all culinary liberties, I must admit, what I still crave for everyday is at least one traditional meal a day! If you have never visited a Madhwa Brahmin home, read on.
Pantry staples: Our kitchens have a few staple ingredients, which include rice, lentils, jaggery, tamarind, heeng, fresh and dried coconut, cumin, fenugreek, turmeric powder, cinnamon, roasted Bengal gram, peanuts, gram flour , rice flour and wheat flour.
Onions and garlic don't gain entry even near the gates of some very, very traditional homes!
Must-have spices: Huli pudi (sambar powder), saarina pudi (rasam powder) and plain huli pudi (another variation) are some masalas we cannot live without. These are made and stored for a couple of months as we don’t bother grinding fresh masala every day. These essentially use spices like cumin, black pepper, coriander seeds, fenugreek, cinnamon etc. Menthyada pudi ( methi powder) and sasuve pudi (mustard power) are also used, mostly in instant pickles.
More pudis commonly found in our kitchens are chutney pudi – a mixture of dry roasted lentils, peanuts and spices, which can be eaten with idli/dosa and just about everything. A real life saver! Menthyada hittu – a bland but flavourful powder eaten with rice and ghee or with soaked poha and more delectable dishes like menthyada hittina gojju or avalakki.
Everyday food: Traditionally, there is no concept of breakfast as such and oota (lunch) is the first meal of the day, followed by tindi/ tiffin and filter coffee in the afternoon. We do like a substantial tindi like idli/dosa if you are hungry enough or light ones like avalakki (poha) or kosambari (salad) if you feel like it. Dinner again is mostly rice, another palya and a raitha if deemed necessary by the lady of the house.
If you walk into a traditional Madhwa Brahmin home, you will find that oota is typically anna (rice), saaru (rasam) palya (vegetables), freshly ground chutney (or pickle if there is no chutney), a lentil-based dish (huli, tovve, geratti, muddipalya etc) or a yoghurt-based one (majjige palyda, avial, raitha, hasi majjige, hittu) and curd rice to end the meal. Typically each dish can be cooked with multiple variations, just in case you thought this sounds boring!
There is also payasa (pudding) and chitranna (lemon rice or 'picture rice' as a Bangalorean would call it) on religious days, which happens to be every other day. With enough variety here too, only your bathroom scales may complain.
The sides that zing up a meal: My mother normally has an array of uppinakayi (pickles) and thokku, topped with the customary ingina vaggarane (a tadka of asafoetida) in her kitchen. They are very handy to perk up a simple meal instantly. Then we have those huge aluminum boxes filled with sandige, happala (papads) and uppu hacchida menasinakayi (stuffed dried chilies) waiting to be deep fried. And yes, we can't imagine eating our bisi bele bhaat without some of these on the side.
Well, most of us would easily survive a few days with just simple anna-saaru or anna-huli with some potato chips from the nearby bakery on days when you don't feel like frying your own happala.
Plenty of sides and rice dishes, tiffin varieties and sweets ensure us Brahmins don't ever remotely look like the 'poor Brahmin' you would have read about in Tinkle.
Of feasting and festivals: Rangoli in front of the leaf (on the floor of course) is a must. A meal is never served without a tiny pinch of salt on the plantain leaf / bale ele or tatte (large steel plate) except during death ceremonies. Each dish including salt has a position on the tatte/ele, there is an order in which the food must be served and eaten. How can I ever forget the jitters this gave me as a new bride!
A tambige (a steel vessel for water) for every 3 to 4 people and a lota (glass) of water to the left of each tatte is absolutely essential. Some melted ghee on the anna and payasam, a sprinkling of teertha (holy water) and a sprig of tulsi signals you can finally start digging in.
Suma Rowjee blogs at Cakes And More, and makes videos on YouTube for beginners in baking. She loves to spend her time in her tiny 'baking kitchen' once the kids and husband are off to school and work. Be it a Café au Lait Pots de Crème or creamy saffron-laced Payasa, she believes in eating dessert first! Her blog is a journal about her baking endeavours, and also an attempt to document traditional Madhwa Brahmin cuisine for her children.