Six compelling reasons and more for a Mumbaikar to head to Mangalore on a food pilgrimage

Konkani vegetarian fare at New Taj Mahal Cafe, Mangalore
L to R from top: biscuit roti, goli bhajje, chutney, upma
Line 2: Bhaaji, tuppa dosa, khott0
Line 3: Puri, sambar jiggujje kebab

The origins of both Mumbai’s legendary seafood serving Shetty ‘lunch homes’ and its vegetarian Udupi and Konkani Mangalorean restaurants can be traced back to families that came in to the city from Mangalore. This is a story of a journey that I undertook to its roots to understand modern Mumbai’s restaurant food culture better.

Waiter, there's a taste of Mangalore in my sambar

If there is one place in the world after Yazd in Iran that Mumbai’s restaurant culture owes a big debt to, that would-be Mangalore.

Yazd was home to the Iranis who came to Mumbai in the mid 1800s and set up the Irani cafes and restaurants here. This was the first significant wave of development in Mumbai’s restaurant landscape.

The next was in the mid 1900s in the years after India’s independence. This was when members of the Shetty and the Konkani communities from Mangalore came to Mumbai and set up their restaurants. This was coincidentally a time when many of the second generation Irani restaurant owners were looking at exploring an easier life beyond the grind that running a restaurant entailed and the Mangaloreans were happy to step in in their place. 

The Shetty's opened their ‘lunch homes’ in Fort, the erstwhile Central Business District of Mumbai. These were simple eateries where one could get ones fill of fried fish and beer and whiskey too. This was just what the busy worker bees of Mumbai needed after a tiring day of work. With time, these bare bone eateries became posher, and some of them such as Trishna, Ankur, Mahesh, Apurva and Gajalee became synonymous with Mumbai and seafood. These restaurants eclipsed the slew of humble eateries offering coastal food from Maharashtra’s Malvan coast and the Goan Hindu Gomantak fare that had come up to food the mill-workers of Mumbai and were restricted to areas such as Parel and Dadar. The latter could have laid claim to being more 'local' than the Shetty restaurants but ironically to the world at large, Mumbai's seafood identity was defined by these Shetty restaurants. You could perhaps still get an idea of how the original version of these restaurants looked if you go to places such as Harish and Modern Lunch Home in Fort.

The enterprising Mangaloreans also spotted a business opportunity in the large vegetarian population that existed in Mumbai – Gujaratis, Jains, Maharashtrian on certain days of the week, Tam Brahms and the like – and came up with vegetarian restaurants which offered some of the local love from Mangalore.

Unlike Fort in Mumbai where the seafood restaurants are concentrated, Mumbai's unofficial 'Little Madras' of Matunga became the hub for many of these vegetarian restaurants, especially the Konkani ones. Think of all your favourite joints in the Matunga/ King's Circle area...Cafe Madras, Cafe Mysore, Rama Nayak's and Idli House... and you might be surprised to know  that they are all Konkani and not technically 'Madrasi' or Tamil. 

Then there are the Shetty run vegetarian restaurants that offer food that is a mix of their own and what is typical of the temple town of Udupi, where the food culture is dominated by that of the Kannada Brahmins. From what I understand, Ramashraya and Sharda Bhavan at King's Circle are Shetty owned. The various Shiv Sagars, Sai Sagars, Shree Sagars and Amrut Sagars and the like that dots Mumbai are Shetty run places.

As the Shetty restaurants spread across the city, they added pizzas, nachos and spring dosas and Schezwan chilli veg to their menus, and with the passage time and began to dominate Mumbai’s restaurant structure in terms of volume and reach, and continues to hold strong over the years. Incidentally, these are the places which offer jaggery sweetened sambar unlike the hot and sour sambar served in the Tamil or Konkani places. 

No, we cannot blame the Gujaratis for that!

Non- sweet sambar in the Konkani New Taj Mahal Cafe, Mangalore

Some of the most ordered dishes in the Shetty run seafood restaurants of Mumbai too have changed over the years. At Trishna today, it would be the butter pepper crab I guess. At Gajalee, the Tandoori crab. 

Neither of which is intrinsically Shetty or even Konkani!

The food of immigrants evolves with time after all as they soak in local experiences and restaurants run by them are no exceptions. David Chang's Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, delves into this.

I was keen to go to Mangalore to understand the what lies behind some of the dishes that I so enjoy in Mumbai . I finally managed to do so when I went there recently just as monsoon had begun to set in. I mention that because that is when deep sea fishing is banned but don't worry, Mangalore still has a lot to offer.

Guiding me through Mangalore was Dr Pradeep Rao and his family there. I call Pradeep the 'Food Rambo.' He likes to call himself the 'Intrepid Gourmand' though. He is a Mumbai boy whose roots lie in Mangalore and belongs to the GSB community and his wife hails from Mangalore and his parents live there too. Pradeep is a very accomplished doctor and a globetrotter at that but is rooted to his origins too. Apart from being a great guy to have your back, he loves food and that too with No Reservations. 

Most of the information that I have shared earlier in the post is thanks to him but any errors are mine. Pradeep went to Mangalore on a family visit recently and suggested that I join him and I happily piggy backed on the offer.

Dr Pradeep Rao, Sagar Ratna, Mangalore

Before we set off from Mumbai, I told Pradeep that my agenda is to understand the roots of the Mangalorean food in Mumbai. 

He messaged back to me saying, 'I have only one agenda. To eat'!

Can't fault with that can we?

Here's some of the places that I explored in Mangalore that I think you should check out too if you are a Mumbaikar and want understand the origins of your Matunga and Fort favourites and pay homage to them.

Part 1: Delicious Mangalore

1. A coffee house where the food will make you do a jig of joy too... New Taj Mahal Cafe

Filter kaapi at New Taj Mahal Cafe is serious business

This is a restaurant which draws its lineage way back to 1926 and is today run by Ganesh Shenoy who belongs to the fourth generation of the family that had started the restaurant. The restaurant has nothing to do with luxury hotel chain of the same name, is very clean, non-air-conditioned and can get rather humid at time. The service is always warm though. 

It is the filter kaapi at the restaurant which draws its regulars here the most, and this is why Ganesh Shenoy is here every day to ensure that the beans are ground right and that the filter kaapi is brewed to the formula that his ancestors had sworn by. If you want to stick out like a sore thumb and ask for a coffee without sugar, they will give it to you and not judge you, even though there might be some disapproving glances exchanged in the kitchen.

This is where you can get your fill of the Konkani Mangalorean vegetarian fare which goes well beyond the idli dosa vada that we are exposed to in the Udupi restaurants of Mumbai, especially the ones located outside Matunga. Must orders at the New Taj Mahal CafĂ© in my books, apart from the filter kaapi, are the fried in ghee,  tuppa dosa (tuppa means ghee), the phanas molik or jackfruit fritters, the  biscuit roti which reminds one of a thin khasta kachori and the ghee bathed upma. All dishes that Pradeep introduced me to here.

With Pradeep at New Taj Mahal

Interestingly, the tuppa dosa that you get here is evenly fried and textured and we loved it. However, the one we had at another Konkani place, Karthik Hotel, in the evening was different. There the tuppa dosa was crisp at the edges and softer inside. The duality of the texture made us like it even more. As cheffing skills go, I think the tuppa at New Taj showed more finesse but at times rustic is the way to go!

The difference in the tuppa dosas at the two places highlighted to me the fallacy of visiting a place, trying out a dish or two, and then considering one to be an 'expert' in local food. I used to be guilty of this once. I have hopefully grown up since then.

Tuppa Dosa at Taj
Tuppa dosa at Karthik. The don't skimp on the coconut in the
chutneys in Mangalore

The filter kaapi, in the evenings, is based paired with a plate of Mangalore buns. These are not really ‘buns’ though, and are always referred to in the plural as Ganesh told me. They are puris made with a maida and banana flour which makes them chubby and cuddly inside and crisp and crunchy outside. I was introduced to the buns, also called buns puri/ buns roti by Vikram Bondal. 

Vikram is one of the earliest readers of my blog to connect with me through Twitter and has been a source of support over the years. This is the first time that we met in person. It is thanks to people like him and their continued good wishes that I have been able to continue to chase my dreams. He later introduced me to the psychedelic sundae called gadbad ice cream at Pabba's which is a crowd favourite in the city and is dangerously seductive.

The dishes at New Taj Mahal Cafe are usually served with a coconut chutney but they are happy to give you a sambar if you ask for it.  They don't skimp on the coconut in their chutneys here and it is ground fresh everyday. The sambar is hot and tangy one and not sweet as it is of the Konkani style and not the Udupi Brahmin one. 

Do try out the jeegujje kebabs or fried breadfruit slices there too. 

Ground coffee powder and plantain and badam halwas make for good mementoes to take back home. Be warned that the coffee does not taste the same when not brewed in the cavernous quantities that it is in at the restaurant under Ganesh’s strict supervision.

You will not find most of these dishes at the average Shetty restaurant in Mumbai but you will find versions of these at the Konkani run restaurants  of Matunga King's Circle.

2. Ek Mysore masala dosa authentic dena ... Sagar Ratna, Ocean Pearl

Ragi dosa (dark brown), Mysore masala (brown), surnoli (yellow) at Sagar Ratna

A place to check out some good old Shetty vegetarian fare in Mangalore is Sagar Ratna. Yes, this belongs to the folks that run the restaurant chain of the same name in New Delhi.

The owners have opened a hotel called The Ocean Pearl at Mangalore. We stayed there during our visit. The location is lovely. Rooms large, clean, competent and comfortable, not luxurious of course. Good value for money and the snacks and colas in the mini bar were at near market prices!

They have an outpost of Sagar Ratna in the hotel. Plusher, in a kitsch way, compared to other local joints. We stepped in for breakfast here one day. This was not included in the complimentary breakfast.

The ragi dosas came with finely chopped red onions inside as chef Gopi at the Grand Hyatt, Mumbai, had told me they should to balance the bitterness of the ragi millet. We tried the Mysore masala dosa too. Here the 'Mysore masala' paste was red. I have occasionally come across a green one in Mumbai too. The sambar, unlike at New Taj, was on the sweeter side.

We tried what Pradeep said was a Shetty specialty, puri korma too, and were not too impressed. What I did like though was a sweet pancake called surnoli. It had a soft texture with the odd crisp bit, is slightly sweet like a sheera of Mumbai, and went beautifully with the filter kaapi.

3. Blood, sweat but no tears... Mangala Bar and Restaurant.

The Pork bafat/ masala of Mangalore when I brought it back home

Mumbai's most popular Goan restaurant and a favourite of mine for years, the New Martin Hotel at Colaba, is actually Mangalorean and not Goan owned as I learnt a few years back.

A visit to the Mangala Bar and Restaurant in Mangalore showed me that the Mangalorean versions of the Portuguese influenced 'Catholic' dishes such as the sorpotel and bafat are quite different from the Goan ones, and that the food at New Martin is indeed more Goan than Mangalorean. 

Mangala was opened in 1981 by the late Michael Pinto and was till recently, what is politely called a ‘dive bar’. The restaurant has had two makeovers since then and today looks like a Mumbai restobar of early 2000s. In the process, it has managed to drawn in a more mixed gender family and youth audience along with its traditional segment of the serious male drinking. 

Mangala today is run by Mr. Pinto’s daughter Keerthi Mary Dmello  Pinto and her husband, Arrol D’Mello. While they have made some changes to the menu and have introduced the Freddy burger, what they have not played around with is the late Michael Pinto’s insistence on serving the best quality farmed pork and that shows in the quality of the pork dishes on offer. 

The sorpotel is way denser and thicker than the Goan or even the east Indian ones that I have tried and the focus here is more on the meat than on the spices. The bafat is browner in colour, has a thicker texture and has a far stronger garam masala hit, than the lighter, Bengali prawn malai curry-like, prawn bafat at Britto's in Goa. These and the sublime sliced roast pork and the pork chilli fry which does bring back memories of the beach shacks of Goa, are reasons enough for porkaholics to head make a beeline for Mangal. I would skip the buff dishes though.

If you are feeling charitable towards your fellow pork loving friends back home then you can pack frozen portions of the rakti (sorpotel) and the pork masala (bafat), put it in your check in baggage, and bring it back home. Another restaurant in this genre, I am told is William Perreira’s which is located near the Mangalore Flower Market, and is older in age.

Part 2: The Pilgrim's Trail. A road trip to Kundapura

Hiring a car and driving down to Kundapur from Mangalore and back (2 to 3 hours each way including food stops) makes for a great trip. 

You can stop at the temple town of Udupi and find peace in the cleanliness and serenity of the Udupi Shree Krishna complex and say a prayer too if you so want. 

The sea on one side

River on the other

You can take in the beauty of nature while driving down the coast where you have the sea flanking you on one side, and the river on another, giving you company for the large parts of the trip.

4. Chicken kori rotti at Hotel Sadanand, Surathkul

Kori gashi at Sadanand

Or, if like me, food is what makes you tick then you can then you should first stop at the forty-year-old Hotel Sadand at Surathkul. Go to the non-vegetarian section there to the have the most sublime kori rotti

The dish consists of a light chicken curry made with a mix of fresh first and second pressed coconut milk, which is very Thai in character and more delicately textured and flavoured than any kori rotti gashi (curry) that I have come across in Mumbai. 

The gashi is served with crisp, razor sharp flat breads made with rice flour and minimal oil. You either layer the chicken curry on the rotti and eat it while it seeps in and as the texture changes from crisp to delightfully messy, or you crush the roti, add the curry to the powder and eat it by the fistful. The latter technique was shown to me by Pradeep's bother in law and Mangalore local, Girish Kamath, who was our guiding light in the trail to Kundapur. 

Rotti at Sadanand

The chicken in the curry is very tender too. The restaurant is run by Prayagraj Shetty, whose grandfather had founded the restaurant and they have a vegetarian branch in Mumbai’s Crawford Market under the same name. 

Mangaloreans might find the idea of hapless tourists going to a restaurant, to eat what is essentially a staple of every kitchen, a tad funny, but this is a restaurant approved of by the city’s many discerning kori rotti devotees and is worth making the trip to.

The restaurant has a decent toilet which is important when on a road trip.

5. A homage to the Gods of food, Mitra Samaj, Udupi

Mitra samaj

At Udupi, after a reverential round of the Shree Krishna Mathas or temples, do step in to the forty-year-old Mitra Samaj Restaurant and join the pilgrims who have come there for a repast of the honest and rather divine masala dosa on offer here (so I was told since we didn't try though I saw many eating it) and the filter kaapi. The service is prompt and efficient. The folks behind the counter, not so chatty and our attempt to find out the exact age of the place came to nought.

If you ask for a sambar here, along with your chutney which comes as a default option, you will be served a jaggery sweetened rassam and in that you would recognize the Udupi Kannada Brahmin influence in the sweet sambar served in the Udupi joints of Mumbai and learn to not blame the sweet loving palate of local Gujaratis for it!

If you are at Mitra Samaj in the evening, you must seek a darshan of the cherubic goli bhaajis which are served only when fried fresh. These can be described as medu vada dough balls which are most buttery inside and have the heart of an angel. 

Goli bhajje/ bhaji, filter kaapi at Mitra Samaj

While at Udupi do check out the modern poshed up version of Diana, the home of the Gadbad ice cream, to have the legendary ice cream and the puri korma here. While Diana is no longer the small eatery at the Udupi bus stop that it once was, it is still manned by smiling avuncular gentlemen who are often pointed to by parents bringing their children here today and who will say, “he used to be here when I was your age.” In our case, this was Girish, who was so happy to see the folks who remembered from his childhood here.

The story of the Gadbad, from what Girish told me, goes back decades to when once a hapless waiter had been instructed to construct something special in a hurry (hence gadbad). He threw in a mix of ice cream, syrups and dried fruits in a bowl and served it. This became a hit and they decided to call it 'gadbad' here.

The Pabba Gadbad

Urban legends aside, I would say that the Gadbad at Pabba's is better. This is possibly because the latter is run by a company that makes ice creams, those from the legendary Ideal Ice Creams house. At one time, Pradeep told me, there was an entire building dedicated to selling Ideal Ice Creams. He seemed most tickled by the idea!

The puri korma at Diana was better than what we had at Sagar Ratna though.

6. The scent of a chicken...Shetty Lunch Home, Kundapura

The legendary chicken ghee roast at Shetty Lunch Home, Kundapura

The entire point of this food trip from to Kundapura of course is to go to the Shetty Lunch Home there and to pay your respects to its legendary chicken ghee roast. It is a glorious dish where the chicken is tossed in a heady mix of spices and an ocean of ghee and then left to slow roast on a flat open pan till is comes together in perfect harmony to welcome all those who come to pay their respects to it. 

Their kitchen is cavernous and very clean and well organised and I got to go in thanks to Girish, who is THE man, as I found out. 
Kane fish fry

I finally got to see how a ghee roast is made and why it is called a roast. Turns out that the chicken is slow roasted in the masalas and ghee in a wide and flat, cast iron pan. This reminded me of the way chicken and mutton chaaps and tikkias are made in the Moghlai restaurants of Kolkata. Think of the kadhais outside the Zeeshans and Aminias of the world and you will know what I mean.

Ghee roast confidential

The Shetty Lunch Home is anything but a one dish place though and offers dishes as diverse as the fiery outside and gentle inside, perfectly cooked, kane (lady fish) fry to the most poetic yellow coloured chicken korma with boiled eggs in it. The korma is best paired with the simple and fragrant, very Rumi poetry inspiring, ghee rice

Kane fish fry, Shetty

Chicken korma, ghee rice, Shetty

Do try out the anda paratha which brings back memories of the Moghlai parathas of Kolkata, the martabak of Penang and the baida roti of Mumbai, too.

Anda paratha, Shetty

The restaurant has a non-air-conditioned drinking section for men and then more ‘family’ friendly air-conditioned sections too. It has decent toilets too

The Shetty Lunch Home was founded by the late Tejappa Shetty and is today run by a trio whose names are Praveen Ballal, Sitaram Hegde and Brijesh Shetty, who have kept alive the legacy of the founder of the restaurant.

It is said to be the precursor to the Shetty community restaurants which were later set up in Mumbai and for which we Mumbaikars are eternally grateful. The Shetty Lunch Home is also considered to be the birth place of the chicken ghee roast.

God's own kitchen

The thing that struck me the most about the trip to Mangalore was that tradition still rules the roost here. That the food served even in its restaurants is very rooted to the local culture and produce. I discovered that there is no way one can eat badly in Mangalore and that the prices of the dishes seemed unreal after Mumbai. 

I realised that going to Mangalore, just to eat, makes complete sense. That Pradeep was right, as he always is.

As my smile in the picture below tells you and as does the food love song that I have just penned, I was quite smitten by Mangalore. 

When there, I felt like a child being welcomed home during his summer holidays. Possibly the way Pradeep and his brothers and his cousin Shobha would be when they went there as kids from Mumbai.

The funny thing though is that I am not Mangalorean and nor am I a child, and yet felt as loved as they would have been. That's how lovely the people of Mangalore are. 

It's all about loving one's family there. And food.

What a wonderful formula for a happy life indeed.

That's my, I heart Mangalore face

PS: I had also written another post about the seafood in Mangalore and especially the Konkani places such as Machali and some of the amazing Konkani dishes cooked by Girish's wife and Pradeep's cousin, Shobha Kamath. Unfortunately you do not get much of that in Mumbai as far as I know. You can read more about that here.

Appendix: We shot many phone videos during the trip. Here are some.

At New Taj Mahal with Pradeep Rao:

Buns puri at New Taj with Vikram Bondal: 

Shetty Lunch Home, Kundapura

Chicken kori rotti at Sadanand: 

More pictures:

Udupi Shree Krishna Matha

The Pilgrim's progress:

With Vikram at New Taj Mahal

With Pradeep at Sagar Ratna

With Girish, Pradeep and his son Prannav at Diana

With Pradeep, Girish, Chetna, Shobha, Ria and Pranav at Mangala

At Mangala with Keerthi and Arrol
At Sadanand with Pragyaraj, Girish, Pradeep and Prannav
At Shetty with Girish and Pradeep