Udupi cuisine

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Migrants bring north flavour to Mumbai Udupi recipes

Sharmila Ganesan Ram, August 25, 2019: The Times of India

Mumbai: North flavour in Udupi recipes as new migrants man idli-dosa assembly line

MUMBAI: A little before lunch-hour frenzy would cause a small chapati crisis at Matunga's famous Udupi Shri Krishna Boarding, Satish Nayak is living up to the plaque in front of him which says: 'The owner of the restaurant also eats here.' The channa saar on his plate tells this tall Mangalorean hotelier that it's Friday. If it were lemon rasam, it would be Saturday, he says. Similarly, the sight of the dusky server Mahalinga, who arrives with an assortment of curries, too tells this hotel owner something about the times. "How long have you worked here?" Nayak asks him in Konkani. "25 years," says the waiter. "That's how long it has been since people from my village stopped coming," Nayak says, hinting at the quiet migratory revolution churning inside Mumbai's Udupis as relentlessly as their stone grinders.

Over two decades, a species of proud Devadigas, Gowdas and Poojarys - the traditional towel-toting men from Karnataka who rose from cleaning boys to cooks and wielded ladles in Udupi kitchens with rustic self-assuredness - has gradually become extinct. In place of these native "malwallas" (cooks), "kolliwalas" (men in charge of cutting and chopping or sous chefs) and "manniwalas" (counter guys), you will find rows of Kumars, Pradhans and Guptas - "ustads" and desperate men from Bihar, UP, Jharkhand and Odisha whose tongues may pronounce "wada" wrong but whose hands have no trouble whipping up assembly lines of dosas, idlis and goli bajjis on cue. "Earlier, 80% of our staff was from Karnataka," says hotelier Pramod Nayak, owner of three city Udupis including Fort's Poornima. "Today, it's not even one 1%."

Karnataka IT boom, smaller families killed migration

'Reverse migration' is what Shriniwas Shetty, owner of Parel's Aditi restaurant, calls this phenomenon that began when Karnataka started to flourish in the wake of newly-minted oil refineries, malls and the IT boom. Availability of local job opportunities saw the homesick Manjunaths of Mumbai -- some of whom would spend 50 years in one establishment -- packing bags for good. Later, the promise of higher education and salaries on par with Mumbai meant this generic Manjunath's children did not have to move too far from home for a pay cheque. Naturally, the cleaner-to-cash-counter graph that marked the narrative of many Udupi hoteliers of Mumbai till the late 1990s became an outdated hustle. "Earlier, people in Mangalore were uneducated. They used to have 7-8 kids, and 2 would run away to Mumbai and work hard in the restaurant business. Then they'd write a letter home after five years and go on to run hotels," says Chandrahas Shetty of Association of Hotels and Restaurants. "Today, people have only one or two kids who go to schools and don't want to enter the restaurant business," he adds.

It was in 1942 that A Rama Nayak, a khadi-sporting nationalist from Mangalore's Akkar village who had sailed to Mumbai as a 11-year-old after losing his father, first set up an Udupi establishment in Matunga that offered a home-cooked monthly meal service for 2 annas per meal. That was when boatloads of his fellow villagers, some SSC passouts, would arrive and helm kitchens. It also wasn't uncommon to find Murugans and Dorai Rajans from Tamil Nadu and Kerala in these pantries. "If word spread that we had fired a worker in the morning, four men from our village would appear in the evening for the vacancy," recalls Praveen Kamath of Udupi Shri Krishna Boarding. Today, he says, he has to try hard to retain the new lot from UP and MP and keeps a backup of 10 "extra men" handy to avert a crisis. Introducing us to two such young men in his kitchen, Kamath says: "Satish is from Bhopal and Shripal is from Lucknow."

Diversification first sparked the presence of North Indian workers. "In the 1990s, Udupis expanded their menus to include North Indian food and started employing North Indian cooks," says Satish Nayak, who recalls North Indian cooks filling in for South Indian counterparts when they went on leave. The fact that his father had not only set a menu that has remained unchanged but also a cast-iron cooking procedure -- replete with vessels that serve as measures -- keeps newbies from being intimidated by the prospect of prepping South Indian cuisine. "Just like women don't learn cooking by joining classes, North Indian cooks learnt by observing South Indian cooks," says Nayak, whose establishment's head cook position has been held chronologically by Mangaloreans Sidhu Ameen, Narsimha, Sridhar Poojary and now Irappa, who is assisted by Dileep from Jharkhand.

Training cooks from North India is a challenge, admits Pramod Nayak. Every day as a ritual since 2004, when manpower crisis threatened his family business, Pramod has been tasting all 15 dishes on the menu before they are served. "Cooking these dishes is not rocket science. The key is to remove the skill out of it," says Pramod, who has evolved a cooking system replete with measures that means "all we need is a pair of hands and legs." Though he has yet to find a match for the artistry of Murugan, a Tamil cook with a lightning-quick ability to poke holes with his thumb in wada batter before frying them, Pramod says his system works. It has not only helped his current dosa man Suresh Dehuri, who hails from Orissa, fill the shoes of his Tamil predecessor Dorai Rajan but seen his head cook Raju Ravidas serve up certain South Indian dishes to his family in Ranchi.

Though Pramod Nayak does not miss the "indiscipline" of his former staff who'd spend nights gambling and drinking and finds the current lot "well-behaved" and "obedient," he admits that retaining workers whose job promises them a starting salary of Rs8,000 a month apart from accommodation and a Diwali bonus is an issue. Besides fear of attrition, development in places such as UP and even Kolhapur, which once manifested so many Tanajis around hotelier Shriniwas Shetty that he became fluent in Marathi, is causing concern among hoteliers. This explains more foreign entrants into the South Indian kitchens in the form of technology. Shriniwas, for instance, has bought a German-make "combi-oven" that makes six dishes at once without aromas overlapping and, at Udupi Shri Krishna Boarding's kitchen, there's an automatic chapati pressing machine that flattens dough and spits out 800 chapatis an hour. At this lunch hour, though, the chapati machine is whipping up only 300 chapatis. To make up for the deficit, an "extra" man from UP is asked to step in with a rolling pin.

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