Dosas Vadas Dhal & Darshini
National Geographic Traveller (UK)|Food #10 Winter 2020
It’s known for being India’s tech capital, but Bengaluru is also arguably the country’s best city for vegetarians and vegans, with a truly vibrant meat-free dining scene.
LIZ DOOD

Buttery dosa drenched in coconut chutney, fluffy idli dipped in mild yet addictive sauces.

South Indian snack food is luscious and languid, with flavours that sing of the Keralan coast, and spicing as mellow as Goa trance music. Yet, in the city of Bengaluru, India’s Silicon Valley, this is food eaten not in beach bars but standing — accompanied by a shot of sweet coffee and a copy of The Times of India.

A wealthy garden city of flowering vines and star jasmine, palaces, temples, perpetual spring and eternally gridlocked traffic, Bengaluru has seen an influx of tech companies in recent decades. As a result, the pace of life in the city — formerly called Bangalore — has accelerated at a rate that must have surprised even its most bullish entrepreneurs. Even rickshaws can be ordered on Uber now.

Bengaluru’s darshinis (vegetarian, self-service snack bars) were seemingly made for this moment. The first, Cafe Darshini, was founded in 1983 at the start of Bengaluru’s tech boom. It offered the Western fast food restaurant model, only reimagined for northern Karnataka state’s predominantly Hindu — and therefore largely vegetarian — population. It started a trend, and there are now more than 5,000 darshinis in Bengaluru. Almost by accident, it’s become one of the most vegetarian-friendly cities in the world.

Darshini is breakfast food, so, as a cool dawn breaks over the city on my first morning in Bengaluru, I make my way through humming streets to Brahmin’s Cafe, a darshini cafe. After overconfidently dousing my vada (a savoury lentil doughnut) with scorching sambar (chilli sauce), I try to tame the heat by dipping chunks in cooling coconut chutney. Eventually, I get the balance just right, enjoying each bite of soft, spice-soaked sponge. In the time it takes me to do this, a group of children come and go, dodging three lanes of scooters and rickshaws to make it back to school before the bell finishes ringing. I’m in no hurry, though, and wander to the enormous, 19th-century church next door, somewhat incongruously dedicated to St Patrick, where vases of tropical flowers are being prepared for a wedding.

For lunch, the dosa (a delicate rice-flour pancake) is just one of the menu items I sample at India’s best dosa bar: Mavalli tiffin Rooms, on Lalbagh Road. The 21-course set menu on the wall behind the cashier is written in Kannada — Karnataka’s most widely spoken language — and turns out to be for the restaurant’s famous thali. It’s not a purist’s darshini joint — it’s too fancy, with table service and seating — but it specialises in darshini staples like dosa and sambar.

Founded in 1924, and frozen in time shortly afterwards, the restaurant has tiled side rooms in which I can see men working dough into roti as I’m led upstairs to the ‘Family Room’ — the sign on the door a throwback to the Roaring Twenties, when women and children dined separately from men. The segregated seating policy is no longer enforced, although I notice the room is mainly full of women and children, waiting with polished tiffin trays in front of them. With so few men present, I wonder if they have their own private tiffin room out the back.

Then the performance starts: a carefully choreographed dance of waiters with dishes of curries and sambars and dhals, stacks of poori (a puffed-up, deep-fried bread) and dosa. Sweet, sticky rice pudding arrives halfway through the meal, along with tangy rice combined with yoghurt as a palate cleanser. The 21-course meal takes just 20 minutes — and costs less than £3. The waiting room is overflowing by the time I leave, chewing beeda, a herbal digestif, as I go. I cross into Lalbagh Botanical Garden to watch monkeys clambering around its 19th-century glasshouse in the warm, late-afternoon sun.

On the other side is Gandhi Bazaar, a riotous street market where sadhus (holy people) run across the road selling blessings to merchants. At the end of the street, where the smell of frying spices cuts through the perfumed flower garlands being prepared for puja (worship), I find myself at one of Bengaluru’s most famous darshini restaurants, Vidyarthi Bhavan. I perch on the end of a table and ask my neighbour, Manisha — who I can just about hear over the cacophony of sizzling hot plates frying dosa and coffee wallahs shouting to one another — whether this is the lunch or dinner rush. “Neither,” she replies, a chutney-soaked idli held delicately in her fingers. “It’s darshini.”

Although I’m still stuffed from my 21-course lunch, I can’t resist taking her lead, ordering a pair of idli so soft and pillowy they immediately absorb the curry they’re served with. But before I take a bite, I remember breakfast, and drizzle them generously with coconut chutney.

Culinary heritage

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER (UK)View All

INTO THE EAST

SET SAIL ALONG THE EASTERN FRINGES OF INDONESIA’S VAST ARCHIPELAGO TO DISCOVER REMOTE ATOLLS HOME TO COMMUNITIES OF SEA NOMADS, THE WORLD’S LARGEST CONCENTRATION OF REEF SPECIES, AND THE BIRDS AND BUTTERFLIES THAT HELPED SHAPE THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION

10+ mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
January/February 2021

STAY AT HOME ISLE OF WIGHT

With vintage theme parks, beaches galore and idyllic countryside, there’s no better place to head to for a classic English break

2 mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
January/February 2021

KIKI BOSCH

Without a wetsuit or any apparatus, Kiki Bosch free-dives in the world’s coldest waters — a healing therapy she turned to after a sexual assault

3 mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
January/February 2021

Portugal

Europe’s most southwesterly point — the Cape St Vincent — witnessed the beginning of Portugal’s fabled Age of Discovery in the 15th century. Since then, this stretch of coastline, running north along the Atlantic, has drifted back to a peaceful, unhurried pace, where dramatic cliffs and sun-baked scrub form a backdrop to life on land and at sea

2 mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
January/February 2021

THE PANDEMIC VS SAFARI CONSERVATION

WITH THE PANDEMIC CONTINUING TO OBSTRUCT THE TRAVEL INDUSTRY, SAFARI AND CONSERVATION TOURISM ARE BEING HIT HARD. HOW ARE AFRICA’S RURAL COMMUNITIES COPING?

3 mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
January/February 2021

HOW TO TRAVEL IN 2021

What sort of journeys will your family be setting off on next year? We look at the latest trends, from virtual tours to private cruises

2 mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
January/February 2021

High on a hill

A WEEK IN THE CENTRAL PYRENEES, TUCKED AWAY IN THE SOUTHWEST CORNER OF FRANCE’S OCCITANIA REGION, REVEALS A PASTORAL LIFE LITTLE CHANGED IN CENTURIES. HERE, AMONG MEDIEVAL MARKET TOWNS AND LUSH VALLEYS STALKED BY BEARS, THE PAST’S THREAD SNAKES ITS WAY THROUGH THE EVERYDAY PRESENT

10+ mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
January/February 2021

BEST OF THE WORLD

The joy of travel comes from the unexpected. And while the pandemic was just that, bringing journeys to a standstill, it’s certainly not quieted our curiosity. With the new year comes the promise of a return to travel, and we’re eager to get going. The editors of the 16 editions of National Geographic Traveller around the world have lined up 35 of the very best places our planet has to offer for 2021 and beyond: superlative destinations that speak of resilient communities, smart sustainability efforts and unforgettable experiences for post-pandemic explorations. The world is full of wonders — even if they’re hard to reach right now — so take this time to plot and plan your next journey and lay the foundation for that much-dreamed-about big trip

10+ mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
January/February 2021

DISCOVER THE EUROPEAN CAPITALS OF SMART TOURISM

The European Capital of Smart Tourism initiative champions EU tourism destinations striving for inclusivity, creativity, digitalisation and sustainability. Gothenburg and Málaga, the 2020 capitals, are leading the way

3 mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
January/February 2021

ASK THE EXPERTS

NEED ADVICE FOR YOUR NEXT TRIP? ARE YOU AFTER RECOMMENDATIONS, TIPS AND GUIDANCE? THE TRAVEL GEEKS HAVE THE ANSWERS…

5 mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
January/February 2021
RELATED STORIES

Region To Region

Region To Region

10+ mins read
Musky Hunter
February/March 2021

YOGA & PEACE

DEEPAK CHOPRA speaks with DAAJI about the role Yoga has to play in bringing about world peace. This is an excerpt from their conversation broadcast on International Day of Peace, September 21, 2020. That documentary is available at https://heartfulness.org/en/international-day-of-peace/.

6 mins read
Heartfulness eMagazine
January 2021

Create the habit of meditation

CHIRAG KULKARNI, Co-Founder and CMO of Medly Pharmacies in the USA, speaks with RISHIKA SHARMA about creating a regular meditation practice, so as to make it a habit. He also shares how meditation has benefited both his personal and professional life.

7 mins read
Heartfulness eMagazine
January 2021

SHIA'S PRIVATE TEMPLE OF DOOM!

Indiana Jones gig derailed by abuse scandal

2 mins read
Globe
January 11, 2021

Let's Dish

"Food Raconteur” Ashok Nageshwaran wants to tell you a story.

2 mins read
DesignSTL
January/February 2021

THE MAKING OF A MODEL MINORITY

Indian Americans rarely stop to ask why our entrance into American society has been so rapid—or to consider what we have in common with other nonwhite Americans.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
January - February 2021

Interconnectedness

In 2017, DR. VANDANA SHIVA spoke with KIM HUGHES about the sacredness of the Earth, the work she has been doing to bring awareness and change in the field of sustainable agriculture, and the importance of understanding our interconnectedness with Nature, and how we can change the way we eat.

8 mins read
Heartfulness eMagazine
December 2020

DIAMONDS - A Luxury Gem Steeped in Fact & Fable

The diamond is one fabled gemstone! For example, google “Hope Diamond” to see all the legends associated with just this one stone said to bring misfortune to its owners.

2 mins read
Rock&Gem Magazine
January 2021

Women's World

Brown Sugaa and Medusa

2 mins read
Born To Ride Southeast Magazine
December 2020

Women's World

Brown Sugaa and Medusa

2 mins read
Born To Ride Florida
December 2020