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.
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