Food et cetera


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MARRIAGES have broken down due to carelessly served meat. Girls have ended up as daughters-in-law to those who fell for their cooking. The powerful have often imposed their culinary tastes on the powerless; rebellions against such impositions have also been seen. The celebration, insult, pain, violence and resistance seen in relation to food constitute a complex history.

The food habits in Karnataka are distinct, just as in other Indian states. Its food traditions have not been shaped by women’s creativity in the kitchen alone. Agricultural practices, regional specificities, jati dharma, and religious rituals have all played a part.

A plurality of food cultures exists within Karnataka. The kuca-lakki rice and bangade fish curry of Karavali1 appear alien to the jowar roti eaters in Bijapur and Gulbarga. The same dish varies across regions. Major differences are seen in the biriyani made by the Muslims of Bangalore, Mangalore and Gulbarga. Moreover, the same dish varies across communities in the same region. In Karavali, the fish curry is made differently by Byari Muslims, Bunts, dalits and Konkani brahmins. The saru2 made in households that do not use onion and garlic is very unlike that made in households that do use them. The sequence in which the sambar3 ingredients are added can change its smells and taste. Karnataka’s achievement of food plurality probably consists less in its staple diets than in the saru, palya4 and other accompanying items. Literally, hundreds of different kinds of saru exist.

Karnataka’s highly diverse and subtle food culture is centred around four grains: ragi, jowar, rice and wheat. Ragi5 is the main food in the plains of South Karnataka. Although rotis and gruel are also made from ragi, it is more famous for its use in making mudhé.6 Ragi mudhé and ragi rotis have for long been the staple food of the poor, particularly in the dry plains of South Karnataka, which did not have irrigation facilities until the 1930s. Rice was cooked only for guests. Ragi enjoys a lower social status than rice.7 Even today, when ragi continues to be eaten daily in the plains of South Karnataka, it is not cooked during festivals and weddings. This hierarchy seems an extension of the social hierarchies of caste. In a society that hierarchises animals, plants, trees and humans, food too faces the same fate.


It is probably the dark colour of ragi which is responsible for its low status. It is not common for the brahmins of South Karnataka to eat ragi. The hierarchy between rice and ragi is the subject of a poem, Rama Dhanya Charite, by the 17th century saint-composer, Kanakadasa. In this poem, a paddy grain abuses a ragi grain: ‘You are the food of the shudras. No one uses you in sacred rites.’ The ragi grain defends itself, saying that it was the food of the poor. They take their quarrel to Rama. Rama imprisons them both to test their endurance. The paddy grain rots whereas the ragi grain survives the ordeal. The memories of Kanakadasa’s humiliation at the hands of brahmins resonate in this allegorical poem.

Besides Kanakadasa, two other figures have helped elevate ragi’s status. Rajkumar, the film superstar, was an admirer of mudhé; and, many of his films include scenes of him eating it. After becoming Prime Minister, Deve Gowda made news by taking a cook to prepare ragi mudhé for him in Delhi. Ragi has also become popular as a health food among diabetics. Ragi dosas are now available in a few restaurants, though not in the five star hotels of Bangalore.

The chief grain in North Karnataka is jowar. Although khichdi and nuchambali8 are made from jowar, it is primarily used for making rotis eaten with a variety of palyas – brinjal palya being the most popular.9 The people of North Karnataka are second only to Bengalis in their appetite for brinjal. Inviting guests home for hot rotis is a way of showing respect. Lingayat-run roti restaurants are popular in Dharwad, Belgaum and Bijapur. Many roti restaurants are now found in Bangalore, probably due to the increasing numbers of workers from North Karnataka.

Rice is the primary grain in Malnad10 and the coastal areas, which not only receive heavy rainfall but are highly irrigated. Since ragi and jowar cannot be grown in this region, the people in these parts make rotis, idlis, dosas, kadabu and payaasa from rice.11 After irrigation enabled rice cultivation in the dry plains of South and North Karnataka in the mid-20th century, rice has entered the local dietary world in these areas.


Though small quantities of wheat are grown in North Karnataka, most of the state’s supply comes from North India, especially Punjab. Chapatis and bakery snacks made from wheat are popular among the middle classes. Other wheat preparations like tandoori rotis too have become popular following the increase in migrants from North India.

Over 70% of Karnataka’s people are meat eaters. Non-vegetarian food is an integral part of many festivals and fairs. Despite familiar social and religious restrictions on consuming non-vegetarian food, they have opened up alternate spaces for meat consumption. Brahminical influences have made many of the lower castes abstain from meat during an auspicious (shubha) occasion like marriage. But they make up for this loss during the beegroota,12 where meat is the chief attraction. Again, while only vegetarian food is eaten on the day of the Ugadi festival, meat eating is a must the following day. The Vaishnava shudras of South Karnataka eat meat on the last day of the Hariseva puja.


Relatives from far and near convene for feasts during the festivals of deities, many of which involve animal sacrifice. The old tradition of serving mudhé with meat saru continues to be popular at the large Manteswamy festival. The shrines of Shakti deities and Bhairaveshvara, usually located at a distance from human settlements, have become places of meat consumption. In parts of Gulbarga, the grandeur of the Moharram celebrations depends on the numbers of sheep sacrificed.

Meat eating is prohibited in the Veerashaiva religion that emerged in the 12th century in defiance of the meat eating and sacrificial rites of the Shaiva dharma. This prohibition has given rise to numerous social and political problems. A few years back, the government decided to serve eggs as part of the midday meals scheme for school children from poor families. This was opposed by many vegetarian castes. A swami even argued that serving eggs would create many Veerappans13 in schools, forcing the government to backtrack.

An old historical example involving, in this case, vegetarian food, well illustrates a conflict involving the imposition of food norms. While orthodox brahmins abstain from eating garlic and onions, the Lingayats relish them. The Veerashaiva dharma that arose in defiance of brahminism opposed the dietary prohibition of garlic and onions. The founder of Lingayat dharma and social reformer, Basavanna’s onion miracle is cited as testimony. On hearing about a person who had been insulted for eating onions, Basava wore a garland made from onions and took out a procession, forcing the offender to apologize. Even now, Lingayats consume a lot of onions.


Just like the Muslims, the lower castes among Hindus too abstain from consuming certain kinds of meat. The animal a person eats determines his or her social status. For example, those who eat the meat of buffaloes, cows and oxen are seen as socially inferior to those who eat only chicken, goat and sheep. Likewise, those who eat snakes, insects and frogs rank even lower. Those who only eat a freshly slaughtered cow are above those who eat the flesh of dead cows. Those who ate dog meat were considered the lowest among all meat eaters (shvapacha) in the past. Since the Gauda Saraswathas eat fish, their status is not equal to the other brahmins of the state. The Shaivas don’t eat meat on Mondays, and the Vaishnavas abstain from meat on Saturdays. Some of the shudra castes cook meat only outside the house, and the utensils are kept separate. The food cooked outside the home is considered holasu, which means filth as well as meat. The Muslims abstain from meat during Poor-ke fatheha (also known as Holige Habba).14 Paradoxically, the prohibitions against meat eating may have actually encouraged it. Possibly this is why debates around non-vegetarian food arouse so much passion.


Traditionally, brahmins, Jains, Lingayats and komtis do not eat meat. They consider it tamasic food. Yet, the brahmin diet included meat at one point in time. The vada15 used by brahmins during the eleventh day funeral rites is a symbolic token for an animal’s diaphragm. Not many South Indians are aware that the brahmins in Bengal and Assam are non-vegetarians.

Some upper caste vegetarians have now taken to eating meat under the influence of modernity. It is also interesting that vegetarian dishes are acquiring the nomenclature of non-vegetarian food. In many vegetarian restaurants, the menu cards prefix the word ‘vegetable’ to names of meat preparations like kabab, kofta, keema, pulao and kurma. Fried bits of bread are added to vegetable pulao to simulate the experience of eating meat.

At a time when non-vegetarian food is becoming popular, social assaults on it are also on the increase. A BJP minister in the state recently declared that the hands and tongue of beef eaters must be chopped off. It isn’t clear whether such anger emerges out of disappointment at the popularity of non-vegetarian food, or envy, or from a need to impose upper-caste food habits on the majority of people, thereby increasing their cultural grip over them. In any case, the hierarchy games around vegetarian and non-vegetarian food continue apace.

Unlike in states like Kerala and Goa, social hesitation surrounds beef eating in Karnataka. Often hotels serving beef put up boards with ‘No. 10’ written on them. Only those who oppose eating beef use a word like go-mamsa (cow flesh) to provoke religious sentiment. Beef isn’t the food of only Christians, Muslims and dalits; the poor among the numerous lower castes too eat it. The farmers who sell their cows and the beef eaters are usually not subjected to social assault. But, the intermediaries who procure, carry, and sell cows remain vulnerable to assault. Since many of them are Muslims, they are specially targeted by the Sangh Parivar. Such assaults have increased in the last fifteen years.


At the moment, the BJP government in power is trying to impose brahminical values by passing the anti-cow slaughter bill, which not only prohibits the killing of cows, but oxen, buffaloes and bulls too. This could create cultural upheavals. The buffalo is an integral part of the religious rites of many communities. For instance, buffaloes are sacrificed in villages which have shakta deities. Dalits eat the meat of the sacrificed buffaloes. Such religious practices and food cultures are intertwined with local economic realities. For the most part, buffaloes are not used in ploughing land. This might be one reason for their use in sacrifice. In other words, people’s religious practices, survival needs and world views are integrally linked. The bill to ban cow slaughter does not take this into consideration.

Many of the lower castes self-impose food restrictions upon contact with dominant Hindu values. Some dalits have now given up eating beef. Non-vegetarian food too is slowly being prohibited in many fairs and rituals of the shudra deities. Even if permitted, it is cooked and eaten at a distance. The media has made it a habit of reporting animal sacrifice at the dalit and shudra festivals and fairs as ‘barbaric murder’.16


The restrictions imposed on food preparations also affect how food is served. An illustrative episode figures in Kuvempu’s novel, Malegalalli Madhumagalu (1967) when a Christian priest visits a shudra landlord. The Malnad Vokkaligas are clear about where to make dalits sit and where they themselves should sit while visiting brahmin households. But, where would a Christian sit? Should food be served in a plate or on a plantain leaf? Tradition is unclear on this aspect. The priest cannot be asked to sit outside the house like the dalit because he is a representative of the British government and European modernity. At the same time, he cannot be welcomed inside as that would pollute. Much confusion is created as a result.

The imagination of yenjalu17 is a special episode in food culture. Among upper castes, who forbid eating food touched by others, a range of purity-pollution based regulations exist in relation to cooking, serving, and eating a meal. This makes it difficult for the family to eat together. The men eat first, while the women serve them. In many families, women eat only after the men have finished their meal. The dining table culture has to a large extent broken this practice.

The practice of yenjalu is not common among Muslims, dalits and Christians but it is considered sacred in a few communities like the Lingayats. Many Lingayat swamis wash their hands in their plates after a meal and drink it. For them, nothing must be wasted as the food has become sacred (prasada) after having been offered to God. On special occasions, the members of a household eat only after their gurus – for example, fakirs, goravappa, jogis and jogammas – have eaten. Their yenjalu is considered sacred. In some of the fairs of shakta deities, the devotees eat their food only after a dalit woman, who embodies Matangi at the festival, has eaten.

The recent phase of globalization and urbanization has introduced new trends in Karnataka’s food culture. New kinds of mass produced food have entered homes. Cornflakes, cereals and instant noodles are now part of breakfast and evening snack foods. Beer or soft drinks now usually accompany biriyani. Cookbooks, magazine recipes and cookery programmes on television have helped introduce dishes from one region to another.


Working couples in cities with little time to cook frequent restaurants that specialize in their regional cuisines. The availability of caterers, who readily prepare dishes for any occasion, has come as a relief for many women. Traditional festival sweets like holige, which take a lot of time to prepare, can now be easily purchased.

The dhabas along the highways to Delhi and Mumbai have made dal fry, channa masala, tandoori roti and palak popular among travellers, and among the villagers living nearby. North Indian restaurants are now found in almost all towns in Karnataka. People snack at the ubiquitous North Indian pani puri stalls during their evening walks. The influence of the neighbouring states is also seen in some parts of Karnataka. The dum biriyani has arrived from Hyderabad. Kerala’s gruel dishes prevail in the Karavali. Marathi dishes are common in Belgaum. Snacks from Tamilnadu can be tasted in Kollegala. While language politics attempt to divide India, food and snacks are working silently to bring the country together.

Andhra-style restaurants, Karavali’s fish restaurants, and North Karnataka’s roti restaurants have multiplied in Bangalore, suggesting the increased presence of migrants from different parts of the state in the capital city. The Udupi brahmin restaurants are found all over the state.18


However, the arrival of new cuisines does not spell doom for the local food culture, since people don’t give up their food habits easily. Small hotels from the native areas of the North Karnataka follow migrant workers to their slum ‘colonies’ in cities. Women from those areas sell the migrants’ native food at their work sites. Visitors from Karnataka in New Delhi are known to make an effort to find their way to Saravana Bhavan in Connaught Place.

Despite the many Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in Bangalore, the popularity of the streetside kabab stalls has not declined. Restaurants for ragi mudhé and rotis, whose numbers are increasing, display their signboards without embarrassment. Luxury cars parked outside shanty nonvegetarian restaurants in villages along the Bangalore-Mysore highway are now a common sight.


* Translated by Chandan Gowda.


1. Karavali: The coastal region comprising of South Kanara, Udupi and North Kanara districts.

2. Saru: A thin curry or sauce made in an immense variety of ways and usually used along with rice, rotis or ragi muddhé.

3. Sambar: A spicy stew made with vegetables and lentil that is had along with rice.

4. Palya: A sabzi-like side dish made with vegetables mixed with boiled lentils, grated coconut and so on.

5. Ragi: A dark coloured millet grown in the dry regions of South Karnataka.

6. Mudhé: Shaped like a ball, it is made from the soft dough of the ragi flour cooked in boiling water. The mudhé is not chewed but swallowed after dipping it in saru. The mudhé can be eaten with both vegetarian and meat sarus. Plenty of eateries along the Mandya-Mysore highway serve inexpensive mudhé with saru made from greens.

7. Even agricultural scientists have prioritized rice and jowar over ragi in their research. One exception was Ragi Lakshmana who tried to hybridize local varieties with an African one. Over the years many varieties of ragi seeds have disappeared.

8. Nucchambali: A dish made from broken jowar soaked in sour buttermilk for a couple of days.

9. A roti lunch consists of palya made from various pulses, different chutneys, curds, fresh greens, cucumber and onion.

10. Malnad: A wet forest area comprising parts of the districts of Hassan, Shimoga, Chikmagalur, Uttara Kannada, and Kodagu districts.

11. Even here, a variety of dosas and idlis exist. A variety of chutneys, saru and palyas break the monotony of rice rotis.

12. Beegroota refers to the lunch hosted by the groom’s family.

13. Veerappan: The notorious dacoit living in the forest area of Kollegal, along the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. He was killed in 2004.

14. Holige Habba: Literally, Holige Festival. Holige is a flat, yellow coloured sweet, which is shaped like a chapati and made from refined wheat flour (maida) and a paste of squashed jaggery and lentil.

15. Vada is a deep-fried snack made from the dough of chickpea flour.

16. It is common to see villains eating meat in Kannada films.

17. Yenjalu: It refers to food that has been eaten by others. It also means ‘saliva’.

18. Only few caste names appear on hotel boards in Karnataka: Lingayat Khanavali, Udupi Brahmin Phalahara Mandira, Iyengar Bakery and the Bhavasaara Kshatriya-run Hindu Military Hotels. Although it is easy to recognize hotels run by Muslims, which have names like ‘Hotel Ghousia’, their signage never uses the word ‘Muslim’.