Monday, 29 August 2016

The Andhra Bhojanam

How much do I love you Rice? Let me count the ways…
This might be an apt summation of how Andhra Meals go.  It’s a never ending stream of coupling rice with different accompaniments, followed by… more rice and more accompaniments. 

The result is this supremely satisfying affair of a meal that has provided you with a varied array of spicy tastes.  You can never imagine rice and spice could have so many varied combinations.

Presenting the Andhra Meal.

(I am a vegetarian and can only talk about the great Andhra meal.  The non-veg versions are equally well-renowned and enjoyed all over India)
Though I have stayed in Hyderabad till I joined College I didn’t really eat much of an Andhra meal.  It was only when I moved to Vijayawada that as a student I started eating the meals there across the different student messes. But given that they were for students and employees, the majority of them were rather limited but gave me a glimpse of what was on offer. It was only when I went to some of the restaurants that the full offer would overwhelm me so much, but it was a delightfully delicious warm experience.

A short note to do a short salute to the many many many “mess”es i.e. canteens that dot the cities of Vijayawada and surrounding areas that cater to the students.  The cities of Vijayawada (and others around the area like Guntur etc.) are also known as student cities because of the many many opportunities for school going students to transition to professional courses – with a tuition centre in almost every street and many colleges, institutes that offer coaching to take entrance exams.  Thus it used to be one of the youngest cities with more than half of the residents being 15-20 years, most of them staying in rented rooms or hostels. To cater to them there would be various small eateries called ‘mess’ that offered reasonably priced meals for these students – meals that would be similar to those prepared at home. Some of these were homes converted into a mess, and you would be sitting on the floor in the living room along with other customers and having a meal. These would have some of the best meals.

Surprisingly the full range is not available here, like I mentioned earlier with only a few restaurants offering this. In Hyderabad too you cannot get a decent Andhra meal (or any other cuisine’s meal too – fact of life).

To get this – you need to go to – BANGALORE (or Bengaluru or whatever name the next govt will feel like calling this city. 

In Bengaluru I loved the Andhra Meals and the reason they thrive so much IMHO is because they are truly truly celebrated. Folks throng to these centres, and willing to put up with the disorganized chaotic messy system of both waiting, sitting down on benches, food splattering about as your neighbor mixes and splashes curry or slurps it.  The food is also really good and tasty as a result.

Good….? Before I get there a short description of what happens in a full range meal.

You start of with Rice with ladles of ghee put into the first serving of white rice. There might be a couple of curries on the side.  But on the table you will have various pickles and a variety of a gun powders (molaga pudi) that can be eaten with rice. Some do as many as three to four helpings – with each available pickle or powder. (and that’s why the Ghee – to bring down the heat from the spiciness). When I ate as a student – there would be only one chutney or pickle or powder provided and usually as an accompaniment.  But in some houses this would be done freshly in the morning from herbs or leaves with such a tangy result that it was hard not to overdo eating this alone – hence it was served as an acoompaniment.  Post this the next course is steamed daals, sambhars, or a variety of rasams all made in the Andhra style (I cannot get the names- but one which was the tomato pappu was divine and to die for) and this usually ends with curd as the final accompaniment. 
The curries that are made in Andhra have a special way of preparation not usually done in the South. In a lot of them the vegetables are deepfried or even fully roasted. My favourites were ones with Bhindi / ladyfinger (which I loathe otherwise) with roasted peanuts, and a deep roasted spice-filled brinjal curry, and another where cubes of brinjal are deepfried. Its awesome (and not very healthy but hey!!!)

Some folks throw in papads, butter milk, salads and desserts like payasam, but these are distractions and take away from the authentic Andhra taste.

Unlike the Gujarati meals which have a bit of everything texture wise (read my post earlier) and their curries can be a little sweet – in the Andhra Meal its rice and even more rice, and every spicy flavor in the widest range possible.

Andhras are capable of generating spiciness that rivals the Mexicans or even betters them.  They also have a penchant for tanginess that is unmatched.  Every possible ingredient like tomatoes, tamarind, Gongura, lime, raw mangoes, yoghurt etc. are used in individual chutnies or to spike a daal to come out with a lip-smacking tasty dish. Similarly the number of pickles possible and yes, truly the very best pickles IMHO come from Andhra – my favourite being their Avakaai pickle (raw mangoes) followed by Gongura pachadi.

One almost assumes that rice was created with the sole purpose of bringing these flavours to life, and boy do they!! Even as a young kid when I visited the full range restaurants that had at least five-six courses with distractions thrown in, I simply could not eat most of it.

When I returned lately to Bangalore to eat with my friend AF who took me to an Andhra joint as he knew I loved it, I was struggling to eat more than three helpings even though each were less than half the serving size I was used to as a kid.  But while the servings were smaller, the taste was the same unique unbeatable one, and keeps you satiated through the day.  It was a wonderful re-awakening and reminded me why the best is only available in Bengaluru (that restaurant is so packed we had to wait till 2.30 pm but it was worth it)

A question to ask is – with all this spiciness and tanginess, is it healthy and good for you. The answer is it is not, but the folks in Andhra manage to do so possibly with other ingredients like non-veg, a healthy breakfast as well as eating this in moderation. (also compared to my earlier days I think the amount of food eaten in meals nowadays is far far far less, especially the rice).  The full range is eaten only on select occasions, so on normal days the rice is eaten only with one or two accompaniments and healthy.

There are consequences of course to the uninitiated and I am lucky to have escaped them. It can be best illustrated by the nickname given to the leading Andhra restaurant in Bengaluru called RRs – (Rolling R*ctum as folks call it - yup, sorrrrry).

You have been warned. If you eat in moderation and use it as a taste sampler and have a mix of the ones you like, the Andhra meal can be one of the best celebrations of how versatile rice can be as an accompaniment…