Each temple in the South Kanara district of Karnataka has its own annual festival that usually involves some festivities and popular customs & rituals. This usually lasts for a couple of days and sometimes up to a week. What is notable is that meals are served to all devotees attending this festivities usually in the evenings, but in some temples also during afternoons.
What I have found very distinct is the food served at these temple festivals (and I can only talk about the temples thronged by the GSB community). This food is treated as offerings to the Deity and taken as blessed ‘Prasad’ by the community.
But first a preamble. I actually never liked attending these temple festivals forget even having the meals. Most of the visits to this area, as a kid, were during summer and it always made me miserable - both the heat, humidity and the daylong power cuts. On the few occasions we were close to a temple festival and attended it, I really did not enjoy this at all. Not the best thing for a super self-conscious, plus perennially sickly kid. I almost always had an upset stomach, and each trip I’d lose further weight.
But post marriage my visits to Mangalore have been more frequent and the stays longer - also thanks to my parents having discovered a love for this city and deciding to settle down here.
Anyways during my current sojourn here thats been over six months so far, I happened to visit quite a few temple festivals and eat quite a few meals, and could appreciate the distinctiveness of the food.
Let me tell you at the outset that this is not for everyone including other Indian communities.
The GSB temple festivals serve Vegetarian food and this is actually quite spare. It usually involves Rice, some Dal or Rasam, and a curry and one sweet dish (payasam). Very rarely do you get anything more than this.
Also what is likely to put you off is how the seating arrangements work. Chances are you need to wait for a couple of hours in queue before you get a chance to enter the grounds where food is served. You need to sit down on the ground just as it has been cleaned and swept by the cleaners. You need to bring a newspaper to sit on as there are no mats or chairs. More fun is that once you find a place to sit along with the others, you need to sit cross-legged for as much as 30-45 minutes till the last dish is served.
If you are willing to undertake all of this, you can partake of the blessings served during the meals.
Why is this making to my favorites?
Sounds a little strange, but it really does not hit you that this food is actually quite unique till you realize that very few - practically no one else or no where else can you get this same food served at the temples. (Imagine, I am currently staying in a place where this meal served at the temple fairs is the staple diet in all GSB households, yet we cant fully recreate the flavours in the simple meal served at the temple festival).
The atmosphere at the temple festival normally puts me off - i am still self-concious and don't particularly love crowds, and the heat and humidity make it worse. sitting cross-legged for close to an hour is a big challenge too.
As I started eating at some other temples besides Mangalore - in Karkala for e.g. where the crowds were slightly lower - there was an opportunity to understand what made them unique. This was no small achievement given that the biggest temple festivals had crowds running into five digit numbers and each sitting of devotees usually was at least a few thousand. So in terms of sheer volume, achieving this level of consistency and flavour is really something
in fact the distinction to me is the smells and flavors of the food - just a small whiff is clear enough to indicate what has been cooked, and you can almost taste the piquancy, the slight sour, tangy and a bit of jaggery in that whiff itself.
And I tried exploring what made this food different from what was served at homes, hotels or even at other community events like marriages. (they come close but the food served at the temple festivals really stands out).
- First the food is cooked in large pots, pans, vats, drums - using yes you guessed it - WOOD FIRES. Most of the temple’s kitchens have cooking systems made nearly a century ago and this would be a simple cement or clay stand where you could insert fire wood and light them up, and cook food on that stand. This gives it a unique smoky flavour. In the temples of Goa where the canteens have been modernized, the food is cooked using modern gas stoves, and this smoky flavour is missing. (if however you visit the priests home or some of the local folk who still use firewood stoves, you might get the same taste).
- Another factor for me is that the masala pastes for the food are GROUND using the traditional stone-pestle systems. Nowadays there are machines to both grate coconuts as well as a wet grinder that helps create these masala pastes in large quantities. This is also a key difference from the other canteens that use food processors. The families in South Kanara swear by the authentic tastes that only a stone wet grinder can produce, and the food at the temple festivals is a testament to that.
- There are other aspects unique too - from ingredients, the team involved and the ingredients - all of them have been part of the temple festivals for several several decades, and this is an intact system that is running well. The ingredients are sourced usually right within the district and most of it comes from sources close to the temple. (Milk and ghee comes from the cows maintained by the temple itself). The team is usually an expert team of cooks - almost always all of them men who are usually from the families that have been serving the temple for at least a few generations already.
- And then there are the secrets of course which they will not share and one would need to experiment to understand and discover how and why they work. Padma Lakshmi in her coverage of the Udipi temple festival mentioned they added molasses (or jaggery) - which actually is not a surprise to cooks and housewives from this region, because everyone does it at home. Perhaps the source is a different one. I found another unique aspect of the food was that the strong flavor came from the tempering (called Chhonk/ Baghaar / Tadka in different parts of India). For the temple festival given the volume of food to be prepared - the proportion of tempering provided to the food is a several times over what we normally make at home or in hotels. The tempering is also a unique combination of ingredients that cannot be replicated. They make this in such a huge volume to ensure that each ladle of serving has some proportion of this tempering, and as you chew and bite into the morsel your tastebuds are awakened by the flavors of this unique tempering.
- But the biggest contributor to me is something really unique and special - a fact that those outside our communities or regions (especially visitors) cannot get. The food served here has been offered to the beloved deities in the temple and blessed by the Gods themselves. We are lucky enough to partake and enjoy this offering. This recognition and awareness imbibes each morsel with a special flavor - one of gratitude and devotion - and this cannot be replicated at other events.
The temple festivals otherwise are a great social occasion and while for me they are an uncomfortable (and unavoidable) social event- the local folk enjoy and thrive on it and enjoy it greatly. People are used to the weather and don't mind the jostling and inconveniences. They get to meet others and in the modern day society, the occasions of interaction have reduced tremendously.
That this occasion also provides great tasting food is a blessing in itself.
(Temple festivals of Mangalore and Karkala are usually in the first few months of the year and you need to get in touch with the websites for the exact dates. If you happen to be in the vicinity any other time too there is an opportunity to eat the temple food, and if you check with the counters at the temples they advice what meals are likely to be served and open to the public. Do savor this sometime, its a unique blessed experience!)