Although I’ve written about Indian food for 20 years, I’ve never been on a jury to crown the best restaurant in India. Perhaps that is a good thing. For if I were to put together a top list, it’d be full of no-frills joints that other food critics would look down their noses at.
Café Military would be in my top 10 — down the road from the Bombay Stock Exchange, a place where one spots brokers hogging comfort food such as dhansak or brain at the end of a bad market day. Also Yaseen Hotel on the corner just south of the Jama Masjid in old Delhi: their sign ‘good taste, cheap and best, all Mughlai dishes are served by hygienic environment’ says all that needs to be said.
My list of 10 would include homely places that consciously promote local food such as Kewpie’s, started by a Bengali cookbook author in Kolkata, Dalema in Bhubaneswar that dishes up Odisha for you, Gateway Paradise’s Assamese thali in Guwahati, the fish biryani at old Paris Hotel in Thalassery, and the seafood thali at Anantashram in Margao which is far from the touristy beaches of Goa.
As for best veg, any khanavali in Dharwad would qualify for its robust and hearty jolada roti with delicious badanekaayi yennegai — eggplant curry. The top list cannot ignore drinking dens like the surprisingly unknown Mangalorean bar Royal Garden on the Outer Ring Road in Bengaluru (near Hebbal Flyover), which never fails to amaze with its spicy fresh crabs and creative snacks like tandoori mushrooms stuffed with Amul cheese.
But at the top of my list, I’d put the aptly named Folksy Food in Kodagu, because having visited time and again for my regular fix of Kodava cooking, I’ve never once felt disappointed at the end of a meal.
It’s a tiny place in a nondescript shopping complex in Madikeri town — and with four tables it serves at the most 16 people at a time, typically office-goers in need of affordable lunches. Unlike restaurants patronised by tourists that showcase ‘foods of Coorg’ where chilli and oil are ladled on to satisfy undiscerning palates, here the fare feels 100 per cent wholesome and satisfyingly ‘tasty’.
Also, the menu isn’t pretentious or long-winded — in fact there is no printed menu at all. Apart from the basic veg meal, there are just four non-veg items subject to availability: mutton, chicken, fish and, of course, pork (the Kodava national dish).
Yesterday, I shared a meal with my wife and we polished off two bowls of rice; a house speciality called koot curry which is a local dish similar to sambar, but milder and loaded with succulent veggies of the season such as Mangalore cucumber; the loveliest of rasams with the right amount of jaggery in it to offset the pungency; a dry dish of curried bhindi; fried fish; pork (half plate); and chicken (half plate), which altogether totalled ₹300.
The rice at Folksy Food is always light and fragrant, freshly steamed, and the veggies are delicately prepared — nothing like the greasy mushes and dry rice that are all too frequently passed off as vegetarian cookery in budget restaurants — while the tender pork morsels, with a few chunks of the fatty stuff mixed in, are fried in a peppery semi-gravy, the local black vinegar kachampuli giving it a distinctive tang. The chicken is another speciality; richly coated in a pungent masala, the meat simply falls off the bone. The plump mackerel, the most favoured fish locally, has a crispy outside with a hint of coconut oil, and each bite melts in the mouth. Any day at lunchtime (closed on Sundays and public holidays) there are a large number of eager eaters, so it isn’t much of a place to linger on at. Also, there are no desserts, coffee or brandy that might make you want to loiter after you’ve licked off the last specks of gravy from your plate. But the family who owns it are chatty and cheerful folks, so it isn’t one of those brusque eat-and-go affairs either. More likely it is the envious face of some guest-in-waiting — hoping to score a table — that eventually makes you stop licking plates.
It must be added for the protocol that I’ve nothing against five-stars and never say no to a lavish repast (especially if somebody else is footing the bill). But thanks to my peripatetic lifestyle, I’ve found that the best canteens showcase genuine local cuisine, as close to home-cooking as it gets — and the simpler the eatery, the more dependable the eating experience, and vice versa.
So if Folksy Food was in, say, France and did exactly the same thing and as consistently as it does but in French, it would be written about in guidebooks and perhaps have a Michelin star. But despite being located in a popular tourist area, Folksy has stayed off the foodie radar.
It is perhaps for the better as such a tiny eatery couldn’t handle an onslaught of gourmets flying in from across the globe. Maybe I am making a mistake by writing about it, but I trust you to keep the secret. Further, if you know of a fantastic but largely unknown canteen devoted to homely food anywhere in India, please share all details with me.
Zac O’Yeahis a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; firstname.lastname@example.org