There is perhaps nothing more humbling than taking culture and tradition forward. And social anthropologist Pavan Jambagi has decided to do just that, carrying the Kannadiga food legacy forward with his Carnatic Cafe in Delhi’s New Friends Colony.
Placing Kannadiga food on the map of North India has won Jambagi many fans. The dosas at Carnatic Cafe are nothing like what you get elsewhere in Delhi. Most of them are thick; some are crisp and some are not. While you do get a regular masala dosa here, the Malleshwaram 18th Cross Dosa (which is a home recipe of Jambagi) is a big hit. It comes slathered with podi on the inside. Or, you can try the Mandakki Dosa which is made of poha that make it crisp. The distinct smell of homemade butter in the dosas reassures eaters that the food is made with love and care.
The restaurant is true to Kannadiga culture. The set up is humble, the food well-balanced, and the service, polite. Jambagi belongs to the Madhva Brahmin sect who follow guru Madhvacharya and his Dvaita philosophy. The community comprises the educated working class and there are a few entrepreneurs like Jambagi. Says he: “The food and beverage industry depicts an art form. Creativity can be put to use in various ways. In our community we put others before the self and that is our philosophy at Carnatic Cafe. My first tryst with food was at the yearly padyatras of the Madhva Brahmins where we would gather in a group and set out on foot for a temple 350-400km away. We would cover the distance in a week.” During the yatra, pilgrims bathe only in flowing water from wells, rivers, hand pumps and such. “We would bathe and chant the Gayatri Mantra before we start cooking in the community kitchen. A cook accompanies the group and he is knowledgeable of all masalas, the right grinding technique et al. No garlic, onions or non-vegetarian food is consumed. There is no outside food either. We only consume what is made by the group. The food is very well-balanced. It is not overtly spicy, nor is it very tangy. During the padyatra we stop at various villages for meals and to rest. These villagers look after us and give us shelter for the night. Harmony among individuals is at its best,” he adds.
Walk, stop, cook and repeat is the rhythm for the padyatra. And it was during the padyatras that Jambagi started learning from scratch. He “learnt to chop and other essentials of cooking like how much tamarind should be soaked for a particular dish and how it affects the entirety of the dish.” And there has been no looking back.
While some of Jambagi’s childhood friends grew up to become cooks, he applied for an industrial design course abroad after his stint with anthropology. During this period, Jambagi happened to reunite with his friends after 18 years for a cook-off or what he calls ‘jugalbandi’ at a family function. It was here that the idea of Carnatic Cafe germinated. He dropped his expensive course plan for a comparatively cheaper alternative of opening the restaurant. “The restaurant became my design school. It was here I learnt to measure a square foot and learnt about plumbing, electric work, tiles, furniture and just about everything related to design and aesthetics. It was an extension of me and my work. As an anthropologist I was studying people and at the restaurant I am serving people. I am also trying to introduce people to Kannadiga food. What we serve at Carnatic Cafe is what you will eat in Mysore and Bangalore. We serve thick chutneys and thick dosas, something very symbolic of the region I hail from,” Jambagi explains. Ask for a recommendation and the answer is “the no onion-no garlic mini meal which is reflective of the Madhva cuisine. One should also try Raagi Roti, Akki Roti, the Wangi Bhaat and the Obattu.”
The staff comprises Jambagi’s friends from the padyatras. The coffee is sourced from Chickmagalur, its heady aroma the perfect topping for a perfect meal.