Believe it or not, Zac O’Yeah (in picture), one of India’s best known travel writers, has rated a nondescript restaurant in Coorg where Kodava food is served, as the best eating joint in India!
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.
But at the top of my list, I’d put the aptly named Folksy Food in Kodagu (Coorg), 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.
The aptly named Folksy Food in Madikeri proves that often canteens serve genuine local fare.
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).
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 (Cholapanda Arasu and Leelavathi) 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.