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Features

A taste of Bengaluru with Manu Chandra

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For Manu Chandra, the dish that defines Bengaluru is a chilli chicken or chilli pork—’but the local version of it, with kadi patta’—paired with a chilled beer

While in Bengaluru last week, surrounded by other “north Indian” journalists there to study the high drama of the Karnataka election, I was amused by the term “Amit media”—a not-so-endearing reference to reporters who had parachuted in, and were prone to getting their syllables in a knot at press conferences and complaining about the food on offer.

Manu Chandra, a Delhi import who has been in Bengaluru for over a decade, is not an “Amit chef” by any means. When I meet him at his restaurant Olive Beach, in Ashok Nagar, I learn his last meal was Chicken Pulimunchi, a dish that owes its characteristic tanginess to the copious amounts of puli, or tamarind, in it.

While we now know how Bengaluru votes—it had a 51% turnout—I was there to ask Chandra how Bengaluru eats, specifically his thoughts on whether the slow migration of Amits has led to a “butter chickenification” of the city’s lunch plates.

“It would be much too difficult to uproot the core identity of the city,” he says, while admitting that there are evenings he goes to his Monkey Bar in Indiranagar and only hears Hindi being spoken. “Bengaluru isn’t just about Kannada pride, there’s a fairly large Tamil and Telugu influence. The Kodavas have their own micro-identity. It’s always been a fairly mixed south Indian identity. Can it be overshadowed by migration? Maybe…but there can’t be any real erosion of identity.”

For Chandra, the dish that defines Bengaluru is a chilli chicken or chilli pork—“but the local version of it, with kadi patta”—paired with a chilled beer. My eyes must have widened because he adds: “Yes that’s happened after living here. I can’t imagine life without kadi patta.”

Chandra is surprisingly relaxed, though we met a few days before the election. I believe he is one of the country’s more vociferous chefs—more inclined to be tweeting about resort politics and the Flipkart acquisition than posting pictures of his plating on Instagram. The only other time I’ve met Chandra was a couple of years ago in the south of France, when a group of journalists and chefs had been brought together to understand that wheat-based vodka can be elegant. We were staying in a 17th century manor, playing pétanque and generally having a good time even as Chandra insisted on launching forth on his disgruntlement with ignorant Indian restaurant-goers, food journalists and bloggers, the government, the caste system—everything, in short.

Which is why his newfound peace comes as a surprise to me. It is the outcome of two things. He has stopped following restaurant reviews online. And he has accepted that who comes to power in the state has little bearing on the restaurant business.

“None of the parties have manifestoes that affect our industry. It comes down to policies…our industry has been hit more by Central decisions like GST. We get no tax credit for businesses that want to expand, we can’t claim anything against our capital investments.” He adds the debate about service charge, and the snowball effect of the fire at a restaurant in Mumbai’s Kamala Mills (which, according to him, had more severe repercussions in Bengaluru), to the list of annoyances. And then there is Karnataka’s specific conundrum, which (finally) irks Chandra. As the city head for the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), he’s fluent with its terms: “Liquor tends to be very tightly controlled in the state but a very large chunk of indirect taxation in this state comes from liquor sales. So treating eating places as soft targets, while we are key revenue generators, is not cool.”

While Bengaluru has always been his home ground, from Monkey Bar to Toast & Tonic, his restaurants have found a following in Mumbai. What keeps him in the city is a love for its culinary cognoscenti. He believes they are far more experimental. “It’s not the same in Mumbai and Delhi, no matter what they like to believe. Bengaluru diners are more price-sensitive…quality conscious is a better way to describe it,” he adds. Chandra points out that while dishes are priced lower in Bengaluru, the per capita spend is more. “They eat more. They’ll order a bunch of appetizers to share and a main course and dessert but they are all still fit because they run and work out and it’s not a contrived thing…you won’t see Juicy Couture in Cubbon Park.”

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