Mention Kannadiga food and most people think of Udupi hotels: dosa, idli, bisi bele bhaat and a general air of puritan vegetarianism. But there is a long tradition of Bangalorean food that is all about meat: the Hindu military hotel.
How did the military hotel get its curious name? “Most hotels were run by the Maratha descendants of Shahaji Bhonsle who conquered Bangalore in 1638. They added the prefix Hindu to make it clear that they did not serve beef or pork,” says artist and art historian Suresh Jayaram. Others believe the hotels served Bangalore’s many roving soldiers, both British and Indian. “People believed that soldiers needed meat every day to fight. They used military hotels to meet and plan their campaigns,” says Rajiv L who runs the Shivaji Military Hotel in South Bangalore.
In those days, most hotels were tiny, grimy dives, with an all-male clientele and service so curt it verged on the insulting. The food was served on banana leaves laid on the floor and cooked on a wood fire. They stuck to what they were good at: biryani, mutton chaap (or chops), kaima (keema by another name), local chicken, and ragi mudde (ragi balls), washed down with country liquor.
These days, most military hotels have smartened up with laminated tables and proper seating. Customers now range from office goers and students to politicians and film stars — and the Hindu prefix has been dropped. Nearly every military hotel claims to have Kannada film star Ambarish as a customer; perhaps his macho image makes for the perfect poster boy. Like the Udupi hotels, the emphasis is on fast turnover; this is not a place to linger on. Somewhere along the way, they also stopped serving liquor. Prices have risen from a reputed eight annas for a plate of food (at the beginning of the previous century) to around Rs 140 for a biryani in the smarter hotels.
So busy are Rajiv and his brother Lokesh, the third generation of hotel owners, that it takes me three days to pin them down for an interview. When I finally speak to them, I do it in the kitchen, where a row of massive cauldrons bubble and boil over charcoal fires. Lokesh stirs a soupy concoction of rice, mutton and spices in the biggest one, at least five feet wide. Shivaji’s has a staff of 15, but only Rajiv, Lokesh and two other close family members do the cooking, using carefully guarded family recipes. “The staff don’t have our kaiguna (loosely translated as haath ka jadu),” says Rajeev. “And you must have that goodwill, that passion, to make it right for the customer.”
At 28, Manoj Kumar is one of the younger customers, but he has been coming nearly every single day since he was ten. “This is the best biryani I have ever had, across India. The charcoal fire gives it that special taste,” he says. Other regular customers agree, “This is the only place where the biryani still tastes the same as it used to a decade ago.”
While Shivaji may be the most popular, its competitors have their fans too. The Ranganna Military Hotel, not far away, began as a roadside shack. Now, it’s a spotlessly clean Udupi-style joint. But a bit of its past history still survives on the walls, which are covered with black-and-white photos of the owner, Munirangappa, a wrestler in his heyday. His sons, Sunil Kumar and Sendil Kumar, walk me through the long menu.
I am told to try the leg soup — known up north as paya — as an appetiser. The soup arrives in a steel tumbler, the trotters neatly laid on a plate. It’s like a very meaty rasam, fiery, peppery and a kick in the palate. This is the Kannadiga version of chicken soup, a cure-all for every ailment. “Very good for women who have given birth,” assures Sunil. “It’s full of calcium.” The waiter tries to persuade me to eat the trotters too, but I can’t manage that, or the thale mamsa (literally head meat, from a goat) that he assures me is the house speciality. Instead, I go for the safer option: flaky Kerala parathas crisp as paper, and kaima redolent of garlic and coriander.
If the slightly gentrified environs of these hotels don’t do it for you, try S G Rao Military Mess, which, at over a hundred years, is probably the oldest military hotel in Bangalore. This is a true dive, tucked away in a tiny street in Akkipet in the heart of old Bangalore pete (town). Most dishes here are priced below Rs 80 and everything seemingly unchanged from how it used to be a century ago. The mutton korma here is particularly good, rich and creamy.
Nati (local or country) chicken is best had at Maratha Darshan, run by Naveen Lad and his mother. Right behind local Congress headquarters, this hotel is crammed with party members and politicians. One bite of the peppery, spicy chicken may bring tears to your eyes, even so you may find yourself ordering seconds.
Despite their general air of living contentedly in the past, change is catching up with military hotels. Most now have a separate family room. At Shivaji’s, young Jayanagar moms in jeans jostle for a table with elderly gentlemen in snowy white veshtis. The waiters now wear plastic hair nets and gloves, and the brusqueness of old has given way to a disconcerting politeness. Ranganna’s has switched to cooking on gas stoves because getting wood for a proper fire is difficult. They also serve fried fish. But most customers refuse to wallow in nostalgia. “Change is good,” says one of the fiercely loyal customers at Shivaji’s. “It’s clean now. No liquor-shiquour. Earlier, I could not bring my wife here. Now I even bring my daughter.”
As prices rise and competition gets fiercer, owners hope their children will carry on the family tradition. “When I was young, I worked all morning in the hotel, then studied the rest of the day for my bachelor’s degree,” says Rajiv, the emotion apparent in his voice. “Three generations of us have slaved for this hotel. I hope we can keep the Shivaji name going.”
Where to go
It’s best to get to your hotel early if you want to avoid waiting in a queue. Carry cash; they won’t accept credit cards. All the hotels here are open Tuesday–Sunday.
Shivaji Military Hotel
780 1st C Main, 45th cross, 8th block, Jayanagar
8 am to 3 pm
Ph: 91 9845149217
Ranganna Military Hotel
KR Road, Banashankari, Bangalore
7.30 am to 4 pm, 7 pm to 10 pm
Phone: 080 6452 8777
SG Rao Military Mess
OTC Road, Akkipet, Chickpet, Bangalore
6.30 am to 3 pm
Ph: 91 98459 58799
4, Miller Tank Road, Queens Road Cross, Cunningham Road, Bangalore
12.30 to 4 pm, lunch only
Ph: 91 9880551328