• Udupi is associated mainly with vegetarian cuisine
  • Woodlands was one restaurants that went on to popularize Udupi cuisine
  • Mathysa is popular for its exotic dishes along with the traditional ones

There are few road trips in India that I enjoy more than the drive from Mangaluru to Goa. It’s not just the countless beaches and scenic landscapes but also the scrumptious food along Karnataka’s coast. Udupi is a quintessential pit-stop along this stretch. This charming temple town is almost synonymous with its crispymasala dose(dosa) but Udupi and Kundapura (an hour away) are also havens for non-vegetarian cuisine. At the heart of Udupi is the Shri Krishna Temple, one of the state’s most revered shrines. Many devotees stay back for the Anna dhana or free meals provided by the temple’s kitchen, one of the most delicious temple meals anywhere in the country. 

Some of the cooks who trained in this temple left Udupi in the first half of the 20th Century to establish successful restaurant chains in Chennai and Bengaluru like Dasaparakash and Udupi Home (with its popular restaurant – Mathysa). It’s why Udupi is associated mainly with vegetarian cuisine; the masala dosa has gone on to become a global phenomenon. Kadandale Krishna Rao was one such restaurateur who moved up the ranks from a modest background to set up New Woodlands Hotel in Chennai. Woodlands was one of the restaurants that went on to popularize Udupi cuisine and the ubiquitous Masala dosa in Chennai.

Woodlands was one of the restaurants that went on to popularize Udupi cuisine.

By the 1950s and 60s, Udupi restaurants (or ‘hotels’) began to dominate the vegetarian dining scene in the city. Many of these were small operations and then there were slightly more upscale restaurants like Dasaprakash and New Woodlands. Almost all these eateries were managed by a head cook from Udupi and virtually every major neighbourhood in Chennai boasted of its own Udupi hotel like Murudi’s in Chintadripet or Welcome hotel in Purasawalkam. 

By the 1980s and 1990s Chennai saw the emergence of strong home-grown vegetarian restaurant brands like Saravana Bhavan (that also operates restaurants in Delhi). These chains eventually brought economies of scale and also introduced dishes that were more deep rooted in Tamil Nadu. While the larger Udupi brands like Woodlands were able to survive this onslaught, many of the smaller restaurants couldn’t compete.

By 2009, one of the best adverts for Udupi cuisine – the Woodlands Drive-in, had to make way for the Semmozhi Poonga, a large public park. This 18-acre site in the heart of the city, received thousands of visitors each day, many who could just lounge in their cars and sip on invigorating filter coffee. This unique drive-in restaurant had room for everyone from large sales teams who needed to huddle for a weekly review meeting to couples who needed some peace and quiet. Woodlands Drive-in is now an integral part of Madras nostalgia and unfortunately that’s the case for some of the smaller Udupi hotels that have folded up. And yet there are some restaurants that continue to keep the Udupi tradition alive that are a magnet for foodies and nostalgia seekers alike. Here’s a quick guide: 

1. New Woodlands Hotel (Has two restaurants – Krishna and Vrindavan)

Try and time your visit between 4 – 6:30 pm. It’s Tiffin time in Chennai; that time of the day when we all need a little nibble to help tide us over till dinner and when Woodlands’ Udupi classics are served. The restaurant’s Mangalore Bonda is probably the best in Chennai. This delectable deep-fried snack combines Maida (Flour), rice flour and curd with a smattering of green chillies and ginger. The same goes for the restaurant’s popular fluffy Rava Idli. It’s blended with finely grated carrot and hits the spot. The sambar is a contrast from what you find in South Indian vegetarian restaurants in Chennai – mild with a strong presence of roasted coconut, while the coconut stands out with its thick texture. The restaurant takes no chances with its filter coffee. It sources coffee seeds, does the roasting and grinding in-house with the perfect blend of coffee and chicory.  (Radhakrishnan Salai, Mylapore)

(Also read: Sambar is Not an Original South Indian Dish?)

2. Mathysa Restaurant

The restaurant has its share of popular favourites like the authentic Mysore Masala Dosa with its trademark chilly garlic paste dabbed on the insides that are also slathered in ghee. It’s the more exotic Udupi dishes that make Mathysa a compelling option for evolved foodies. Try the light as air Bajari Dosa (Ari means rice in Tulu, this dosa is crafted with rice flour) paired with jaggery and grated coconut or the kadubu a cylindrical, coarser version of the conventional idli. It’s the same batter but the process borders on culinary art – the batter is steamed after being rolled up in a jackfruit leaf, the long cylindrical kadubus are then cut into smaller discs. Many of Mathsya’s signature dishes are available round the clock and it’s a popular late night hangout. Try the special Udupi platter – perfect to discover Udupi cuisine and also zero in on dishes that you might want to order on your next visit. 

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Exotic Udupi dishes that make Mathysa a compelling option​. Photo Credit: Istock

Madras Hotel Ashoka (Abhinandan Restaurant)

The restaurant’s masala dosa is one of its signatures. Years ago, most Udupi restaurants used to slide a dollop of white butter spread on a banana leaf square into their plain and masala dosas. Ashoka is the only restaurant that continues to keep this tradition alive. The other quintessential Udupi dish here is the biscuit roti that are similar (though not entirely) to the kachoris. This mildly sweet and spicy tea time snack combines maida flour with a layer of seasoned semolina filling. The idlis keep with the Udupi template with their grainy texture, a welcome relief from the sticky Chettinad-style idlis that seem to have taken over the city’s ‘foodscape’. 

About the Author:

Ashwin Rajagopalan is a cross cultural training expert and lifestyle writer. When he’s not writing about food, he thinks about gadgets, trends and travel experiences. He enjoys communicating across cultures and borders in his weekday work avatar as a content and editorial consultant for a global major and one of India’s only cross cultural trainers.


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