Kalyan Karmakar

Military hotels are bit of an urban legend among the food lovers of Bengaluru. They are described as places that are spartan, functional and great for eating non-vegetarian food; mutton in particular. The most famous of which is the Shivaji Military Hotel. The most famous dish is the donne biryani, so called because of the areca nut palm leaf in which it is served. This is similar to the Dindigul biryani of Tamil Nadu, and is made with the same short-grained seeraga samba rice.

The reason why I call it an ‘urban legend’ is that they are not easy for an itinerant traveller to reach. Most are located in places such as Jayanagar, Malleswaram and Cottonpet, the more traditional areas of the city which are not that ‘buzzy’ today, especially with the city expanding its borders. I had been meaning to try out one for a while, but the logistics never worked out. They were either too far or shut by the time I would finish work.

Some open in the morning and people queue up as early as 8 am to get their fill of biryani and other meaty treats! These are Hindu-run places and hence mutton is the meat of choice. Beef and pork are not served. Seafood has made its presence felt and so has chicken; not that the owners are too happy about the latter.
I finally made it to a military hotel when I recently went to the Ranganna Military Hotel, which was established in 1964. The owner is a gentleman named Ranganna, and he still supervises the grinding of the spice mixes every day. His wife supervises the cooking. Ranganna’s son, Sunil, helps run the business.

I must say that the experience at Ranganna did not turn out to be what I had expected my first military hotel visit to have been like. Ranganna is large, neat and clean. Nothing like the grimy ambiance that I had prepared myself for. Nor was the clientele male dominated. I had read that military hotels had initially sprung up to feed men from the interiors of Karnataka, who had come to work in the city. Other theories say they were established to feed the Maratha soldiers, or those from the British colonial army. Hence the name ‘military’. The crowd at Ranganna on a Sunday evening (when the traffic was less) consisted of both genders, panned across age groups and social classes. Bengaluru local, Somanna Muthanna, of the Soul Company, recommended Ranganna to me, saying its more welcoming of outsiders, apart from the fact that the locals swear by its food. A sentiment echoed by Divya Prabhakar, who runs the Bengaluru Oota Company along with Vishal Shetty. Divya belongs to the local Gowda community as do the owners of Ranganna. Over a lovely meal featuring Gowda and Mangalorean dishes that I had at their restaurant the next day, Divya said that she often goes to Ranganna to eat.

I went to Ranganna with two fellow Bengalis, Diganta Chakraborty and Arghya Sanyal, and we were mesmerised by the excellent quality of mutton served and the home cooking-like feel that the food had. Our order that evening was a nose to tail mutton affair that included tender mutton chops, liver and brain fry, roughly minced mutton gojju (a thick curry), mutton biryani (no donne leaf here) and an egg curry from the poultry side. Despite being a no-frills place, the subtlety in the spicing of each and the distinct flavours that they offered explained why this 56- year-old restaurant remains so popular.

It reminded me of places such as the Swadhin Bharat Hotel and the pice hotels of Kolkata and Kshirsagar, Sindhudurg Hotel, Chaitanya and the many Malvani restaurants of Mumbai. These restaurants too had come up originally to feed their home cuisines to migrant workers in these cities. Are there more such examples across India? Please write in at http://www.timeskitchentales and tell us about them.

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