Saturday, May 06, 2006
Forget Mysore pak. Forget Mysore masala dosa (if such a thing ever existed.) Even forget the Mysore palace. It’s Mysore only if it’s gobi manchoori. (Or manchuri, as some would have it). Sizzling like Helen, glistening brown like Silk Smita’s thighs and as masaledaar as a David Dhawan film, it’s the hottest craze in town. Teenagers swear by it, no college campus is complete without it (one young lad told me that it’s the best place to meet babes who seem to have a special affection for it), recipes for it are closely guarded state secrets and the other day my maid walloped it with a gusto that she normally reserves for ragi mudde and avrekai!
So what exactly is gobi manchuri? Would cauliflower have anything to do with it? Maybe. Is it something concocted by a Chinese monk to slay the mighty Mahishasoora? Could be. A union of the soya bean and the Bedige chili so incendiary that it set the Cauvery on fire? Perhaps. A favourite concubine of Genghis Khan? Who knows? The pedestrian definition will tell you it’s bite-sized florets of cauliflower dipped in a batter of maida and corn flour (or variations thereof), deep fried and then floated into a kind of a sauce/gravy made by frying onions, various little bits of greenery (anything from capsicum to green chili, I suspect) and swirled into a conspiracy by the Gang of Four – the Messrs. Soya, Vinegar, Chili and Tomato sauces. As the thick vicious brown gook begins to spits and seethe in time to the drip-drip-drip of your salivary glands, nameless brown, red and yellow powders (depending on how fiendish you like your tipple) are sprinkled in and stirred. An instant before the gobi can turn soggi, a generous handful of chopped dhania and to the triumphant clang of ladle to wok, your gobi manchuri is ready. What, you ask, disappointed, just another snack?
Ah, but you obviously didn’t ask a true Mysorean. If you had, you’d have been told that gobi manchuri is a way of being, a rite of passage, an attitude. If in Mumbai it’s time pass, in Mysore, it’s gobi manchuri. When a Mysorean’s dil mange more, it’s only for "gobi" (as it is fondly called). It is fusion food for the soul, banishes boredom, cures lassitude and a constant diet of it is known to toughen your innards to withstand the most blistering chili and the most virulent bacteria.
No one knows for sure but I’m told by Mr. Venkaatess of Imperial Chef (supposed to be one of the best gobi manchuri joints in the city) that the Kings Court Hotel introduced it to Mysore in 1995. How it managed to leap off the fancy-pants restaurant table and strut its stuff at every single street corner and market square remains a mystery but I first noticed it about three years ago when a cart selling it was edging out the usual bhelpuri-wallah near my house. At the time I’d sniggered, scoffing at the very thought of the refined Mysorean taste buds groomed on generations of bisi bele huli anna stooping to defile itself on such phoren slops.
Needless to say, I’ve had to eat my sniggers and was forced to cut my gobi manchuri milk teeth a few days ago while researching this piece. So, did the earth move for me? Let me put like this. It brought to mind the name of a rather popular dessert found in the better Udipi joints in Mumbai. Which said it all. Gadbad. I know I risk getting drummed out of my hometown, so let me hastily make amends by telling you that Mysore’s surrender to the invasion of the “gobi” is unconditional. Apart from the fact that no restaurant worth its salt-‘n-pepper will leave it out of its menu, my estimate is that there must be at least about 300-400 street-side carts across the city dedicated only to gobi manchuri. (You can also eat it with “Veg. Fride Rice” and “Veg. Noodles” but the connoisseurs prefer it on the rocks.) A full plate goes for Rs. 10 a pop, but like the chhota peg, the regulars prefer to go “by two”. Like the stars, the gobi carts come out at about 5.30 every evening, staying on till 10 and averaging about 50-60 plates on good day.
So what’s the magic of the “gobi”? I tried to figure it out but like Laloo’s aloo, no one really knows. But I suspect it’s a hit because it’s hot, it’s cheap, it speaks in a chat-pata street tongue and it’s instant (including in the way it kick starts your taste buds!). What more paisa-wasool could one ask for?
Finally, a word about the name. Gobi manchoori. The first part is easy enough and it’s unanimous that it means “cauliflower.” It’s the manchoori (or manchuri) that poses the 64-gobi question. The more pretentious joints tend to call it Gobi Manchurian or even –shudder! - Cauliflower Manchurian. So would that point to a Chinese ancestry? Maybe is one answer. A shrug of the shoulder implying who cares, just shut up and eat it is the most common. But the one that I found the most satisfactory came from - who else, but that reputed exponent of the gobi, Mr Venkatess. It’s really quite simple, he says. “Manchoori” (you don’t have the heart to interrupt and remind him that his menu says Manchurian) means that which a “Man” can eat with a “chhuri” (or “choori” which means anything used to spear a morsel – i.e. fork/knife etc.) So Man+choori = Manchoori. I gasped at the pure poetry and the irrefutable logic of that explanation. And dreamily walked out of the Imperial Chef, remembering when a crispy bit of fried gobi splendiferously dressed up in a happy khichdi of whatnots introduced me to a place called Mysore!