THESE NO-NONSENSE ESTABLISHMENTS ROSE TO SUPPORT THE ACTIVITIES OF A CANTONMENT CITY, AND TODAY ARE A DELICIOUS MORSEL OF BANGALORE HISTORY.
A little before 1pm Chamundamma Rajanna makes her way to Rajanna Hindu Military Hotel, a one-room eatery just off Bangalore’s Magadi Road. This is an industrial part of town, a thoroughfare dotted with timber stores and hardware shops. Already the benches are full, seating a motley collection of daily wage labourers, office workers and, quite often, the odd aspiring film producer. Most are regulars. They look up from shaping morsels of ragi mudde–to be swallowed without chewing–or gnawing on the mutton bones in front of them, and nod in greeting. And on every day of the week except Monday Chamundamma is stationed in one corner of the room, presided over by a well-tended altar of deities and the cash box, until well past 10pm
In the adjoining kitchen the cooking is as brisk as the eating outside. The staff carry saucepans of thick, fragrant mutton korma to and fro, ladling out khaima (keema) balls from their simmering gravy, and packing parcels with deft twists of the wrist. They take turns stirring the gluey mass of ragi (finger millet) flour thickening in a copper pot with a wooden stick called a “mudde kolu”, propping one foot up against a plank for leverage, and then shaping the steaming hot dough into rounds. Around 35kg of mutton is cooked every day, extra on weekends, and once it has run out, there isn’t more to be had. There is little here for vegetarians, save perhaps some rice and rasam.
Chamundamma is the lone woman at Rajanna Hindu Military Hotel, and has been running it since the death of her husband Rajanna in 1990. “I actually don’t know why it’s called military, there is no connection to the army,” she said. And then a moment later, “Military just means non-veg.” The ‘Hindu’ prefix, often dropped in other military hotels, indicates that the establishment serves only mutton and chicken, cooked in the ‘naati’ or regional way, but won’t deal in beef or pork. The term ‘hotel’ is loosely applied as well – as in many instances across the country, these are simply eating houses, not places of lodging. And while military hotels don’t concern themselves with bar licenses, there’s typically a liquor shop nearby, and it isn’t unusual for patrons to have had a drink or three before dinner, or even to sneak a quart in with them.
The origins of the military hotel are unclear. Neither the owners nor city historians nor archivists in Bangalore’s Gazetteer Department can trace its etymology with any certainty. “It’s a very local term, nobody knows who coined it or how it came up,” said Adarsh NC, a filmmaker who documented several military hotels for Discovery Channel’s Culinary Asia series. Ajit Saldanha, food critic and the author of Bangalore’s Sapad Raman, a book on eating out in the city, offered one explanation: “In the British Indian Army, all classes and castes ate together, and they were expected to eat everything. The idea was that you would toughen up if you ate protein-rich fare. It’s thought that soldiers developed a taste for non-vegetarian food which may not have been cooked at home, and it was a challenge to do without it.” So according to this theory, the establishments might’ve been set up in those hometowns and villages to cater to this newfound appetite for meat, but even if this wasn’t the case, the eating of meat became associated with how the military ate.
But military hotels are endemic to the hinterland areas of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and the borders of Andhra Pradesh, regions that have had a culture of non-vegetarianism that predates the army, despite the prevailing Brahmin conservatism of the south. According to data released by the NSSO (the National Sample Survey Office) in June this year, the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu consume the most mutton per capita per month (133g, 105g, 91g, respectively), second only to Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh in the north.
In common parlance, ‘military’ is now really just a euphemism for affordable non-vegetarian food adapted to local tastes, just as Chamundamma understood it. In Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu the fare in military hotels bears a strong Chettinad stamp, as seen in the preponderance of seafood dishes and peppery masalas. Saldanha told us, “The meen kuzhambu [fish curry] and sura puttu [scrambled shark meat] at Sri Velu Military Hotel in Chennai are exemplary.” In Karnataka, the Vokkaliga or ‘Gowda’ influence is most evident. Vokkaligas are the state’s dominant agrarian community, and theirs is rustic farmers’ food from the plains. Staples include lightly spiced mutton chops (colloquially, chaaps), liver, thale maamsa (head meat) and kaal soup (made with sheep or goat’s trotters). And many military hotels in and around Bangalore, like Shivaji Military Hotel in Banashankari, display an unmistakable Maratha influence. At these eateries mutton biryani cooked over coals, made with short-grain rice and a slow-burning masala of green chillies, coriander and mint leaves, takes precedence over ragi mudde. The meat dishes in these eateries tend to be spicier, borrowing from the fierce, tongue-singeing flavours of the Saoji and Kolhapuri cuisines of central Maharashtra.
Aliyeh Rizvi, who archives Bangalore’s local culture through her blog and a book-in-progress, said this points towards another possible account of the origin of military hotels: Maratha soldiers had their garrisons in the city for close to 50 years. In 1638, Maratha chief Shahaji Bhonsle (father of Shivaji, who founded the Maratha empire) defeated Kempe Gowda III, and was granted Bangalore as a jagir, or feudal territory, by the Adil Shahi sultans of Bijapur for whom he was fighting. Maratha soldiers were stationed in the pete (market) area, until Bangalore was leased to Mysore ruler Chikkadevaraja Wodeyar around 1687. “They could have brought their traditional non-vegetarian cuisine with them, as many families would have settled in the city. In the last 100-odd years, the food cooked and sold from their descendants’ basic Saoji-style eateries could well have been the forerunners of the military hotels we know today,” Rizvi said.
Indeed, most military hotels in the city were established in the pete (and between Bangalore and Mysore): areas that saw an influx of traders and merchants from other towns at the turn of the century. As Bangalore opened up for business, the demand for home-cooked food outside the home grew. Families in south India might still have been reluctant to eat out, but it was a necessity for the migrant worker. “Most choultries [hostel accommodations] served pure vegetarian food. So these small establishments with no menus, no signboards and limited quantities of non-vegetarian food, could have sprouted to feed people in transit,” added Rizvi. Many, like Shivaji and Ranganna, moved long ago to the more spacious premises that developing suburbs afforded. But the oldest known surviving military hotel in Bangalore, S Govinda Rao Military Hotel, also known as SG Rao Military Mess, remains in the old City area, where the by-lanes are wide enough for a flurry of two-wheelers but very little else. Established in 1908 by S Govinda Rao Rannore, a Maratha, it enjoyed a 106-year run in a smoky old house in Akkipete, and in April this year, moved a short distance away to a brighter, airier tenement in Cottonpete.
VK Venkatesh, an elderly gentleman who lives in the neighbourhood, has eaten biryani in the morning here at least once a week for as long as he can remember. “The taste is good, and it is affordable [Rs 120] even when the mutton rate goes up,” he said. Ambareesh, current Minister of Housing for Karnataka state and a veteran Kannada film star with 42 years and over 200 movies to his credit, also counts himself among SG Rao’s regulars. “When we were filming, I used to buy biryani for everyone in the unit from Govinda Rao. The secret is in the selection of the maamsa [meat]. It should not have to be chewed, it should just melt,” he said. “Biryanis like these are worth queuing up for from 6.30 in the morning. After that if you go, you’ll get only rice,” he said, adding that these days, he sends the driver across town with his order.
The biryani, or ‘palav’ as it’s referred to by the folks at SG Rao, is a mound of glistening jeera samba rice concealing pieces of butter-soft meat that slide off the bone at the slightest nudge. It is slow-cooked, and made with ghee, not oil, which explains the aroma that precedes its arrival to the table. The deceptive green chilli burn lingers ferociously after every bite. “No soda, no colour, no tasting powder,” said Eshwar Rao, who runs the eatery and makes the masalas fresh every day, hand-ground the way they always have been. Rao, along with many of the waiters, has worked at SG Rao for well over twenty years. The recipes, though closely guarded, aren’t written down. As in most military hotels, they don’t need to be. They’ve been perfected by practice.
There are more recent additions to the menu at some of these stalwarts – chicken kebab and chicken lollipop, for instance, have been conceded to by popular demand rather than passed down from father to son. Sendil Kumar M (for Munirangappa), third-generation owner of Ranganna Military Hotel on KR Road, is responsible for introducing many modern touches to Ranganna’s. Four years ago, they moved to a new building complete with CCTVs, and the staff now wear plastic gloves and hairnets. “Earlier people didn’t ask for all this, now they do. They care about having their own tables, clean surroundings, hygiene,” said Sendil. The eatery was renamed from Ramanna to Ranganna, after Sendil’s father. In his youth, Munirangappa, now 68, was a pehelwan (wrestler) and a professional kabbadi player; black-and-white photographs of him in a langot are displayed proudly near the entrance. Slightly more stooped but no less imposing today, he still takes an active interest in day-to-day operations. “My father goes to buy mutton every day. It’s an art to choose the meat and make sure it is cut in the correct way,” said Sendil. “If I do it, he won’t be satisfied.”
Another new feature is the family room, which often fills up before the main hall does. “Earlier we would maybe get one lady every three-four months asking for a parcel, but these days, the crowd is different and people feel more comfortable. Ladies used to think a military hotel was a male-dominated rogue place. No longer.”
Author: Amrita Gupta
Photographs: Vivek Muthuramalingam