Malleswaram’s reputation for being a vegetarian heartland is rapidly fading
H.S. Nagaraja was born in Malleswaram in 1933, and lived there for the first 23 years of his life. His conservative grandmother would screen prospective tenants for the outhouse that the family rented out, making sure that only vegetarians lived there.
“Some in the neighbourhood who weren’t vegetarian would claim to be pure vegetarians, to elevate themselves to the level of their neighbours,” he says — being vegetarian indicated a higher social status, as it was associated with being Brahmin. “And if they did cook meat at home, they took maximum care to see that the smell didn’t permeate outside!”
At the time, he points out that if one wanted to eat meat, one would have to buy it from Mohammedan Block or near Coconut Avenue, or visit one of the ‘military hotels’ on the periphery of the neighbourhood.
Rigidity when it came to food habits began to change soon after Independence, Nagaraja says. “We would go to the Cantonment area, walk down M.G. Road, then Brigade Road, survey the area to make sure no one we knew was around, do a 90-degree turn, and step into Basco’s. I remember the year — it was 1952 — when we sat behind a screen and had our first beer. Opposite was a place called China, which was known for its masala chicken. We considered ourselves progressive enough to eat it — things had changed a lot by then.”
A different scene
Fast forward some sixty years to the present: a walk down Sampige Road is enough to show that today, it’s a different scene entirely.
From the humble Maratha Non-Veg Parcel Centre to the Auchan hypermarket on SampigeRoad, whether it’s koli saaru you want or kababs, fresh seafood or prosciutto, Malleswaram’s residents have plenty of options at their fingertips.
Ajay Gowda, the owner of the Rasa group of restaurants in Malleswaram, spent five years in the area. “Prior to 2000, let alone meat, you couldn’t get liquor in Malleswaram,” he says. “It’s evolved to be more cosmopolitan. People over 50 or so may still be conservative, but this isn’t true of the younger generation. Having lived there, I understood the pulse of the younger generation.”
Earlier, he says, for a non-vegetarian meal, one had to go to a ‘military hotel’, “where it was impossible to take your wife or girlfriend.” Hejje, one of Ajay’s restaurants, is a fancier version of a ‘military hotel’. “When I started, everybody said I was a fool. But I knew I had a killing to make.”
Mahesh Nagaraj has lived in Malleswaram for around 35 years. When he was younger, he would frequent the three-decade-old Moon Light Hotel beside K.C. General Hospital along with his friends late at night, as it was one of the few joints that stayed open into the wee hours of the morning.
‘Never a problem’
“We used to go for the kerala parathas and kababs,” he says, adding that as Malleswaram didn’t have an Empire or an Imperial, Moon Light was their substitute. Otherwise, they would have to go to Shivajinagar for good kababs, he says. Mahesh admits there weren’t many restaurants serving meat then, but pooh-poohs the suggestion that meat and eggs weren’t easily available, say, a couple of decades ago. “There were meat shops right on 8th Cross. That’s central Malleswaram. It was never a problem.”
When the conversation switches to the present, like most people familiar with new developments in Malleswaram, the first restaurant Mahesh mentions when talking about meat is Al-Bek.
A large, shiny and extremely conspicuous restaurant on Sampige Road, this newest addition to the chain of restaurants in the city is perhaps out of sync with the dosa joints that the neighbourhood is better known for, but makes for an amusing sign of the times.