Mention Udupi food, and there are the usual suspects: dosa, idli and goli baje served with the predictable sambhar and chutney. Perhaps that is why Udupi cuisine's favourite vegetable has remained a closely guarded secret outside the region. A few more days, and it could also get the Global Indicator tag, marking Matti as the exclusive growing place of the Matti Gulla.
From this hamlet in Udupi district, the first harvest of this jade-and-moss green striped brinjal is traditionally taken to the Udupi Srikrishna temple. Sit down for a meal at the temple, and it'll show up on your leaf, shallow fried with a freshly-ground masala of red chilly, curry leaves, mustard, methi and coriander seeds. It could also be served as a fragrant “bolu huli”, cooked with tur dal as base and seasoned with hing to counter its astringency.
But what is so sacred and secret about the Matti Gulla? Lakshman Poojary Matt, a Matti Gulla farmer, says that it's sacred because of its legendary origins attributed to Vadiraja, one of the seers of the Dwaita school, who supposedly gave its seeds to the inhabitants of Matti to sow, and grow out of poverty.
Another story goes that when Vadiraja's foes tried to poison his meal, they poisoned Vadiraja's offering to Krishna instead. (Vadiraja's recipe for Hayagreeva Maddi is another signature dish in Udupi cuisine, but that's another story). When truth struck home, the scared assailants turned to Vadiraja: what could they do to make amends? Vadiraja gave them some seeds to sow; serve the resulting Matti Gulla at the temple, and all shall be well again, he said. It's also a common belief that the Matti Gulla grown anywhere else does not have the same flavour.
More importantly, it is sacred because of its precarious position, endangered by the BT brinjal that could contaminate it forever, ending its legendary run as the piece de resistance of the Udupi platter!
About 50 varieties of brinjal are available in Karnataka, of which Matti Gulla is one. It is known for its low moisture content, which makes it ideal for sukka delicacies and ensures its long shelf life. Other varieties of brinjal are found within Udupi itself, such as the Benegal and the Parampalli varieties, with minor differences in size, flavour and appearance. But none of them have found the same fan following as this variety, says Krishna Prasad of Sahaja Samruddha, who has been working with the farmers to fight for the GI tag, and against the BT variety.
Lakshman explains how the Matti Gulla is one of the five brinjal varieties whose genes have been used in BT brinjal. Introduce BT brinjal in large-scale cultivation, and Matti Gulla will neither remain in Matti nor retain its salient features. He claims that this iron-rich vegetable can act as an antidote against some poisons, and also help fight diabetes. “Welcome the BT brinjal, and the game's over for us Matti farmers.” It would also spell the end of many traditions that have persisted for centuries. “We wouldn't know what to contribute during Paryaya.” Dishes of Matti Gulla are invariably served during this festival. However, what they're mostly concerned about is preserving its unique taste for which many will vouch. Eighty-six-year-old Raghavchar says that he can speak for generations of Matti Gulla fans when he says that he prefers the Matti Gulla for its unusual taste. “There are barely any seeds too, unlike other brinjal varieties. Just coat some masala on sliced Matti Gulla, sizzle it over a hot tava, and you have a wonderful snack.”