The aroma of sambar, spices and coconut wafts towards you as you walk around Chembottil Lane, where Hotel Bharath in Thrissur is located. The hotel buzzes with devotees from Vadakkunnathan Temple at the heart of the town while officers from nearby corporate firms and families wait patiently with Eiffel Tower-like tiffin carriers to cart the famous Bharath sadya home.
Folklore in this town is that the kitchens in Thrissur are always shut during noon, thanks to the mouth-watering, Malayali food at Bharath. And, this isn’t a hyperbole by any standard. Even some Malayali actors consider it mandatory to come to Bharath Hotel for piping hot masala dosas after a visit to the temple.
A brisk morning walk rounded off with coffee from Bharath is a routine for many.
A cultural phenomenon
The iconic restaurant, run by M Sreekumar, assisted by his three brothers M Nandakumar, M Rajkumar and M Vijayakumar, was set up in 1964 by their father, K Balakrishna Menon in Thrissur.
The cuisine mainly belongs to Central Kerala. "This is different from meals prepared in Palakkad, which has a Tamil influence or Malabari way of cooking, shaped by the non-vegetarian eating culture in the region. Our preparation does not involve the use of garlic,” says Vijayakumar.
The speciality here is no dish in the sadya leaf gets repeated within a week. For instance, if you are served banana kalan on Mondays, on another day you can expect a mango kalan . The regular sadya fare pampers you with traditional Kerala curries such as olan , aviyal , thoran , moru , two types of pickles and the mandatory inji thayir – curd with ginger and chillies. “I personally go and buy the vegetables. Some of the veggies are sourced from our 33-acre farm in Palakkad," says Sreekumar.
Not just sadya , it is also an adda for dosa and idli lovers and nocturnal North Indian foodies, who visit for sweet-tinged paneer butter masala and butter naan.
Setting the trend
When their father set the hotel up in the early 60s, there weren't many eateries in town to give competition, recalls Vijayakumar.
Eating out was popular yet, and it was even considered bad culture. “Our customers were mostly travellers and business men,” he recalls. However, by the 80s, this trend shifted and families began to visit routinely.
Students from other districts in Kerala who moved to Thrissur for medicine and engineering courses used to call the restaurant their ‘tharavadu’ (ancestral place). “Thrissur, being an educational hub, had and still has students from across the state studying here. And, most of the colleges are within a distance of five kms from Bharath,” says Vijayakumar
Thrissur has a culturally rich diaspora, comprising Hindus and a good number of Christians and Muslims. So on Sundays, church drop in at Bharath for a steamy breakfast of idlis and coffee. “They ask us to parcel breakfast so that they can collect it when they return home after church. They always demand extra sambar so that they can use it for lunch as well,” says Vijaykumar.
The brothers are proud of their repeate clientele, fed on a staple diet of crisp ghee roasts and steaming puttu - kadalai since the 80s. Their hair has greyed, but they still troop in with their children and grandchildren. “They praise us for our consistency in taste,” says Rajkumar.
However, the brothers say they have noticed a change in the new generation’s eating habit thanks to a profusion of restaurants and lifestyle changes.
For instance, during the Thrissur pooram, a city-based carnival of percussion music and firecrackers that attracts tourists from all over the world, the Bharat team has traditionally pulled up their socks to get ready to welcome the flood of people that flock the city.
Pooram always meant great business. Once, they even had to set up an extended pandhal outside the hotel to contain the crowd, recalls Vijaykumar. “Malayalis from across the state come and they would invariably stay three days in the town till the pooram got over. However, now, with everyone having a car, many prefer to just come for a day and go back home. That has hit sales. The earlier crowd used to heavily depend on transport buses. They could not afford to return home the very day. Also, many biryani and ice cream stalls have mushroomed in the pooram ground,” rues Vijaykumar.
He says the modern generation’s approach to food has changed too. Earlier, even ordinary diners used to be food connoisseur, says Vijaykumar. “They would give us expert opinions on preparation methods. Now, current customers do not even know the names of some of the dishes.
Another issue is food wastage. Today’s kids end up ordering more than what their appetite allows, unlike how in the earlier days people ate just enough to satisfy their hunger.” A responsible eating culture has faded away, the brothers observe.
This weekly column takes a peek at some of the most iconic restaurants