A Pulao I Once Knew

Google Maps threw us off a bit, as the streets got ever narrower and the pedestrian traffic steadily increased. Maneuvering the white rented scooter around stray dogs, ladies with baskets of flowers on their heads, and the odd gaping hole in the road, we pushed forward until we decided it would be in our best interest to stop and ask for directions.

“Uncle, Where is Hanumanthu Hotel?”

“Straight hogi, Straight,” he replied, drawing out the last word as his moustache expanded to arch over his upper lip, emphasising the straightness of the way we were supposed to go, and the length of the straightness. Further ahead, the roads didn’t get much more vehicle friendly as they were further encroached upon by carpet salesmen and trinket peddlers.

My memory didn’t serve as much of a guide either, since the last time I was in Mysore I was still wearing shorts to school. I remember the road to Hanumanthu being much broader, but to be fair I never actually went to the place myself. I would wait in the car with my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother while my uncle and my brother would disappear for about fifteen minutes. They would then reappear with a plastic packet that held multiple brown leaf-wrapped bundles stacked on top of each other. Inside each leaf bundle was Mysore’s biggest draw for my family. We’ve been to the palace, and even to the zoo a couple times, but the only Mysore resident that would come to warrant its own day trip was Hanumanthu’s Mutton Pulao.

Despite traveling all the way there to eat this pulao, we never once ate inside the hotel itself. We would drive out of Mysore till we found a scenic bit of highway. We’d then pour out of our old white Omni van and my grandmother would retrieve the plates and spoons she packed from home. There we would sit, in and around the car, and eat warm-ish pulao as cars zoomed past.

To me, a pulao was an exclusively vegetarian affair, and hence I was skeptical about this alleged mutton pulao. Any kind of rice with carrots in it was a kind of rice I wanted nothing to do with. After poking around for a bit I was happy to find no carrots buried within. “This doesn’t taste like pulao at all” was what I remember saying after I took my first bite. To be honest, I don’t remember what it tasted like. What I am sure of is catching a knowing smile on my uncle’s face from the corner of my eye. This smile disappeared the moment I turned to look at him, as he became suddenly interested in a nearby tree.

We stopped a second time and asked a flower seller with a white beard and an even whiter kurta for directions. He raised a finger and pointed ahead, assuring us that it was just beyond that fruit stall. The pink and black board came into view that proudly trumpeted “Serving People Since 1930”, above the bold letters that spelt out Hotel Hanumanthu (Original) in a loud gradient. The sign was underlined by a garland of orange and yellow marigold flowers. The fabled Hanumanthu did exist, and it sat nestled between a ‘Chicken Centre’ and a liquor store.

The hotel was more like a corridor, with seating along the sides and a red carpet leading from the door to a table at the far side. A man stood behind this table which held a big stainless steel vessel. There were men sitting on the benches that ran along the sides, hunched over mounds of brownish rice. There was only one woman present, sitting at the far left corner from the door.

 

 

L went in first and was pointed to an empty spot right next to the table with the large vessel of pulao. We stood for a while and looked at the menu, a laminated piece of yellow paper with text the colour of in-your-face red, which was sparse and to the point. We had the choice between two kinds of pulao:  Chicken and Mutton (a token vegetarian option was also present), while the rest of the menu spoke of things like Chicken Kebab, Beja Fry, and Chicken Chops. A short man in a striped shirt asks us what we wanted. We settled on one plate of Mutton Pulao and a plate of kebab since the beja fry and the chicken chops were both unavailable.

There was a door behind the sectioned off part of the hotel from which barefooted men appeared and disappeared. They were carrying plates of kebabs and buckets of pulao to refill the vessel that stood on the table. The wall we were facing was decorated with framed newspaper cut-outs that praised the establishment, along with a few photos of celebrities I could not recognize. L points out that a popular Kannada food show had been here and left a ‘Certificate of Recommendation’, depicting a content looking man in a white shirt. Framed photos of various gods lined the other wall.

We didn’t have to wait for too long for our food to arrive. The kebabs were a deep red and dusted with chaat masala, served on a small stainless steel plate. The man in the striped shirt then brought our pulao, carrying it like it was a small defenseless animal. It arrived as a mound on a plate made of brown leaves that were stitched together. The rice was speckled with random spices and chillies. The mutton glistened in the bright fluorescent tube lighting of Hanumanthu.

L said that the rice was very fragrant, but I couldn’t smell anything in particular. Two small saucers of raitha and non-descript brown gravy materialised before us without my noticing. The rice looked dry at first glance and I was worried we’d come to the wrong place. The need to mention the word ‘Original’ on the sign seemed a little more suspicious.

 

 

On the first mouthful, I braced myself for dry, rough rice that robs your mouth of moisture and goes down your throat with the same ease as a laddoo, swallowed whole. What I found was quite different. The rice sat at the happy peak between overcooked and what someone on Masterchef would generously call al dente. Most rich food piles on the feeling of guilt with each mouthful, weighing you down with a sense of heaviness that comes from having too many nice things at the same time. The good people at Hanumanthu have found a way to work around this problem, either through clever cooking methods or occult summoning circles. The spices that flavour the rice leave behind a pleasant aftertaste, keeping the rear of your mouth ever so slightly below room temperature.

Since we sat down to eat, three whole sets of people had come and gone around us. While we leisurely enjoyed each bite, everyone else seemed content to demolish their respective mounds with four or five mouthfuls. Though the hotel was filled with the static buzz of conversation, nobody turned to face the person they were talking to, electing instead to talk directly into their food.

There was a small washbasin at the other side of the hotel, to the left of the door. We took turns going to wash up, as we were, like all good tourists, paranoid about leaving our bags alone for any duration of time. We paid for our meal, which was Rs. 330 in total, with a debit card. The man behind the stainless steel vessel wrestled with the card machine for a few minutes as he mumbled things about demonetization, but our rented scooter soon purred back to life and we were on our way to see what else Mysore had to offer.

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Kevin Mathews

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