The Champion of India
For learning Kannada will at once endear you to thousands of restaurant operators in many parts of India, except of course, Karnataka. There everyone speaks Kannada, so you have to go a mile further to learn the specific dialect of this restaurant-owning class.
In many parts of India, you will find a class of restaurants called 'Udupi Hotels' (In India a restaurant is normally called a hotel). These are run as family businesses by the community of Shettys, who originally hail from the South Canara district of Karnataka state. These hotels (its easier for me to use the word hotels) serve only vegetarian food, of quite edible quality. Their speciality, of their own invention, famous all over India and now increasingly abroad, is masala dosa.
I must confess a personal fondness for masala dosa now, for the rest of the article is in praise of this amazing item of nourishment. Made of a rice and dal batter fermented overnight, smeared thinly over an oiled plate and roasted to crispness, and filled with a mixture of boiled potato and spices, the masala dosa is the creation par excellence of a Shetty hotel. Indeed, it is the chief attraction of such an establishment, and entire culinary reputations are made or ruined by this one dish alone. The chutney and sambhar, mandatorily served alongside, also contribute in no small measure towards the masala-dosaness of the masala dosa!
A little less crisp, and it is what the Tamilians would call maavu (doughy). A little more crisp, it will be burnt. Just that balance - not very easy to achieve. The potato must be properly boiled, not over- or underboiled, and mixed with chillies and salt - neither spicy nor bland. The chutney needs care - an increasing tendency to dilute out the coconut with chana dal is tipping over many hotels to ruination. I can go on and on...
Now for the personal touch. The best place in Chennai (old Madras) is Saravana Bhavan. No doubts, and I guess no Madrasite will disagree. In Bangalore there are several places. Woody's specialises in various kinds. In Pune, seek out Modern Cafe at Shivajinagar. In Mumbai...well, the city is a little too big, and I've not been able to sample everywhere. But I'll vouch for Madras Cafe in King's Circle, Matunga. And Delhi...
That is such a tragedy. I visited that massive, intercalatingly ugly and beautiful city for four days, and spent a huge amount of time hunting for masala dosa. Pathetic, the Dilliwale might say. When we have such great Punjabi dhabas, with incomparable dal makhani and murg massallam, why would any reasonable person want masala dosa? But I'm vegetarian firstly, and secondly and sadly, I cannot confess a liking for such stuff. I went all over the city - Connaught Place, Azadpur, Shahdara and Pusa, but nowhere. Maybe I didn't know where to look.
But everywhere else in India I have been - Ghodegaon, Jabalpur, Mangalore - I have never been so disappointed. Masala dosa was always available, good or bad or ugly. Had along with lassi, the one North Indian item for which I have developed a taste, it is great. Do try it once. I know a Kashmiri who eats only masala dosa when he eats out. it is a reliable thing to eat when travelling. It is truly, the champion of India - Rustom-e-Hind.
Sadly, the taste and hygiene varies greatly among establishments that serve this dish. Most hotels serve a barely edible dish, and many connoisseurs are put off forever. Here is where Kannada comes in. If you talk to the waiter in Kannada, you will immediately establish a connection that is difficult to explain. Far away from his native village, yearning to hear his mother tongue (though he speaks it subconsciously with his colleagues), the waiter will immediately break into a massive smile. Be prepared to face a barrage of questions, and do give him the impression that you like Karnataka and cannot live without masala dosa. I'm not asking you to lie (that will be bad karma), but its not your fault if he misinterprets some of your words. The consequences will be the best dosa the establishment can churn out, apart from royal treatment. It will be a treat.
Don't expect a discount though. These places serve you to budget, get measly tips, and so are normally disinclined to give you any cuts. Once, and only once in a long masala dosa eating career have I been given a discount. Ten percent at a Grant Road, Mumbai eatery, for speaking chaste (okay not so chaste) Kannada.
So coming back to my point, if you want to stay alive while travelling in India, and are doomed to a vegetarian diet, stick to masala dosa. And for the sake of that, learn Kannada.