I may be wading into the Kaveri here, but a question arose recently in a mixed group about whether the Karnataka or the Tamilnadu interpretation of the classic idli-dosa breakfast was better.

Naturally the Kannadigas all thought that the Tamil sambar was the pits. It lacked jaggery which gave it that sweet-sour flavour that Kannadigas love and Tamilians hate.

The Tamilians thought that Kannadigas had no idea about how to serve idli or dosa. Where are the tri-coloured chutneys, demanded one Tamilian? And why is the sambhar runny?

As far as vadas go, both parties agreed that Karnataka had cracked the classic medhu-vada or uddin-vada as it is called here. In Tamilnadu you can get tired, soggy, sodden vadas unless you do some due diligence and choose the right hotel. In Karnataka, and specifically in Bangalore, it is hard to find a bad vada.

The real question had to do with idlis and dosas. Which do you prefer– the Chennai or the Bangalore version?


But first, let me lay out the rules of this particular battle. It is only based on tiny tiffin restaurants—called darshinis here in Bangalore. Your mother’s idli or dosa may be the best in the world but we don’t have access to that. We however have access to idlis from Veena Stores, Murugan Idli or Brahmin’s. The question is: which side of the border makes a better idli and dosa?

Some part of it is the batter. Do you use the 1:4 proportion of urad dal to rice or the 1:3? But this, I find, varies within families let alone states.

The difference, I think, is how a Kannadiga thinks of an idli versus a Tamilian. For a Kannadiga, the idli and chutney are both soloists playing a duet with each other. Bangaloreans obsess over the quality of the single white chutney that is served in most darshinis. Some go just for the chutney. Variety is not what they seek. They want quality in that one item. The idlis are equally important in that they need to be fluffy– spring up when you poke them with your finger.

A Tamilian on the other hand, thinks of an idli as an orchestra. You need at least three types of chutney, beginning with the white chutney, then some hot or “kara” red chutney made with tomatoes and onions, then a green chutney made with pudina or mint, or maybe kothamalli or coriander leaves. Three chutneys of three different colours to complement the white idlis. Then a Tamilian will want some milagai-podi or idli-powder. Finally, a non-jaggery sambar that has enough girth to float said idli. As for the idlis, they need to be as white and soft as a jasmine flower.

Why are Kannadigas not interested in multiple chutneys? One theory is that Udupi Brahmins who invented the masala dosa to hide the onions that they wanted to eat had those same restrictions when it came to chutney. They couldn’t do a red chutney because it contained onion.

The Tamil chutney was not similarly constrained. You could add garlic to the chutney if you felt like it and indeed a ginger chutney makes a fine addition to the Tamil idli platter. Hence the Kannada idli did a duet with the white chutney whereas the Tamil idli was the centerpiece of an chutney-laden orchestra.

The difference is just as stark when it comes to dosas. A Bangalorean wants a specific type of dosa made popular by MTR, Maiyas, Vidyarthi Bhavan and CTR among others. This dosai has to be thick, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The batter is less fermented relative to Tamil dosas, maybe because the weather is cooler in Bangalore. The batter has some avalakki or beaten rice in it, and perhaps a touch of jaggery, because the outside looks carmelised, almost black.

This whole dosa-concept is anathema to a Tamilian. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a Tamilian dosai is the opposite of a Kannadiga dosai. Tamilians want a golden brown dosai that is long and thin. It should be crispy outside, but because it isn’t as thick, this dosai will also crumple like a sigh after a few minutes on the plate. It will not hold its shape like a thick Kannadiga dosa. Tamilians cannot handle the level of ghee and oil that is poured on dosas in Karnataka.

What about the other ingredients of a South Indian breakfast? The Tamil upma versus the Kannada khara-bhaath.  No question.  The latter is better.  The vada too is better here in Karnataka.  The pongal though is better in Tamilnadu in my opinion.  It is thicker.  And for those who think that Tamilian dishes are just over-the-top with too many chutneys and sambars, I give you the pongal.  It is often served with just one accompaniment—a brinjal gotsu or a white chutney.  A well-made pongal, my brother says, must be eaten in reverential silence.

Karnataka has many more breakfast options relative to Tamilnadu—and this is perhaps why they lag in the number of chutneys area.  At home in Karnataka, people eat akki (rice) roti, ragi mudde (ragi balls), avalakki (beaten rice), or neer dosa for breakfast.  Why then would you invent so many chutneys to go with your dosai when you aren’t even eating dosas for breakfast at home?

The only thing left is the filter coffee. 

Where is it better– in Tamilnadu or Karnataka?

Here, both places are even in my opinion, although Bangalore’s coffee is a tad better because most of the coffee estates are just a few hours away.

So which state does a better breakfast? Karnataka or Tamilnadu? Your call.

Subscribe to my newsletter