Karnataka’s Coastal 7 Iconic Vegetarian Dishes

Rooted in South Indian traditions but with influences from the state's coastal regions, Karnataka is home to numerous beloved vegetable dishes that have been staples for generations. From saagu, ragi mudde, and thatte idlis, these dishes exemplify the region's emphasis on nutrition and balanced flavours.

As per reports, Karnataka has the highest percentage of vegetarians compared to its southern sister states. It is not an overwhelming majority, at 21.1 percent, but it is a significant amount when it comes to governing the local dishes of the coastal state. The state also loves it dairy products. This vegetarian sect is dominated by upper caste communities, who have a huge role to play in the history and existence of most of the vegetarian dishes in the state. Here are some of them:

1. Thatte Idli

Thatte Idli is a large, thick rice cake originating from Bidadi town in Karnataka. It derives its name from the round metal plates or 'thatte' it is steamed in. The idli batter is made by soaking and grinding rice, and black gram into a smooth paste, which is left to ferment overnight. Salt is added to the bubbly batter before spreading it onto heated thatte plates. The idlis are steamed for 15–20 minutes until cooked through. Eating two or three equals one thatte idli in size and volume, making it very filling. Served hot with coconut chutney and sambar, thatte idlis are a hearty breakfast commonly found in restaurants along highways between Bengaluru and Mysuru.

2. Udupi Sambar

Just like the great Biryani debate, the great Sambar debate continues to rage on. Karnataka’s version of Udupi sambar is considered the signature dish of Karnataka cuisine from its coastal region. It derives its unique flavour from a blend of tamarind extract, which provides the tang, and jaggery, which balances the spice with sweetness. The rest of the ingredients are the same, with the preparation method differing slightly. Udupi sambar is said to have a thinner consistency than its other counterparts. Udupi sambar is an emotion for the Kannadigas, or the locals, who grew up with this staple lentil dish from the state.

3. Saagu

Vegetable saagu is a classic Kannada dish that is a staple in South Indian households. A blend of seasonal vegetables like potatoes, carrots, beans, and peas are simmered in a rich, coconut-based gravy seasoned with aromatic spices. The home cook first roasts whole spices. The spices are then ground to a fine paste along with grated coconut. This aromatic masala is mixed into the partially cooked vegetables and left to simmer until the flavours are well blended. The resulting saagu has a creamy, nutty texture and is bursting with the layered tastes of the spices. Its warmth and aroma have made saagu a beloved part of South Indian breakfast spreads. 

4. Haalbai

Haalbai is a traditional sweet from Karnataka made from rice batter, coconut milk, and jaggery. To make it, idli/dosa rice is soaked and ground to a fine paste. This rice batter is mixed with coconut milk and cooked in a pan with jaggery. The mixture thickens to form a sweet cake-like consistency. Cardamom powder is often added for flavour. The hot mixture is spread onto a plate and cut into cubes after cooling. Each piece of haalbai is soft from within and slightly crisp outside, with a rich, sweet taste from jaggery and coconut. Being made with natural ingredients like rice and jaggery, haalbai is a healthy festive sweet enjoyed in Karnataka.

5. Ragi Mudde

A staple food from Central Karnataka made from finger millet flour, Ragi Mudde, also known as hittu. To make it, ragi flour is mixed with water to form a dough-like paste, which is cooked on a pan. The hot paste is shaped into balls the size of a tennis ball. Ragi Mudde is known for being nutritious but bland, so it is usually eaten dipped in sambar or rasam for flavour. The rasam-soaked mudde is swallowed whole without chewing to fully enjoy the blend of tastes. Ragi Mudde provides fibre, calcium, and other minerals to the diet. It remains a popular meal in the districts of Hasan and Chikmagalur, where restaurants proudly serve this traditional food.

Image Credit: Cookpad

6. Benne Dose

Butter Dosa or Davanagere Benne Dose is a specialty of Davanagere known for its generous use of butter. The dosa batter, made from fermented rice and urad dal, results in a light and crispy dosa. It is topped with a large knob of butter that quickly melts into the hot dosa. Variations include the plain Benne Khali Dose or the Benne Masala Dose stuffed with spicy potato smash. Served with coconut chutney and sambar, the flavours complement the bland dosa. Some restaurants specialise in extra-long dosas, over three feet, which are sufficient for a family. While it is best to eat it locally in Davanagere, the dosa can also be found in restaurants throughout Karnataka.

7. Akki Rotti

Akki Rotti is a traditional rice-based flatbread from the coastal state. It is made by mixing rice flour with onions, carrots, curry leaves, grated coconut, coriander, and spices. The dough is kneaded well, applied to banana leaves, flattened into circles, and cooked on a tawa. Akki Rotti is high in carbohydrates, sodium, and potassium. It is best enjoyed hot, either on its own or paired with spicy coconut or tomato chutneys. Several restaurants in Bengaluru serve delicious akki rottis, especially Malleshwaram's Halli Mane, Rajajinagar's Nalapaka, and Basavanagudi's South Thindis.

These dishes exemplify the balance of nutrition, flavours, and cultural significance that define Karnataka's vegetarian cuisine. Most of these preparations have sustained the people of the state for centuries. With their unique techniques and use of indigenous ingredients, these iconic dishes remain an integral part of Karnataka's identity.