Google ‘ghee roast’ and one is likely to come across two names: one, Shetty Lunch Home; and two, the spice legend, Mohandas Shetty, who turned his mother Padmavathi’s ghee roast masala recipe into a bestseller, not just in Kundapur where the family had their first restaurant, Shetty Lunch Home (the second, Anupama Restaurant came in Mangalore came a few years after) but across the state (and beyond). Story has it that Padmavathi, an intuitive cook, would often rework her spice mixes, especially the chillies, to create dishes where the masala would be the hero rather than the meat or fresh produce. One such creation was the Chicken Ghee Roast. Distinguished by its extra spicy twang, the brilliance of this version of ghee roast – according to Chef Praveen Shetty (Culinary Director, Conrad Bengaluru), the masala existed in various form since the arrival of chillies on the shore - was the treatment of the masala and the clever pairing of chillies along with the popular Byadgi mirch, which is often called the Kashmiri Mirch of South courtesy the exceptionally bright hue and less pungency. Padmavathi, it is said, would often dry roast her whole spices including the chillies before soaking it till plump and then hand grinding it into the paste. It was this paste that would be used not only as marination (especially meat) but as a finishing tastemaker in most of the meat preparation of the day, especially seafood and meat – the two things the Bunt community is said to be in love with. What made her Ghee Roast popular aside the finger licking taste was the use of ghee not just as a medium of cooking, but to balance the taste. It was with clarified butter that Padmavathi would transform the coarse spicy paste into a flavoursome velvetiness where the lip burning spiciness would turn into one that would nudge one to go for the second, and then the third bite. Fascinatingly when it came to ghee roast while the culinary community is united on the popularity of Chicken Ghee Roast – the dish for which many believe the masala was invented – given Mangalorean’s legendary love for country chicken, says Chef Shetty, “the fact whether it was the chicken that made the ghee roast famous or vice versa is often a subject of zestful discussion.”
What remains beyond any doubt is how widely the simple masala of cumin, coriander, clove, and chillies is used in cooking across the different communities of Mangalore, albeit with a few tweaks like the use of coconut curry or cashew paste. In fact, adds Chef Shetty, “in my place, the ghee roast masala forms the second set of tastemakers for most of the chicken dishes, where the flavour profile is built with ghee.”
In fact, adds Chef Sandeep Sadanandan (Head Chef, Byg Brewski), “ the benchmark of a good ghee roast comes from two things. First, the right proportion of using warm whole spices and chillies; and two, the ghee. The timing of adding the ghee while finishing the dish makes all the difference between a ghee roast that is lip burning hot to one that has these buttery layers of flavours that make you want to eat more, especially the masala.” Chef Sadanandan, who learnt the art of making a simple ghee roast paste using the right quality ingredient, especially the chillies that need to be soaked for at least six hours to get that signature crimson red hue, often refers to ghee roast as an ace spice blend that can turn any ingredient gourmet. Concurs Chef Shetty, who finds the simplicity of the masala, the key to its immense popularity that spans beyond the borders of Kundapur, the rich portal town where the paste is said to have originated. Thanks to its simplicity and versatility, it can pair with any ingredient (meat or otherwise), continues Chef Shetty, “ghee roast as a paste today has as many versions as there are dishes, and the beauty of each varietal is that it has been tweaked to suit the region and palate.”
While the Shetty Ghee Roast, which is said to be the original, is often high on spice; those served by other communities in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the heat level is pared down. Of course, a ghee roast trail through the state also brings in different styles in which the ghee roast is presented: while traditional Udupi style places still keep the heat intact, which, say the chefs, is essential when using the tougher country chicken; the new belt of restaurant often pare the heat with the addition of coconut milk, extra use of fat or with a generous garnish of cashew nuts like in case of Maharaja Family Restaurant in Mangalore – the city where the famous pairing of appam or kori roti.
What is interesting about ghee roast, says culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “is not only the fact that it is a spice blend that often works on intuition rather than a recipe, but also the year of its invention. As a masala that is easily 50 plus year old, it harks to a culinary timeline when chillies had gained a renewed interest in the restaurant culture. And by chillies, I don’t mean the Bhut Jalokia, but those varieties that were known mostly for their colour, aroma, and that typical sweet spicy hit – qualities that made Byadgi chillies a [popular pick. It was also the time when chilli chicken, a dish based on the foreplay of heat and sweetness had also gained its popularity.” Could ghee roast be the result of that culinary curiosity and experimentation? It is a possibility that the seasoned chefs don’t deny, but with ghee roast that made its debut as Kundapur Chicken Roast, the work started way before.