It was inevitable that where writers and artists were so vigorously appreciated, there should be appreciation for good food as well. Intellectuals needed meeting places where they could hold discussions over coffee. Nor would routine coffee do. Artists, musicians and wordsmiths were by nature connoisseurs of flavours who could separate the good from the very good. A culinary culture developed around Basavangudi, signalling the emergence of a food protocol that was to dominate South Indian cuisine.

When Mahalaxmi Tiffin Room opened in Basavangudi in 1926, its superior khaali dosai became an instant favourite.

In the 1930s, attracted by the large number of students in the area, a student canteen opened in Gandhi Bazaar with a name directly aimed at them: Vidyarthi Bhavan. The exceptional quality of its dosais and coffee quickly won over the intellectual set. The great Masti Venkatesha Iyengar would stop at Vidyarthi Bhavan and stuff his coat pocket with a supply of rava vadai before resuming his daily walk to the Basavangudi Club – an act of disloyalty the “Masti Club” overlooked in recognition of Vidyarthi Bhavan’s virtues.

But smoking was prohibited in VB, so one set of writers moved to the Circle Lunch Home across the street. As the CLH was more spacious and located at a junction, it became a favourite among politicians who could address the public from its terrace and then gather over coffee to plot against one another. Thoughtfully, CLH kept a room upstairs reserved for writers, poets and aspiring thought leaders. So heated were the discussions in this room and so thick the smoke that filled it that the literati started complaining about Kannada sahitya developing a cough during its CLH phase.

The defining nuances of Basavangudi’s cultural construct or the influences that made literature bond with food were never explained to me by my friend YNK despite his being not only a pillar of Basavangudi but also my coach on matters gastronomical. In the early days of our friendship, he did not even take me to Gandhi Bazaar though he was a daily presence at Vidyarthi Bhavan where movie stars, budding poets and short story writers would meet him for advice. He would tell a poet that his natural talent lay in prose, advise a short story writer to turn his piece into a screenplay.

From the time he was an editor at Prajavani, a flagship of the Deccan Herald group, YNK – no one called him YN Krishnamurthy; most did not even know that was his full name – had become Bangalore’s sought-after mentor of writers, playwrights, film makers, poets and actors of both stage and screen.

After he took over as editor of the Indian Express Group’s Kannada Prabha, he saw me as someone who needed his special attention. I was attracted by his easy-going ways, his friendliness and simplicity, his conversation studded with anecdotes. I was not aware of his status in the Kannada world or the influence he wielded. To me he was a pleasant companion and a sharer of dreams; at one point we floated the ABC Club for the study of Arts, Books and Cinema, even registered a trust for the purpose – that was as far as it went.

Through these adventures and expeditions YNK was trying to convert me, an English-speaking import with the redolence of a non-resident Indian, into a Bangalorean, if not a Kannadiga. He appointed himself my guide, educator and overseer, taking me to places I would not otherwise have known, telling me stories I would not otherwise have believed, and exposing me to events and personalities I would not otherwise have discovered. He was carrying out a mission the import of which I did not see at the time. As I became aware of YNK’s power in the ideational circles of Bangalore, I realised that his acceptance of me as a close friend gave me a degree of legitimacy in segments of the Kannada universe usually barred to those who did not speak the language.

But YNK was not the pushy type. He would open doors and leave me to find the way myself. He would give me insights into Kannada literature and aesthetics, not in the form of lectures, but through jokes and anecdotes and puns. A one-liner that found its way into local folklore was that Kuvempu did not name his sons but sentenced them.

I did not get it until I heard the full names of the writer’s two sons – Poornachandra Tejaswi and Kokilodaya Chaitra. An admirer of Kuvempu sentenced her son to Vajra Manasa Phalguna. YNK’s armoury of stories, coinages and jokes was a factor behind his becoming, without a novel or play of his own, a central figure in Kannada’s cultural milieu.

Ultimately, though, it was the epicurean in YNK who truly expanded my horizons.

He revealed to me a world where food was not just a physical element related to hunger but a subtle means to the understanding of ambrosia. As a citizen of Basavangudi, YNK had grasped this truth; now he took it upon himself to bring me to enlightenment.

He did it his own way, as always. As the sun showed signs of calling it a day, he would close his desk and set out on his expeditions, saying it was PhD time – Precious Hours of Drinking. That was just a pose, as I soon discovered. Even as a social drinker, he was desultory. He would take a small whisky, fill the glass to the brim with a 50-50 mixture of soda and water, stir it clockwise for ten minutes, then anticlockwise for ten minutes. He would take nearly an hour to finish the first drink, then show no interest in a refill.

If the social occasion called for one more, he would repeat the clockwise-anticlockwise drill, take a sip or two, then slip unobtrusively to the rest room – never to be seen again for the rest of the night. Whatever the occasion and whoever the VIP present, YNK would get back to his Gandhi Bazaar home around 10 in the night to have his quiet rice meal.

Food, not liquor, was YNK’s love. He should have defined PhD as Precious Hours of Dining, for he was always in search of new eateries and new dishes he could call “the world’s best”.

One evening he took me to a small decrepit shop on a busy one-way street in Malleswaram, a box-like joint squeezed into the space between a used-tyre shop on one side and a maternity home on the other, leaving just about six feet as shop front. A board carried the name Veena Stores. This was the place, YNK said, where you got the world’s best idli-vadai. The shop owner knew YNK. (This was another thing about the man. Every eatery owner in Bangalore knew him and he knew not just the owners but a great many waiters as well, by name.)

“Get an extra helping of the chutney, it’s the world’s best,” YNK said, pointing to a security guard seated on a footpath stool and serving the spicy mixture from a large pot in front of him. Paper plates with our orders safely in hand, complete with the chutney, I said: “Good. Where do we sit?”

“Sit?” exclaimed YNK. “We don’t sit. We stand on the footpath and eat. This is Veena Stores. This is the world’s best idli-vadai.”

I have gone past Veena Stores many times since, looking at the queue that snaked past the tyre store and round the bend at the next cross road. The chutney man was always there. Once I stopped and joined the queue and, spooning in the chutney, whispered to YNK who was no longer with me, that it was still the world’s best.

Nearby was the Central Tiffin Room, another landmark where YNK had helped me enjoy the speciality, benne dosai, “the world’s best”. In his Basavangudi itself was Brahmins’ Coffee Bar, bigger than Veena Stores and more crowded, but identical in the use of the footpath as the dining area. Customers never seemed to bother, for BCB’s idli-vadai-chutney was celebrated.

Explorations with YNK taught me that while food is notoriously localised (North Karnataka food is different in concept and taste from Mysore food just as Thanjavur sambar is quite unlike Mylapore sambar), the cuisine we were enjoying in and around Basavangudi was a speciality that could be called representative South Indian food. It was South Indian rather than area-specific because it was consciously designed to serve the purposes of tradition common to the south as a whole. It was developed by the professional culinary craftsmen of Karnataka and taken all over the world by the entrepreneurs of Karnataka, but it was generic in its South Indianness, symbolised in a word that became universal – Udupi.

Excerpted with permission from Askew: A Short Biography of Bangalore, TJS George, Aleph Book Company.