Mangalorean Buns: A Curious Case of Culinary Cultures

If you ever wondered what happened when a new ingredient arrived at our shores, Mangalore’s favourite snack time treat could be the delicious answer, says Chef Praveen Shetty (Executive Chef,b Conrad Bengaluru)

By Madhulika Dash; Photo courtesy

When it comes to traditional buns, few can rival the addictiveness of Mangalorean Bun – the sweet, soft,airy, fragrant and absolutely delicious tea-time snack (or breakfast) that hails from the land of Udupi cuisine. In fact, thanks to its donut-like interior (some even compare the honeycomb texture to that of the sweet breakfast rolls of the 70s) and crisp puri like exterior (after all, it is fried, deep fried), Mangalorean Buns is among the few innovative dishes from the coastal town of Mangalore that has earned its stripes both as a indulgent breakfast and a happy tea/coffee time treat. In reality though, says Mangalorean cuisine expert Chef Praveen Shetty, “it is one of those few dishes whose transition depends on what is it paired with. Serve it with coconut chutney and it is breakfast, with kottu or mutton ghee roast and it is lunch, put it along with a cup of steaming filter coffee and it is every Mangalorean’s snack-time treat. In fact, such is the versatility of this banana and maida- based delicacy that it even can be served as part of a formal thali and you would think it is the norm.”

While the all-pleasing mouthfeel and familiar taste of bananas give the buns its fame and wide popularity – even elevating it to one of the must-try dishes of Karnataka cuisine – the beauty of the buns, continues the Mangalorean food expert, “is in its making. The story of Mangalorean bun not only brings forth our culture’s inherent ability to adapt and evolve, but also elucidates the role economics and religion had in developing our food culture.”

So where does the tale begin? From the Silk Route era, says the Mangalorean food expert, “ when India was a hotspot for not only spices but a variety of other things including trained elephants and documentation hub. And ports like Mangalore were the hotspot where all the trading, exchange, anchoring and even trademarking of goods happened. This involved a lot of waiting period resulting in temporary settlement across the port town. As traders began to mingle locally, marry and even create their own little ghetto-style areas, they began sharing knowledge, skills, and specially food –which became the finest form of welcoming and imparted a sense of comradery. The portal town of Mangalore aced in this given that the region native communities were mostly made of business communities like the Bunts.”

Fair to assume that maida, its use and its virtues as a flour was very much part of the food exchange that took place since the initial settlers (mostly Arabs) were adept with refined flour. However, it was what happened afterwards that showcased our culinary acumen, elaborates Chef Shetty, “as we put the ingredient to test. While folklore talks about several interesting bread and sweet versions made of maida, the few that stood out for the brilliant culinary marriage was the golibaje, the Mohanaladu and the Mangalorean Bun. Each, of course, was adapted to the popular cooking techniques during the time, which was essentially deep frying (a culinary practice developed and perfected in this region of India) and fermentation, which was one of the foundation pillar of our ancient cuisine.”

The big push to maida-love however, came when the cooks of Udupi temples, who were looking to go beyond the then conventional rules of Satvik bhojan, took to working with the flour and creating dishes that not only fitted their food philosophy but helped them innovate. This is where the culinary exchange in the trading community came to help as they were in the business of creating markets for newer ingredients, especially those they arrived from the trade route. And the best way of introducing new produce to a new market was, adds Chef Shetty, “food. It is said that it was during one of these food expeditions that the Mutt cooks were shown the versatility of maida, which eventually they brought to use when the used maida to create a dish to avoid ripe bananas from going to waste. The result was this light, sweet treat we call Mangalorean Bun or Banana Bun.”

What made them fry the batter instead of turning into a dosa, continues the culinary custodian, “is perhaps the need of not just variety but also innovations that celebrate their food culture; or perhaps the food trend then that made frying one of the most successful mode in food business as it is today. But given our history of wellness-based cuisine, I think, it was a conscious decision to deep fry a fermented dough that has such concentrated flavours,  especially that of natural sugar from over-ripened bananas.”

Deep frying, he continues, “is the only way where the moisture in the dough helps create a pocket that allows the food to cook within a bubble that on the surface reacts with oil producing this crisp exterior. In the case of Mangalorean Buns, it is the same chemistry at work that not only ensures that the buns come out faster, have this nice golden, crisp, nearing kachori (or better, a donut kind) of crispness and bite with a soft, airy inside – features that make it as addictive as a good donut, or even better.”

Result concludes Chef Shetty, “Mangalorean Buns became one of the favourites in no time with each community bringing its own versions, including one made of whole wheat with fennel seeds joining cumin to up the flavour. However, when it comes to ‘indulgence’, nothing quite matches the simple recipe of maida, yogurt and over-ripened bananas dough that is fermented overnight, rekneaded once again to trap more air, and then fried to perfection. It is a treat on its own.”