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Situated between the coastal belt of the Arabian Sea and the hilly regions of the Western Ghats, Manipal offers visitors an opportunity to experience two distinct culinary traditions, the Malvani (coastal) and the Malnad (rain-fed hills). Fresh local produce like pepper, coconut, jaggery, curry leaves, cashew nut, tamarind, are employed in a wide range of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Seafood lovers can enjoy fresh catch of the day cooked in aromatic spices. Rice is the staple diet of the region and one can sample several indigenous varieties. Many of the famed local delicacies are rice-based, such as kori-rotti (thin rice wafers served with a lush coconut milk curry), neer-dosa (delicate rice pancakes), and sannas (steamed rice cakes).

This region is credited with giving birth to a flourishing restaurant tradition of delicious South Indian food known as the Udupi Hotels, now to be found all over India and the world. The story of this cuisine is closely tied with the 12th century temple of Lord Krishna in Udupi (5 kms from Manipal) where many of these vegetarian dishes, like the masala dosa, were said to have originated as ritualistic offerings. The vibrant temple complex even today hosts many food establishments that are over a hundred years old and continue to be patronized by a traditional and discerning clientele.

Due to its large pan-Indian and international student populations, the town of Manipal in particular offers food-lovers an impressive variety of cuisines, whether fine-dining or street food. Locally-brewed alcoholic beverages made from coconut (toddy) and cashew (feni) are also popular with adventurous visitors.