So you think Indian food is just chicken tikka masala and palak paneer? Think again.
Recently, I’ve settled into a familiar morning routine: a masala dosa and sweet milk coffee in a simple canteen just down the street. Attendants make their rounds with metal pails full of sambar and colorful wet chutneys, ensuring that all customers have ample supply, more than enough to eat.
The activity, the flow, the smell and most certainly the taste all make me feel at home.
Though I’m physically in one of Kuala Lumpur’s Indian neighborhoods as I write this, these morning moments take me back to our travels through India, and more specifically southern India. There, as my taste buds adapted to the flavors and style of South Indian cuisine, the masala dosa emerged as our savory breakfast of champions.
“South Indian cuisine? Isn’t all Indian food the same?” you might ask.
Not at all, even by the standards of my amateur taste buds.
South Indian cuisine is distinct. If you don’t think so, just get a food passionate northerner and southerner from India together in the same room and ask, “Which is better, food from the North or the South?” God forbid, you get someone from Mumbai to debate whether chaat (street snacks) are even better.
Here’s the deal with Indian food: most Indian restaurants in the West serve northern Indian (or Punjabi style) food – rich, creamy curries and sauces; dishes like butter chicken, navratan korma, tandoori baked meats and naan bread.
In southern India, vegetarian meals are the norm. Instead of the cream, South India goes for seeds, popped spices, tomatoes, and various dals (lentils) used as accompaniments. Theirs is also a style of eating that incorporates light meals and snacks, known as tiffins, throughout the day.
The first few times I tried masala dosai outside of India, I wasn’t impressed. Only in Fort Cochin (Kochi), India did I eventually warm to them. By the time we arrived in nearby Kollam, I was hooked. There was something so perfect in the combination of the crispness and nutty flavor of a dosa (a thin, large pancake made from a batter of ground rice and urad dal) and the mildly spiced crushed potato mixture inside (that’s the masala).
Add to this the pails of sauce that circulate in a typical South Indian cafeteria: sambar (a slightly sour-savory sauce made from tur dal, tamarind, and vegetables) and various wet chutneys, including ones made with popped mustard seeds and ground coconut (white), chili/mint/coriander (green), and tur dal chutney (red).
A full treatment of dosai – including Mysore, rava, onion and all permutations thereof — could well be the topic of a tasty dissertation.
A dosa – in all of its wet topping goodness – is typically eaten with the right hand. South Indian restaurants have a sink at the back to wash your hands, before and after, but don’t be afraid to ask for a fork and spoon if you feel uncomfortable digging in with your paws.
2. Banana Leaf Thali
Thalis are like many little meals in one, a little buffet on a banana leaf or metal tray. For the small plate snackers in us, a joy to eat. Simple and beautiful.
A large pile of rice forms the base and smaller piles or tin cups of curries, chutneys, pickle can be found in orbit. Topped off with a chapati bread round or papadum and you are all set. The idea: salty, sweet, sour and bitter merge in the mouth in one sitting.
On our first day in Kochi, we poked into a vegetarian restaurant for lunch and had our first real South Indian thali served on a banana leaf. Piles of red rice in the center with endless ladles of dal (lentil), sambar, and cooked vegetables to go with. Typically, it’s all you can eat, and the price runs roughly $1-$2.
Think of a fried, savory and dense donut and you’ve got a vada. It’s the dal, lentil, gram flour and occasional potato mash that provide the vada its heft. It can be eaten straight as a snack on the street or taken in a restaurant with the familiar sides of sambar and wet chutneys.
Savory, steamed saucer-like cakes made of a batter from fermented black lentils and rice. The result is soft, almost fluffy. And, you guessed it – they are served with the side pails of sambar and wet chutneys.
When faced with the choice, we’ll choose a dosa or vada to an idli, but don’t hold that against them. Idli are especially popular in the morning and appealing, particularly after they’ve been steamed fresh.
5. Kozhikode Biryani
I used to think of biryani as an inferior dish on the menu, akin to Chinese fried rice. I also used to think of it as only northern Indian. But then we tasted what we called “community biryani” in Kollam served straight from a pot meant to feed hundreds, the taste was surprisingly complex: cinnamon sticks, star anise, cumin, cardamom, even a little coconut milk.
We usually found biryani in the Muslim areas of towns in southern India. They were often served with mutton, but there were vegetarian versions, too (especially when the local mosque is serving it for free). You can spot the biryani shops: men out front stirring a massive pot of colored rice, stewing and stirring it until the spices have settled in.
6. Yogurt rice (or curd rice)
We first recall hearing of this dish when we lived in Prague. A friend there had spent a couple years living in Chennai and this fast became her Indian comfort food.
Curd rice is made with lightly fried spices such as mustard seed, cumin, coriander leaves, asafoetida (stinky, but good for the tummy) and turned with plain yogurt (or curd). It serves as a cooling agent both from the spice of South Indian food and from the intense Indian heat that sometimes leaves you without an appetite. A tip for tummy-troubled travelers out there: it’s often used to nurse upset stomachs back to health.
7. Coffee Wallah Special
When the show’s over and you are filled to the gills, take a glass of Indian-style coffee or milk chai served with lots of milk and sugar (heresy to the hard-core coffee aficionados, I know). Indian coffee wallahs will toss the piping hot milk and coffee between two metal cups until it’s well-blended and at the perfect drinking temperature.
Fun to watch.
So next time you are in India or on the hunt for Indian food, be on the lookout for South Indian cuisine. The dishes may not be as creamy as your favorites from the north, but no less tasty. And like us, maybe you’ll find that the more you eat it the more you’ll grow to love it.
As I strike the final key, I’m preparing to leave for the airport and planning a dinner strategy. I think it’s time to hit the cafeteria for one last dosa before boarding my flight to Amman, Jordan.
These are a few of our favorite South Indian dishes. What are yours?