Before my travel I had little or no experience with Indian cuisine and in fact knew more about the Northern cuisine (served generally in Indian restaurants in Europe) than the one I was about to discover during my trip.
I like spicy foods but I generally prefer fresh vegetables and good quality and tasty meats/fishes grilled with only oil and salt. My father being an Italian Chef I have been more used to eat tasty foods that need little seasoning than gravy dishes with lots of ingredients. So obviously it took some adapting.
As a Parisian I obviously workout and try to eat healthy (most of the time) so I discovered that contrary to other Asian countries that rely on fresh grilled fish, lots of vegetables, salads and soups (I thought that it would be a dietetic journey), South Indian cuisine, namely the cuisine of to the five southern states Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana, is based primarily on rice (lots of it), legumes and lentils. The specific flavors come from blending several spices including curry leaves, mustard seeds, coriander, ginger, garlic, chili, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, green cardamom, cumin, nutmeg, coconut and rosewater.
Most of the curries are made with either cream or ghee (clarified butter) and a typical meal will be accompanied with a flatbread and especially in the South, copious amounts of rice. I largely preferred eating their different varieties of bread but they are also either cooked in oil or brushed with butter or ghee just before serving. So in the end you have a very calorie-dense meal with very little in the way of vegetables which me (but mainly my stomach) really missed during the journey. Besides the dietetic issue, after a week I really felt like eating only salad and fruits because I am not used to eating rich dishes every day (I was just out of Christmas celebrations so at least I had had some training in the previous weeks). Anyways, there are many tasty and healthy dishes but you just need to know them!
Food is generally classified into six tastes, to which Westerner are not used to and can make you feel a little confused about what you are eating:
- Sweet: milk, butter, sweet cream, wheat, ghee (clarified butter), rice, and honey
- Sour: limes and lemons, citrus fruits, yogurt, mango, and tamarind
- Salty: salt or pickles
- Bitter: bitter gourd, greens of many kinds, turmeric, and fenugreek
- Pungent: chili peppers, ginger, black pepper, clove, and mustard
- Astringent: beans, lentils, turmeric, vegetables like cauliflower and cabbage, and cilantro
Tamil Nadu cuisine
Because my hosts were from this region we mostly ate Tamil Nadu dishes (they were ordering), although you can find similarities across the states (as an European I did not always spot the differences between dishes that were supposedly different). Differences come mainly from the spiciness and the name of the dishes that can vary from one state to another.
Fast foods, or light meals are served for breakfast and early dinners, but usually not as a midday meal. I realized while writing this post that while traveling we mainly had this kind of food as we were eating big breakfasts and many snacks all day long so I will be focusing mainly on these dishes:
- idli: it is a small, white, spongy cake made out of lentils and rice. It is a popular breakfast item in India but many people enjoy it as a snack. Since plain idlis are mild in taste, a condiment is essential: generally sambar but also chutnies (coconut based), kaara chutney (onion based) or Spicy Fish Curries. This is the safest dish when feeling unwell!!
- idiyappam: same as idly but the rice flour is pressed into noodle form and then steamed.
- dosa: popular breakfast item, dosas are similar to crepes, but are thinner and crispier. Made with fermented rice and lentils, they are generally made large and can take up a whole plate! Small pieces of the dosa are broken from the big piece and paired with chutney before eating. There are different types of dosas, but most dosas are filled with potato stuffings in the middle on the inside.
- parotta/porotta/barotta is a layered flatbread made from maida flour. This is my absolute favorite! It is prepared by kneading maida, egg (in some recipes), oil or ghee and water (yes very light).
- aappam: fluffy crepes made from a fermented batter of rice and black gram mixture, which is made into a thin consistency. It is poured over a hot pan and spread evenly by rotating the pan.
- uthappam: a dosa variety, which is slightly thick fluffy and soft.
- poori: deep-fried Indian bread
- uppma: made from wheat or rava, added with onion, green chillies. May also be substituted with broken rice granules, flattenned rice flakes, or almost any other cereal grain instead of broken wheat.
They are accompanied with one or many of the appropriate side dishes like sambar (a thick stew of lentils with vegetables and seasoned with exotic spices) and chutneys and the meal always ends with a hot filter coffee, the signature beverage of Tamil Nadu made by mixing frothed and boiled milk with the decoction obtained by brewing finely ground coffee powder in a traditional Indian filter.
For lunch you will have a meal (called Saapadu) which consists of rice with other typical Tamilan spicy and non-spicy dishes on a banana (plantain) leaf or a stainless steel tray plate with a selection of different dishes in small bowls. Before eating on the banana leaf you pour some water on it to clean it, then use it as a plate and after your meal close it in half to make the table clean and show that you are finished.
While North Indian thali (meals) consists mainly Indian breads like roti, paratha and naan, Tamil meals (Saapadu) comes mostly with rice. A banana, beeda, and a glass of juice or lassi will be offered at the end of the meal.
Although most of Tamil people would also eat not vegetarian food (except some casts), on a typical day people will eat mostly vegetarian food, and the intake of meat is lower than in most parts of the world. In fact restaurants serving Tamil food are traditionally of two types – so ones serving only vegetarian food and the ones serving both non vegetarian and vegetarian food and serving people from all castes and religions.
For non-vegetarian meals the first and second courses are usually biryani, a specially prepared rice dish with different layers that are mixed together with different seasonings, vegetables, and or meats. It can be offered with vegetables, chicken, beef, lamb, or even seafood gravies. Raita, a type of yogurt dressing is often given to pair with the briyani. There are more than 40 versions of briyani in South India and although I am not a fan of rice in general it is the preferred dish of South Indian families.
Desserts are sweet dishes generally served at the end of the meal, including:
(also known as Kheer, payasam, phirni, gil-e-firdaus and fereni) is a rice pudding made by boiling rice, broken wheat, tapioca, or vermicelli with milk and sugar; it is flavoured with cardamom, raisins, saffron, cashews, pistachios or almonds. Paayasam is usually served at the end as a dessert to finish the meal.
- Sakkarai Pongal: Pongal is one of the most popular four day long harvest festival celebrated in Tamil Nadu that falls in mid January (at work in France all my Indian colleagues were in fact celebrating it a few weeks ago). It is like a Thanksgiving occasion to nature. Chakkara/ Sakkarai Pongal is a delicacy made from newly harvested rice. It is cooked with jaggery, ghee and cashew nuts and is offered to sun god.
- Rava Kesari: is the easiest and very popular sweet, is a pudding made from semolina, flavored with spices and nuts.
- Theratti Paal
and a plethora of other Indian sweets that are all, very, very, very sweet and sometimes oily but always delicious:
South Indian restaurants always have a sink close by to wash your hands. Be sure to do so before and after your meal (also because you eat with your hands).
The food I will remember
Pani Puri, a small crisp hollow round bread filled with spiced water, tamarind paste, potato, onion, and chickpeas. Perfect when you’re craving a thousand flavors at once.
How to have them? challenging a friend to a contest of who can eat more of these, and then feeling like your mouth is on fire.
Karnataka cuisine is very diverse but similar to Tamil cuisine. Described as the mildest in terms of spice content of the five southern states cuisines, there is a generous use of jaggery, palm sugar and little use of chili powder. In fact people from Karnataka are notorious for their sweet tooth (considering how sweet the rest of South India states already eat it is worth mentioning).
We only stayed one day in Mangluru and had Domino’s pizza for dinner, so unfortunately I have not much to say about its food. Except that I has the best meal of my trip so it is worth mentioning.
For breakfast the hotel, like most hotels from this region, was only serving kesari bath , Karnataka’s most popular sweet made from semolina, together with sweet coffee. It is like a sweet pudding flavored with spices and nuts.
For lunch we found a very small restaurant as we were visiting the city. We were immediately attracted by the sight of the cook grilling fishes on the street and by the fabulous smell. Althought it is not recommended to eat on the street it looked too tasty not to have some, and so we ordered what I later discovered is called Rava Fish Fry (we ordered king fish, pomfret and sheela which all tasted heavenly also because all the taste comes from the cooking and the spices). I found a recipe online, I don’t know what it is worth but I is worth trying!
One last tip
One last tip about my absolute favorite dish that I used to have at the beginning of each meal and which I will be making at home: the Sweet Corn Chicken Soup. It is a simple soup that tastes sweet and salty at the same time, made with eggs, chicken and corn!