29 June 2016 by Krishna Ghosh
Whether you’re looking for something hearty after exploring the lost empires of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu’s intricate temple complexes, or you’re yearning for some refreshment as you laze down the tropical backwaters of Kerala, southern India provides culinary answers in abundance. Think roadside snacks steamed that morning, freshly caught curried fish and rice dishes that make the most of regional ingredients.
And, while creamy coconut flavourings, an abundance of fresh seafood and the preference for fragrant rice over roti breads distinguish southern from northern cuisine, you’ll witness a rich variance even among the southern states. With so much to choose from, we’ve handpicked the must-eats from our Indian travels and pointed out the mild delicacies for the spice-averse.
The humble dosa is perhaps the south’s signature dish. It’s a large, savoury pancake made from a rice and lentil batter and served with delicately spiced sides. Its often-crispy top provides texture to hot, fluffy pockets, ideal for soaking up sweet chutneys and vegetable stew dips, known as sambar. The result is a happy marriage of rich flavours and belly-filling sustenance. And, while it’s traditionally a breakfast food, you’ll see it enjoyed throughout the day as a full meal or quick snack. They also come with a full range of moreish options with masala spices, crunchy vegetables and rich butters added to the batter.
A variation on a theme, the dosa batter can also be steamed into a savoury cake, known as an idli. The end product is not too dissimilar in taste and texture to the Cantonese dim sum but instead of forming a dumpling wrap, it’s used as a scoop to the now familiar sambar and chutneys. Look for those that have been freshly steamed for best in fluffy bites, making for ideal on-the-go snacks. As with the other battered dishes, you’re expected to pick them up with your fingers.
The idli’s cousin, a vada, is a flour and lentil mix fried into a dense, savoury doughnut. While flavour is imparted by potato (aloo), spinach (saag) or chickpea (chana) added into the batter, the ever-present dips add an extra dimension. For something milder – as with dosas and idlis – opt for yogurt curd or coconut chutney as your dressing. Whatever you choose, there’s nothing like pulling into a station and handing over a few rupees through the windows in exchange for these mouthwatering favourites.
Some say the Biryani was created in the royal Mughal kitchens as a variation of the Persian pilaf while others place it as a feast for travelling armies. All that’s agreed is that each region’s variety is the best. And south India is no different. As something much more than some meat thrown in with rice, biryanis are slow cooked in a giant pot with cinnamon sticks, star anise and stock providing rich flavours to feathery long-grain rice and melt-in-the-mouth lamb. It’s most commonly found in Muslim neighbourhoods and comes presented with the rice as a domed top to a rich curry centre.
Keralan Fish Curry
Referred to as ‘God’s Own Country’, Kerala’s golden beaches, beautifully tiered tea plantations and verdant rice paddies line the western stretch of India’s southern tip. As you’d expect, it’s ideal for seafood with coastal restaurants serving up freshly caught catches in indulgent curries. And, unlike their neighbours to the north, the Keralans prefer thinner sauces and coconut over cream. The lighter result is ideal for enjoying in the Indian sun, perhaps relaxing on a houseboat or as a beachside snack. A particular favourite is the pomfret. Often served whole, this white fish is marinated in spices until its tender texture bursts with flavours. Head slightly north to Goa to swap in juicy prawns.