Monday, September 06, 2010
Southern Indian food is one of the primary delights of time spent in Karnataka. It's completely unlike the heavy, oil rich, and meaty food we commonly associate with USA and English Indian restaurants. That's the food of the Punjab, that's the food of the Mughals - the sort of stuff that originated in Northern India and was disseminated the world over by opportunistic immigrants. But Southern Indian food has stuck closer to home, and has therefore been largely overlooked by many residents of the West. Shame, shame. What's better then a masala dosa (a savory rice and lentil crepe filled with spiced potatoes) with coconut chutney for breakfast? How can you go on living sans sambar (broth with tamarind and daal), avial (vegetables cooked with coconut), Avalakki bath (flattened rice prepared with coconut and curry leaf), and fish moli (fish cooked in coconut milk? Sucks to be you if you haven't had this stuff. Even better? The coffee in Southern India is actually drinkable.
Thankfully, Bangalore has plenty of excellent Southern Indian restaurants. B'lore is a city that runs on dosas, vadais (savory doughnuts) and idlis (rice cakes), and almost every restaurant serves up some variation on the theme. Most of the working-dude class restaurants don't even have seats. Everyone stands up and goes at lunch or supper or snack-time with their fingers. You never see women in these places, of course. Impolite.
My guesthouse was located on Cambridge Road, a remarkably convenient location from a little eatery called Annapoorani.
Annapoorani is one of the finer Southern Indian restaurants in the city, and does a cracking catering business as well, via Moulis Catering. It's a simple joint, but it features a surprisingly extensive selection of speciality food items, and the dining area is spotlessly clean. Further, it's dirt cheap, the coffee is good, and they'll keep on replenishing your sambar and chutneys until you explode. I ended up eating there quite often.
The menu has a variety of tiffins - dosas, vadais, and the like - but I always ended up ordering the set meals. Here's a brief and not particularly well-informed introduction to South Indian cuisine.
This is a mini masala dosa, served with various accompaniments. The dosa was thicker then the norm and had a very flavorful filling - spot on. I liked the green chutney on the side. Tasted like a coconut chutney infused with more cilantro and more interesting spices. Below it, there's a spicy dip, which tasted almost exactly like the famous Turkish harissa.There's the usual delicious tomato chutney in the far right corner. The rice looking stuff is lemon rice, which is a remarkably refreshing and comforting combination of rice, milk, and some very subtle spices, cooked for a bit -this would be great for soothing a pissed off stomach. The red soup beside it is the aforementioned sambar, a lovely combination of slow-cooked vegetables, chili, dal, and tamarind. It's extremely tangy, and the standard accompaniment to a good dosa. The light brown stuff beside it is a sort of sweet, cinammon flavored soup. The white cakes are "gunpowder" idlis, a kind of fermented rice cake. I find their flavor to be remarkably innocuous, but again, they come in handy during episodes of sever stomach upset.
Sometimes, you just gotta eat chapatis. They are, simply enough, an unleaved flatbread exceedingly similar to tortillas, and are usually made of wheat, often referred to as atta. They're extremely good for you. This was served with the usual tomato chutney, which is made with tomato, green chilis, mustard seeds, methi seeds, a smidgen of dal, sugar, and a couple other things. There's also the usual sambar and a dry vegetable preparation. Dry vegetable or subzi preparations are roughly as numerous as stars in the sky in India. Almost all are good. South Indians are paticularly partial to food prepared with drumstick, a kind of vegetable pod with a superficial resemblance to okra. Personally, I find the stuff stringy and hard to digest, but it is theoretically quite good for you. Huh.
This is an adai, or a lentil crepe prepared with masala spices, onions, and some other tasty stuff. There's pachadi (vegetables cooked with coconut) second from the top left. The round thing is a sweet ball with nuts inside of it. Moving clockwise, there's curd rice - a very subtle flavor indeed. The yellow rice is Avalakki Bath, which is beaten rice cooked with a variety of spices. The red stuff was some kind of heavily tamarind inflected veg dish - I believe it had drumstick. Gotta have drumstick.
The centerpiece of this meal is appam, a fermented rice pancake. On the left, there's a sweet short-bread type foodstuff up top. Below that is coconut milk. Apparently, you're supposed to put the vegetable curry at far right on the appam and dip it in the coconut milk for maximal deliciousness. I was happy to find that this was indeed the truth. The beigish looking stuff is pachadi, a slow cooked vegetable stew made with yogurt. The yellow stuff is vermicelli upma, small rice noodles cooked with plenty of turmeric, spices, and nuts - it's slightly sweet.
All these meals come with Indian style filter coffee. It's good, strong coffee, albeit served with enough sugar and milk to give a horse cardiac arrest. A happy horse. I love the stuff. Black coffee drinkers may need to learn a little Kannada or Telugu to get by around these parts.
Conclusion? South Indian food is delicious. Seek it out wherever you are. I found a spectacular South Indian restaurant in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky, so I know it's at least possible.....