The Next Indian Food You Need to Try
Groggy from a twenty-something hour train journey, I arrived in the small South India town of Gokarna. Starving after an endless chain of samosas, I stumbled into the run-down restaurant at six in the morning. Not knowing what to order, and too exhausted to even think about it, I simply pointed to the plate of the only other customer in the restaurant and said: “Same”. In minutes I was presented with a metal tray piled high with rice. Although ravenous, I refused to believe that this alone could be my breakfast, my first taste of South Indian Food. I needn’t have worried. Just then, a parade of dishes made it’s way to the table, vegetables of all ilk cooked in every which way. Dry, fried okra with mustard seeds, slow-cooked aubergine, sour mango in an alarmingly deep-red gravy, soupy tamarind sambar, it was all there. The lot was gone in minutes and as I sat back smiling, stomach and mind replenished, I thought to myself that if this was the way people ate down here, maybe I should stick around.
Across the world, diners have been privy to the delights of Indian food for years. Whether it’s freshly baked naan or an aromatic, luscious masala curry, foodies from London to Los Angeles have well and truly embraced the spicy sensations of the subcontinent. Yet for all of its deliciousness, the type of Indian food enjoyed by the West is only the tip of the culinary iceberg. In the nation’s tropical south, menus become considerably more unusual to the foreign eye, with a whole range of new flavours, textures, and ingredients waiting to be experienced. From personal experience I can say that, for those adventurous enough to try, this distinct cuisine can provide a fresh take on Indian food that is as delicious as it is enlightening.
South Indian Food, how’s it different?
Perhaps the primary difference between north and south Indian cuisine is the substitution of wheat flour for rice flour. After months of delicious yet heavy roti, chapati and naan, I was relieved to see it all replaced by products that are altogether lighter on the stomach. Fragrant white rice is the region’s most popular staple, yet derivatives like idli – a steamed rice cake made with lentils – are widely consumed on roadsides and in restaurants across the south. A classic south Indian breakfast, and one that I ate every other day, consists of two idli served alongside a fried savoury donut called vada. Creamy coconut chutneys are eaten with these starches to add flavour and texture, whilst their mildness can provide a soothing start to the day. After weeks of fiery hot curries and ghee-heavy snacks in the north, I personally found that a steamed idli or two can provide welcome respite for travellers with tender tummies, who will find south India much more forgiving.
A truly amazing south Indian delicacy, and still something of an unknown quantity in the rest of the world, dosa are crispy rice flour pancakes that are eaten throughout tropical India. One of the most memorable culinary highlights from my six month trip in India was ordering a gigantic dosa at a roadside stall in Munnar, Kerala. For foreigners like me, it’s hard to imagine a pancake made this way and the results were tastebud altering. The combination of pillowy interior and crisp edges flipped my perception of what a pancake should be, whilst the inclusion of spices and all manner of dipping sauces sent me into a kind of gastronomic hyperventilation. These snacks, which fuel workers and businessmen across the south, are made using a mixture of rice and black lentil flour, with the batter allowed to ferment overnight. After this the dosa are fried on large round griddles and served rolled-up like a crepe, if you order a masala dosa, there will be a potato based mixture waiting for you inside. My personal favourites were those that come served on a banana leaf alongside a palette of sauces including spicy-sour tamarind sambar and coconut chutney, which manage to compliment each other wonderfully.
Using a 4:1 ratio of rice flour to gram flour, it’s easy to make dosa at home, just be sure to allow the batter to ferment overnight to make sure it stays light and retains it’s characteristic taste. In south India, dosa is one of the most popular snack foods around, meaning you can enjoy it’s crispy, savoury charms at any time of day. They vary across India but are truly at their best in the south, where they’re served either thin and crispy or thick and pillowy depending on where you might be. One of the very best I’ve tried is rava dosa, which includes semolina and whole spices in the batter to produce a pancake crispier than anything else around and packed with flavours. Steer clear of air conditioned chains and head for the streets because, in tropical south India, the best dosas of all can found in the most unassuming of locations.
Not just for veggies
Whilst northern India is home to classics like Tandoori chicken and Lamb Rogan Josh, the vast majority of people in the region maintain a strict vegetarian diet for religious reasons. In the south however, many people eat non-veg dishes on a weekly basis, regardless of whether they are Christian, Muslim or indeed Hindu. During my time in the south I relished this. In Kerala, India’s most socially advanced state, I ate some of the best food I have eaten anywhere on earth. A large Muslim population has resulted in a diverse and delicious local cuisine that’s famous across the subcontinent. Known as Malabar food, it is a melange of Arab, Persian and European influences that draws heavily on the region’s sprawling coastline. The area is a playground for food obsessed westerners like me, with seafood plentiful and dishes such as shrimp coconut curry and chilli fried fish available at seemingly every food stand and hole in the wall eatery. In fact, one of the very best things I ate anywhere in India was the rava fried fish in Mangalore, Karnataka. Imagine classic British fish and chips made in a style not too different from southern frying. The inclusion of semolina in the batter made the chunks of fish uncommonly crispy and after washing it all down with a few cold beers at a slightly run down joint, I wanted for nothing. The fact that this delicious meal was served up by a miserable, tedious looking patron on sticky tables that were comfortably older than me, made things just that bit more interesting.Further north in Goa, a sizeable Christian population has given birth to some stellar porcine delights, too. It was there that I gorged on sausages and cold cuts aplenty, my stomach yearning for a taste of Europe after five months on the subcontinent. Perhaps the area’s best-known dish is Pork Vindaloo, a fiery curry of Portuguese origins that embodies southern India’s rich colonial heritage. Made with palm vinegar and lashings of red chilli, it is at once a spicy and sour curry that takes on a richness from the slow-cooked pork meat, whose use is a rarity throughout India. The best place to eat the authentic Pork Vindaloo is in the Goan capital of Panjim at fusion restaurant Viva Panjim. There, the seamless melding together of European and Indian techniques keeps locals and tourists flocking back for more porky delights. For me, it’s one of the best pork dishes I’ve ever eaten. Whilst there was plenty of spice, the overall flavour of the tender, slow-cooked meat was never compromised, and it’s this sense of balance that separates good Indian chefs from average ones. In fact, the Vindaloo was so tasty that I went back twice in two days, and I’m not even ashamed.
Whilst everyone loves an order of chicken korma or a verdant portion of saag paneer from their local takeout spot, sometimes the classics can feel a little tired. In south India, I learned what tropical should be. The ingenious use of local produce, combined with the area’s ethnic and historical diversity, has resulted in something exceptional. The region presents foodies with an entirely new facet of tantalising cuisine that’s still not quite on the radar. Before it becomes the next big thing, open yourself up to the flavours of south India, you’ll never look back.