Traveling to India, one knows to expect good food. Indian cuisine, after all, is one of the most flavorful and richest in the world. Even with our relatively high hopes, however, the food in South India has far exceeded expectations.
In 2003, when we were traveling around the tourist circuit in northern India (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, etc.), we found that we were too often faced with eating somewhat mediocre food along with other tourists. In bigger towns, such as Jaipur or Bombay, there was of course a wide variety of restaurants frequented by more affluent Indians, which served tremendously good food (including one restaurant in Bombay that we thought had some of the best cooked food in the world, and which we plan to revisit later on our trip). But too many meals were just so-so (no doubt much of this was also due to our inexperience and lack of know-how in finding good food). Not in South India. Outside of a couple mediocre meals in Cochin (eaten mostly with other tourists), almost every meal has been terrific. I think this is because the more basic eating establishments catering to locals in South India are generally cleaner and appear more welcoming to tourists, and because South Indian food is delicious in a more simple way that can be achieved by more restaurants. Since South Indian food is not as frequently offered on Indian menus, especially in areas without large Indian communities, I thought I would give a brief overview of some of the items most commonly found.
The most common restaurant meal in South India is the thali, which is available at lunchtime at pretty much any restaurant. In South India, thalis are usually served on banana leaves, either on a platter or directly on the table (you rinse the fresh leaf with water before servers come and plop portions of food on it). The starch of the thali is plain white rice (with surprisingly large grains in Kerala, though we were told that the fat grain rice comes from Andhra Pradesh), and you are also usually given a crispy thin wafer called an appallam as well. A thali generally costs about 25-35 rupees (or less than $1), and is refillable–servers come with shiny little metal buckets to give you more of whatever you want. I can’t name all of the various “side dishes” (reminiscent of Korean banchan), but there are generally at least three or four, as well as pickle and yoghurt to be used as dressings. The main sauce for the rice, called sambar (which must be the same word as “sambal” used in other cuisines), is poured directly on top. In nicer places you also get dessert, and in one place we were offered ghee (clarified butter) and a powder to use for the rice in place of sambar.
The first thali we ever had was at the mess hall at Ranakpur Jain Temple in Rajasthan (which by the way is amazingly beautiful, though we hear that Mt. Abu is yet more). Puris and simple curries were served in very small portions, and constantly refilled, with the cost around 10 rupees (~25 cents). At the time, due to our ignorance, we thought that this manner of serving was somehow guided by religion–not only does it ensure a minimum of waste but nobody walks away hungry, which seem to me laudable spiritual goals, where food is concerned. Of course we now know that there’s nothing holy or sacred about it, but it still appeals to me, for those reasons. An all-you-can-eat or buffet in the U.S. (or in Asia for that matter) is usually a setting for overindulgence and gluttony. The concept is generally extravagance (though of course the quality of the food at a buffet can be highly variable); the result, overeating. In parts of Asia, buffets are also often luxurious, and therefore exclusive. I imagine there are tons of waste, either on the plates of people whose eyes were larger than their appetites or food never taken. The thali, while satisfying the requirement that people should eat to their satisfaction, is the opposite–there is a minimum of waste, since serving portions are small though refillable, it is highly affordable and therefore available to many and the relatively more limited number of dishes makes it much harder to overeat (although it could also be said that people coming by to refill your plate of your favorite items could result in overeating, while at a buffet you at least have to get up to refill). Something else about the limited number of dishes–a typical buffet while communal (people gather food from the same table) seems to me individualistic, because the number of dishes leads to selection and an expression of individual preference and choice. Thalis, on the other hand, result in everyone eating (more or less of) exactly the same food, served from the same buckets by the same hands, and therefore is much more a shared experience.
Outside of thalis, the most common food eaten by locals and tourists in restaurants is in the “snack” category, and here South Indian cuisine shows its sense of fun as well as flavor. These snacks are often eaten for breakfast, although for dinner as well.
The one that is probably most familiar to you is the dosa. A crispy-fried crepe-like dish, it is folded or rolled and often filled with curried potatoes. This one was served with other sauces as well and a deep-fried savory dough called a vada (the one that looks like a spicy doughnut).
An idly is a little flying saucer shaped rice pillow, bland alone but good (well, okay) with curries. Pictured below, a lady preparing idlies and idlies dressed with sauces. This appears to be one of the most commonly items in South India and is sold and eaten everywhere.
Another important item in the starch category is of course the paratha, which is a somewhat greasy and chewy, but delicious pan-fried bread that has layers like a mille-feuille pastry. You may also know this as a roti, as served in roti canai in a Malaysian restaurant. Pictured below, a man slapping a paratha together (to create the paper thin sheet, which is then crumpled together), as well as others cooking on a griddle.
We saw the paratha-based dish below for the first time in the Tamil area of Sri Lanka in 2005, and were wondering whether we would find something similar in Tamil Nadu. The seasoning isn’t the same and it’s not as good, but here it is. Essentially, it is a paratha chopped up and fried along with egg and onion, served in a messy pile. It reminded me of Mexican chilaquiles (and no doubt there are other similar dishes around the world that people put together with day old bread–I really love finding similar foods/food ideas in different countries).
All of this is eaten with hands, not utensils. As a general rule I think it’s good to eat as the locals do, but as a chopstick using rice-eater, I can’t get myself to use my hands to eat goopy curry-soaked rice. So I ask for a spoon (which is mildly embarrassing, especially when other tourists point out that I should be using my hands).
Additional, even quicker snacks, can be purchased at many roadside stands, including at bus stations. I cannot name each, but below a picture of a selection. The best, in my opinion, is the one on the far left, which is something like a falafel and often spicy. Also, a man selling vadai, somosas and other fried snacks at the bus station. Samosas, by the way, can be found in many many parts of the world, including Central Asia.
Also of course Indian sweets. Many are similar to those available in North India, but we have also encountered some we have not had elsewhere. The small metal cup next to the yoghurt on the thali shown above tasted similar to a rice putting (kheer), but had tapioca as well as thin noodles. The one pictured below was a thin pancake filled with a sweet bean paste (similar to Korean hotteok).
And tea to wash it all down!