Sometimes the most memorable culinary experiences arise from the least promising of situations. Imagine stumbling into a rickety shack outside a teeming railway terminus in a nondescript Keralan town following a long train journey, only to find a perfectly-cooked masala dosa: a crisp, wafer-thin crepe filled with a delicately-spiced potato-and-onion curry. One bite, and you’ll be hooked.
That’s the beauty of South Indian food, which sadly remains relatively unknown. While Indian food is now a staple around the world, the vast majority of restaurants outside India serve up North Indian-style cuisine: thick tomato-, onion- and yogurt-based curries, chicken and lamb cooked in the tandoor, naans, parathas and rotis. Yet the country’s southern side has an incredibly diverse culinary heritage that should not be ignored.
Broadly speaking, food in South India is predominantly vegetarian, though meat and seafood also play important roles, especially in the states of Goa and Kerala. There’s a greater use of ingredients like chili, tamarind, curry leaves and coconut, while rice – rather than the breads of North India – is the carbohydrate of choice. South Indian cuisine, however, is far from homogenous, varying greatly on a state-by-state, and even city-by-city, basis.
Within India, the South is well known for its breakfast and snack options, in particular the dosa. Although several states claim the dish as their own, the dosa is generally accepted to have originated from Karnataka. The masala dosa may be the most ubiquitous variety, but it’s only the starting point for a dizzying array of options.
These thin crepes can be made with rice- or lentil-flour, millet, semolina or even a cabbage paste, and filled or topped with anything from sauteed paneer (a type of cottage cheese) to fried eggs. They’re served with a range of accompaniments, including chutneys (particularly a coconut one), small pots of vegetable curries, pickles, yogurt and chili relishes. You can even get a family dosa, which can extend over three feet in length!
Goan, but Not Forgotten
Goan food is another southern highlight. Given the state’s 451 years of colonization, it’s not surprising the cuisine has retained a strong Portuguese influence. Palm vinegar, coconut, kokum (a tangy fruit), and hot chilies all play an integral role, as does seafood, while pork dishes – notably suckling pig and chorizo sausages – are also very popular.
Two standout Goan dishes are the famous vindaloo, a fiery hot and sour curry (a world away from the versions served by restaurants outside India), and chicken or lamb xacuti, whose sauce features lemon juice, coconut and chili. The classic dessert, meanwhile, is bebinca, a solid, multi-layered egg custard infused with coconut.
Combining Influences in Kerala
Food in Kerala, Goa’s southern and much larger neighbor, is just as appealing. Centuries’ old global trading routes, abundant locally grown spices, unusual ingredients like plantains and bitter gourd, waters rich in fish and seafood, and its mix of Hindu, Muslim and Christian traditions, have combined to give rise to one of India’s finest, and most distinctive, cuisines.
The best way to sample Keralan cooking is through a thali meal, which is typically eaten with the right hand rather than with cutlery. Traditionally served on a square of banana leaf, it consists of a mound of rice surrounded by a myriad of small metal bowls filled with dishes like rasam (a thin, peppery soup), dhal, chutney, yogurt (known as curd), puris (puffy, fried pockets of dough), several vegetable curries, buttermilk, and something sweet to finish – often payasam, a sugary rice, or vermicelli pudding flavored with cardamom and saffron. The metal bowls are constantly refilled until the diner is filled up, so keep eating as much as you can.
Kerala is also famous for its fish curries, notably meen mollee. Fresh- and salt-water fish such as kingfish and pomfret, as well as all manner of seafood, including mussels, crabs, lobster and prawns, are used to delicious effect.
Five to Try
Feni: This potent Goan spirit is produced from the sap of the coconut palm or the fruits of the cashew tree. Try it over ice with fresh lime and a touch of sugar syrup.
Mysore masala dosa: The king of the dosas, from the city of Mysore, with tasty coconut and onion chutneys added to the traditional curry mix.
Meen molee: This spicy fish stew comes from Kerala’s Syrian Christian community and is commonly accompanied by appams, spongy rice-flour pancakes. It’s particularly popular at Christmas.
Chicken cafreal: With its origins in Portugal’s former African colonies, this Goan dish features fried chicken in a spicy and tangy peri-peri-style gravy rich in chili, garlic and ginger.
Iddli: A popular breakfast dish or snack, served across South India, these small steamed rice cakes are served with a similar range of side dishes as a dosa.