To all the attractions that southern India has, in particular the state of Tamil Nadu, we must add the food, which here presents a greater diversity of vegetables and spices, resulting in a wide variety of flavors, colors, and aromas, dominated by spicy, served on banana leaves and accompanied with the ubiquitous cooked rice, which in the south replaces the chapatis that in the north always accompany them with meals. What is also never missing are papadis, a thin sheet of grain pasta seasoned with spices and which is fried and crispy.
For breakfast, dosas are served, a kind of very thin and crispy crepe, made with rice and lentil flour, stuffed with vegetables (almost always potatoes) and served with a fresh and spicy coconut chutney, and with the sambar, a light vegetable curry, where the dosa is soaked.
This combination of sambar and chutney can also accompany iddlys, unfermented bread made from lentil flour, which is steamed, or wadas (or vadas), rings of pasta made with lentil flour, flavored with spices and fried in oil.
But the new was pongal, a paste made from overcooked rice, seasoned with cumin, mustard seeds, pieces of fresh ginger and cashews, all wrapped in ghee and cooked with many leaves of rail. Like other breakfast alternatives, pongal is also served with coconut chutney and sambar or another vegetable curry..
The curry tree leaf, which is used here fresh, appears in almost all dishes served in traditional meals, thalis, consisting of rice and a set of three or more side dishes. Many of the meals include the so-called buttermilk, which is a kind of milk, waterier and slightly fermented that gives it a slightly acidic flavour and is served lightly seasoned with salt..
But more often than buttermilk, it is yoghurt that is mixed with rice and the other side dishes that make up a typical South Indian meal.
In traditional southern dishes, coconut, a flower and the banana tree trunk are often used. The panner (fresh non-melting soft cheese made by curdling milk) that was a constant in the north of India, here in the south has a very discreet presence, away from the Muslim areas.
As for the bread… no naans, no chappati or rotis… here are parathas (here pronounced parotta), made of very elastic dough that is spread with the help of oil, beating the dough on the counter until it is thin and starting to tear, when it occurs a knot tying the ends so that after resting it is extended again with a rustic hand and cooked on a plate, often heated with firewood; they are cute and separate into layers… and of course they accompany with a vegetable curry, usually served in the afternoon, as a snack, but never as a side dish of a meal.
The dahl, stewed with lentils, which is served here in the south, thick and consistent, does not compare with what is usually found in the north of the country: very liquid, more like a soup.
The ever-present chai is drunk at any time throughout India, both after meals and as an accompaniment, also serving as an excuse to take a short break during the workday. In Tamil Nadu, chai is often replaced by coffee, which is also sweetened and drunk with milk, served in metal cups, which in turn come in a cylindrical cup, also made of metal; before serving the coffee is poured from one container to another, several times, before being drunk.
Also in the south, with the characteristic tropical climate, there is a greater variety of vegetables. In addition to the potatoes, carrots and herbs, which are ubiquitous in Indian curries, here is common the use of green leafy vegetables, kelas (a kind of nutty cucumber with an intensely bitter taste but which is quite beneficial for purifying the blood), drumstick (or moringa), coconut (the fruit as also the “milk” and oil), banana (trunk and flower also) and jackfruit, as also a wide variety of legumes that often I cannot identify.
As for fruit, mangoes and bananas dominate, which come in many varieties, not only on the outside but also in flavour. Coconut is also sold everywhere, and its pulp is eaten, with the help of a sliver of coconut skin, cut with a machete, after drinking the liquid from the inside.
For me, South Indian food, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu, is one of the best in the whole country, with only the food of the state of Gujarat as its rival, with a wide variety of flavours and ingredients, intense, spicy and with a certain tropical exoticism, making it simple and unpretentious. All of this makes a meal a delicious experience for the senses.
South India is a vegetarian paradise, with “pure veg” restaurants as well as street food without animal products. However, dairy products are present in both chai and yoghurt, which is often part of thali.
Each visit to Chennai, commonly called Madras, is a delight for the palate, with many options to explore the gastronomic specialities of southern India, from sophisticated restaurants to simple dining halls, not to mention street food !!
South Indian food…. what a delicious memory !!!