//
you're reading...
Blog Posts, Recipes

South Indian Food Porn

In honor of my recent carb-a-licious trip to New York, we take a break from our regularly-scheduled girl-whinings and fitness-ramblings to present: South Indian Food Porn. My family is from a city on the Southeastern coast of India called Chennai, where the culture, the language, and the food are completely different from the more common Northern Indian fare. Chicken tikka masala, Bollywood, tandoori ovens, heavy on the onions and garlic? I didn’t grow up with any of that. Tamil cuisine (Tamil is an Indian ethnic group, also found in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, and Toronto…) is more tropical, more coconut and green chilis and cilantro, and often exclusively vegetarian. Delicious, subtle, spicy, and the desserts sometimes overwhelmingly sweet. Not all of these pictures are mine:

This is Saravana, the authority on Tamil vegetarian comfort food in America. There are about 6 restaurants across the US, including in Atlanta, Bay Area California, New Jersey, and Houston. Old school is the name of the game. Food is served on stainless-steel plates without any fuss, and usually very slowly. It’s the little touches on all the classic food that immigrants from Chennai (like my parents) grew up with, prepared the way their parents and grandparents prepared it. The same spices, the same presentation, the same pure ingredients and attention to detail. And it’s CHEAP.

The restaurant started in India, and it’s still a super-popular chain there. It’s like the Arby’s of Chennai. They even have food trucks now. Now, time to take you through our extravagant Friday night meal, course by course… first, appetizers:

These are vadais. Savory, salty, crispy-on-the-outside, pillowy-on-the-inside lentil-flour donuts, deep-fried and usually served with coconut chutney (a sauce of shredded coconut, green chilis, salt and pepper.) One of the universal breakfast and afternoon snack foods in Chennai.

Variation on a theme: these vadais are soaked in a cilantro-yogurt sauce for several hours so they get just a bit soggy and absorb the yogurt flavor. The orange bits on top are fried dough niblets called boondhis, which provide a perfect crunch.

This monster is a poori, a fried puffy bread that’s surprisingly light and flaky. You tear it apart with your hands and use the bread as a scoop for any vegetable or stew. Traditionally, potatoes in a mild curry sauce (green chili, a bit of onion, mustard seeds, turmeric). When we were growing up, we’d mix the potatoes with yogurt and use it as a filling for the poori, rolling it up like a burrito.

Main course. If you go to a South Indian restaurant, you have to have a dosa. It’s a giant, slightly crispy wheat flour crepe with green chilis and black pepper in the dough, sometimes filled with potatoes (this is called a masala dosa). Served with coconut chutney and a thick, spicy lentil soup called sambar (think of it like split pea soup, except with flavor).

Another kind of dosa, called a rava dosa, made with cream-of-wheat. A good bit flakier and crispier, with lots of chopped onions and cilantro inside. My personal favorite. I once ate six of these at a dinner buffet in high school. Those were different times.

*This* is old school. The thick, folded lentil-and-rice pancakes to the right are called adais (UH-days). Classic Sunday brunch food, they also travel well and are very nourishing after a hard day’s work. The classical accompaniment to the left is called avial (UH-vee-ul), mixed veggies in a coconut and yogurt sauce. The coup-de-grace, the detail that sets great Indian restaurants like Saravana apart from the rest, is the brown chunks at the bottom of the plate. That’s jaggery, or unrefined cane sugar. It has a smoky, complex flavor similar to brown sugar or molasses. Adais are classically served with a couple small chunks of jaggery, but very rarely in restaurants. The first time my mom and I went to Saravana in California, this was one of the two “old school” bonus points that made her fall in love with the place and prompt her to bring my sister and me back every time we visit her.

 

Dessert. I think we do it better than anywhere in the world. If you like sugar, Tamils are experts at concentrating sugar and butter into as small a space as possible. My two favorites: to the left, jhangri (not to be confused with its inferior North Indian cousin, the jilebi) is a stylized cruller, deep-fried of course, very juicy and saturated in saffron-sugar syrup. To the right, mysorepak, a lentil-flour cake of sorts, slow-cooked with sugar and lots of clarified butter (ghee) until it can cool and solidify as bite-size diamonds. There are about 20 other fantastic South Indian desserts out there, all of which tend to follow the formula of “find ingredient X, mix it with butter and sugar, slow cook it, and turn it into a bite-size cake.

And finally, the coffee. It’s STRONG. But nobody in India drinks black coffee. The coffee is steeped in milk and cardamom and heated like crazy, so hot that it has to be cooled down before drinking. And in houses all over Chennai, it’s served not in a mug, but in a piping-hot stainless-steel cup and bowl. You cool it by carefully pouring the coffee from one into the other, back and forth, exposing it to the air and building up a good froth. It takes a bit of practice.

So that was my big welcome-back-home dinner last Friday, and while I won’t be feasting like this everyday, it’s been a WHILE since I’ve had great South Indian food, and it’s motivated me to at least experiment a little on my cheat days and see if I can replicate some of these dishes.

Next time… I make a BIG decision.

Advertisements

Discussion

2 thoughts on “South Indian Food Porn

  1. i’m now sooooooooooo hungry!

    Posted by crossfit queen (haha) | September 8, 2011, 8:54 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: The Dessert Scale and a Defense of Chick Peas « BACHELOR HELL - February 17, 2012

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: