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Cuisine of South India


You can learn a lot about a country by studying its cuisine, and nowhere on earth is this more true than in India, where diversity -- of people, religion, language, history and cooking styles -- is a byword.

 

Copyrighted image - used with permission.Indian cuisine has been evolving for thousands of years, influenced not only by climate and locally available ingredients, but by conquering armies, trading partners and widely divergent religious dictates. These influences account not only for the great variation in cooking from north to south, but for the equally great differences within the cuisines of these two regions.

The difference between northern and southern cooking is a popular topic in India, discussed frequently in magazines and newspapers. A visitor quickly learns that, in the north, the primary ingredients are garlic, onion, tomatoes and ginger; that ancient Aryan and Muslim invasions made eating meat acceptable; that spices are used more than red chili, and that grains and bread are preferred to rice. The traditional roti is made from whole wheat. In some ways (the existence of kababs, for instance), northern cuisine is akin to Middle Eastern cooking.

Copyrighted image - used with permission.Southern cooking, on the other hand, is characterized by the use of ghee, coriander, coconut, lentils, pepper and cumin seeds; rice is extremely popular; the strong Hindu influence has made vegetarianism common (though not the rule); and red chili is used liberally. With its extreme heat the south isn't a wheat-growing area, which means that dosas made from lentil flour are far more common than roti. (You've got to try a masala dosa -- that's a dosa stuffed to the gills with curried veggies -- for breakfast.)

These oft-cited differences are true enough, but they merely skim the surface. Within the divisions of north and south lie countless ancient cooking styles, each possessing a unique and complex history. Three of South India's cuisines -- Keralan, Coorg, and Chettinadu -- are discussed here.

Keralan Cuisine

The state of Kerala -- situated on India's lush southwest coast and home to an extensive network of inland rivers, lakes, canals and lagoons known as "the backwaters" -- was once the world's spice capital. It's said that ships belonging to King Solomon were trading here 3000 years ago, and in the centuries that followed Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Chinese, Malaysians and others came in search of Kerala's "black gold" -- pepper -- as well as other spices and exotic items like ivory, sandalwood and peacocks. Each of these groups left an imprint on Keralan cuisine, which is spicy, exciting, and often unpredictable.

Copyrighted image - used with permission.In such a water-based culture, seafood naturally predominates (Cochin is famous the world over for its prawns). But two factors make the seafood cuisine of Kerala different from that of India's other coastal regions.

First, the further one travels away from the coast and into the backwaters, the less salt the waters contain. Thus, with waters ranging from highly-saline to slightly brackish, Kerala is home to an enormous diversity of sea life. From swordfish to catfish -- with, along the way, crab, shark, marlin, salmon, and tiger prawns -- Kerala has it all. The second factor lies in the lush tropical climate, which gifts the region not only with coconut, coconut milk, and rice, but a whopping range of vegetables. Thus, Keralan seafood dishes frequently contain a rich and complex assortment of veggies.

Coorg Cuisine

While Keralan cuisine can be considered regional -- it's based on locally-obtained ingredients and cuts across class, religious and cultural lines -- Coorg cuisine is ethnic. Tradition has it that the Coorgs are descendents of Greek warriors led through India in the Fourth Century B.C. by Alexander the Great on his successful trip to conquer the known world. A distinct ethnic group with its own language, dress, and social customs, the Coorgs came to inhabit an area called Kodava in the hills near present-day Mysore.

For centuries the Coorgs kept their martial tradition alive, living as warriors and hunters. They worshipped the river that flowed through their land as a special deity because it caused coffee to grow on the hills and rice in the lowlands. They had no temples, preferring instead to worship outdoors, usually at the river's headwaters. Women held positions of privilege and inherited property on an equal basis with men.

 

As hunters, the Coorgs were meat-eaters. They liked wine, too, and many dishes reflect a melding of meat -- particularly pork or wild boar -- and wine. Hearty, stick-to-the-ribs stews are common, but rice and noodles play an important part, too: rice noodles topped with a pungent curry sauce is a very popular dish on today's Coorgi menus.

Chettiar Cuisine

Another southern cuisine is that of the Chettiars, a merchant banking, trading and military caste based in the state of Tamil Nadu. The Chettiars are meat-eaters, a fact which has always set their cooking apart in the largely-Hindu region. For centuries Chettiar cuisine was inspired by the caste's contacts with Southeast Asian countries such as Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Ceylon. At the height of Chettinadu power, banquets -- served to as many as 2,000 guests -- lasted for days. After independence from Britain, however, the caste's fortunes fell drastically and their cuisine was nearly forgotten by outsiders. In the last decade or so, though, this style of cooking has experienced a renaissance and a few good Chettinadu restaurants have sprung up.

As compared to the spicy food of Kerala and the hearty cuisine of the Coorgs, Chettinadu cooking is aromatic: black pepper is preferred to red chili, perfumed spices like saffron to cumin and coriander. Marinades are used for meat, rendering it extremely tender. Organ meats are common, as well as simple preparations of chicken and seafood.

If You're Going to India...

If you're going to South India you’d be well advised to sample these and other cuisines. If you do, pause once or twice during your meals to honor the exciting history and tradition that has traveled perhaps thousands of years to culminate on your plate.

A good bet for Keralan cooking is in Cochin at Rice Boats, the restaurant in the Malabar Hotel on Willingdon Island. You'll sit while dining in an authentic rice boat made by a traditional boatmaker who, not knowing how they’d be used, caulked them for heavy-duty everyday use on the water. By the way, these boats -- the same kind you'll see plying the Keralan backwaters by the hundreds -- contain no nails. The menu is varied, the food excellent, and the prices moderate.

Top-notch Coorg cooking can be found at the Dew Drop Inn in Yelawal Village, about 10 miles out of Mysore. Owned and operated by a charming husband-wife team (both proud Coorg descendents), the Inn also has a few basic but clean guest rooms. Sitting on the frond-shaded patio, which overlooks a lonely road and unbelievably green fields, is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

As for Chettinad cookery, Raintree, in Madras's Connemara Hotel, is generally acknowledged as having kicked off the rebirth in popularity for Chettinad cooking. The atmosphere is impressive, both inside -- with beautiful colored tiles and carved wooden beams -- or outside, in a courtyard with a flowing stream and jasmine plants.

Copyrighted image - used with permission.And Even If You're
Not Going to India ...

Granted, the best way to sample these cuisines is in situ (and I’d like to be sitting in some South Indian restaurant myself right now, doing just that). However, if you can't make it to India anytime soon, you may be able to find a restaurant near your home (or in the city closest to you) that specializes in or highlights the country's regional southern cookery. As more and more foreigners have traveled to India and become conversant with its culinary delights, restaurant owners have expanded their offerings. In Berkeley, California, where I live, there are dozens of Indian restaurants, and most of them offer at least a few dishes from specific regional cuisines. One in particular, Ajanta (510-526-4373), has become renowned in the San Francisco Bay Area for its regional offerings (the selection changes each month).

And, if you like to cook, there's no end of cookbooks devoted to the cuisine of Southern India. A few of my favourites are listed below.

Happy travels!

Art of South Indian Cooking
by Alamelu Vairavan, Patricia Marquardt
192 pages (November 1997)
Hippocrene Books
amazon.comHardcover - Order from Amazon

Curried Favors : Family Recipes from South India
by Maya Kaimal MacMillan,
Brian Hagiwara (Photographer), Zubin Shroff (Photographer)
160 pages (October 1996)
Abbeville Press, Inc. Great reviews!!!
amazon.comHardcover - Order from Amazon

Indian Food : A Historical Companion
by K. T. Achaya
338 pages Reprint edition (July 1998)
Oxford Univ Pr (Trade)
amazon.comPaperback - Order from Amazon

For centuries the Coorgs kept their martial tradition alive, living as warriors and hunters. They worshipped the river that flowed through their land as a special deity because it caused coffee to grow on the hills and rice in the lowlands. They had no temples, preferring instead to worship outdoors, usually at the river's headwaters. Women held positions of privilege and inherited property on an equal basis with men.

As hunters, the Coorgs were meat-eaters. They liked wine, too, and many dishes reflect a melding of meat -- particularly pork or wild boar -- and wine. Hearty, stick-to-the-ribs stews are common, but rice and noodles play an important part, too: rice noodles topped with a pungent curry sauce is a very popular dish on today's Coorgi menus.

Chettiar Cuisine

Another southern cuisine is that of the Chettiars, a merchant banking, trading and military caste based in the state of Tamil Nadu. The Chettiars are meat-eaters, a fact which has always set their cooking apart in the largely-Hindu region. For centuries Chettiar cuisine was inspired by the caste's contacts with Southeast Asian countries such as Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Ceylon. At the height of Chettinadu power, banquets -- served to as many as 2,000 guests -- lasted for days. After independence from Britain, however, the caste's fortunes fell drastically and their cuisine was nearly forgotten by outsiders. In the last decade or so, though, this style of cooking has experienced a renaissance and a few good Chettinadu restaurants have sprung up.

As compared to the spicy food of Kerala and the hearty cuisine of the Coorgs, Chettinadu cooking is aromatic: black pepper is preferred to red chili, perfumed spices like saffron to cumin and coriander. Marinades are used for meat, rendering it extremely tender. Organ meats are common, as well as simple preparations of chicken and seafood.

If You're Going to India...

If you're going to South India youd be well advised to sample these and other cuisines. If you do, pause once or twice during your meals to honor the exciting history and tradition that has traveled perhaps thousands of years to culminate on your plate.

A good bet for Keralan cooking is in Cochin at Rice Boats, the restaurant in the Malabar Hotel on Willingdon Island. You'll sit while dining in an authentic rice boat made by a traditional boatmaker who, not knowing how theyd be used, caulked them for heavy-duty everyday use on the water. By the way, these boats -- the same kind you'll see plying the Keralan backwaters by the hundreds -- contain no nails. The menu is varied, the food excellent, and the prices moderate.

Top-notch Coorg cooking can be found at the Dew Drop Inn in Yelawal Village, about 10 miles out of Mysore. Owned and operated by a charming husband-wife team (both proud Coorg descendents), the Inn also has a few basic but clean guest rooms. Sitting on the frond-shaded patio, which overlooks a lonely road and unbelievably green fields, is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

As for Chettinad cookery, Raintree, in Madras's Connemara Hotel, is generally acknowledged as having kicked off the rebirth in popularity for Chettinad cooking. The atmosphere is impressive, both inside -- with beautiful colored tiles and carved wooden beams -- or outside, in a courtyard with a flowing stream and jasmine plants.

Copyrighted image - used with permission.And Even If You're
Not Going to India ...

Granted, the best way to sample these cuisines is in situ (and Id like to be sitting in some South Indian restaurant myself right now, doing just that). However, if you can't make it to India anytime soon, you may be able to find a restaurant near your home (or in the city closest to you) that specializes in or highlights the country's regional southern cookery. As more and more foreigners have traveled to India and become conversant with its culinary delights, restaurant owners have expanded their offerings. In Berkeley, California, where I live, there are dozens of Indian restaurants, and most of them offer at least a few dishes from specific regional cuisines. One in particular, Ajanta (510-526-4373), has become renowned in the San Francisco Bay Area for its regional offerings (the selection changes each month).

And, if you like to cook, there's no end of cookbooks devoted to the cuisine of Southern India. A few of my favourites are listed below.

Happy travels!

Art of South Indian Cooking
by Alamelu Vairavan, Patricia Marquardt
192 pages (November 1997)
Hippocrene Books
amazon.comHardcover - Order from Amazon

Curried Favors : Family Recipes from South India
by Maya Kaimal MacMillan,
Brian Hagiwara (Photographer), Zubin Shroff (Photographer)
160 pages (October 1996)
Abbeville Press, Inc. Great reviews!!!
amazon.comHardcover - Order from Amazon

Indian Food : A Historical Companion
by K. T. Achaya
338 pages Reprint edition (July 1998)
Oxford Univ Pr (Trade)
amazon.comPaperback - Order from Amazon