Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Food of South India

This is probably my last blog about India for awhile. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention South Indian food.

Until I met my husband, I didn't realize that the Indian food I was used to was North Indian, or even that there was regional cooking. True, all over India many of the same spices and herbs are used: coriander leaves, cumin, fennel, turmeric, saffron, to mention just a few. But the north specializes in breads and wheat-based pastries (think of the wonderful naan in a Tandoori kitchen or those delicious samosas.) In the South, though, rice is the staple, and most dishes use rice or a variety of lentils, or both. (I should mention in passing, though, that more and more interchange goes on, so that many North Indian snacks are popular in the south, and vice versa.)

My husband comes from a very large family, one full of fantastic cooks, so from the very first trip (I've been to India 6 times), I started hounding them for their recipes. I also have two sisters-in-law and two nieces in the states who are generous with their recipes. So now I have a huge binder (marked "Family Recipes") with well over 100 great dishes--all vegetarian.

What kinds of dishes? Well, the main dish is usually some kind of sauce over rice with a dry "curried" vegetable on the side. The term "curried" here simply means that a combination of spices have been used, and they are quite distinct from the "curry powder" that most markets carry. The sauce can be a kuttu, a sambar, or a rasam.

A kuttu is a sort of vegetable stew made from lentils (and there are different lentils to choose from) boiled with a diced vegetable, along with several seasonings which may or may not include coconut, but will certainly include dried red chilies. (South Indian food is hot!) A wide range of different vegetables can be used.

Most sambars have a tamarind base (although one sambar does have a buttermilk base instead). Sambar is also cooked with lentils and comes out like a well-seasoned gravy, swimming with vegetables, to put over your rice.

The rasams, too are cooked with lentils and spices, some with vegetables and some not. Rasam is more like a flavorful soup to go over rice as a second course. We sometimes have it as a soup. As for the vegetable side dishes, the possibilities are endless. Often vegetables are combined together, and all are seasoned to bring out the best in the vegetable.

Then there are the savories and sweets. This is where you can get into "suffer cooking". Many of the savories involve soaking rice and lentils for hours, grinding them for a long time,and letting the dough rise over night. Then portions are deep fried, sometimes with special seasonings. Or the dough/batter may simply be spooned into compartments in a special utensil and steamed as small cakes, served with a condiment, like coconut chutney.

The sweets, too, involve long periods of time at the stove. Maybe stirring a lentil flour, laden with cream or ghee (a clarified butter), until it's of a texure to melt in your mouth. Maybe soaking shredded fruit in a mixture (again with ghee or cream or milk) and stirring it forever. But, if it is done right (and my inlaws really do it right!) it's oh-so-worth the wait! There are also pastries that have been soaked in sweetened milk or a sugar syrrup. These are the kinds of things served at tiffin, with a sweetened cup of dark rich coffee--the perfect "go-with".

And so I must close for now on this wonderful interlude of my life! I have other writing to do, guest bloggers to schedule. Besides, I need to go check on my dough!

1 comment:

George Erdosh said...

Since I lived in Sri Lanka, next door to southern India, I know what you are talking about when cooking Indian foods. However, in modern Indian cookbooks there are many shortcuts without sacrificing flavor using small kitchen appliances and I can place a very decent south Indian meal on the table in an hour's work-not elaborate with many curry dishes but still a good well-rounded meal.
Yes, I do love south Indian foods, too.