It’s no secret my life revolves around food. And my husband is, thankfully, exactly the same. So it’s no shock that our recent Indian trip involved a lot of eating. For me, curry is rarely bad – even a mediocre curry is not terrible – and in India – where the spices are always flavoursome, well, it just doesn’t seem possible!
In southern India you can naturally find all the classic Indian dishes (butter chicken etc.) but the region definitely boasts other specialities – southern Indian cooking is lighter on the spice, sweeter to the taste and to my supreme happiness, often abounds with fresh coconut. We quickly swapped the tourist traps for local stalls and establishments many people wouldn’t even class as restaurants. Often only a few dishes were available, there was no menu, and it was more like a lucky dip of different tastes for your evening meal. The guys would happily keep serving us until we were past full and then charge us some measly amount as they posed with us for photos and begged us to return the next day.
So here’s a selection of our favourite southern Indian foods – take care – it’s a long list!
Depending on what state you’re in, Thalis might also be called ‘Meals’. Vegetarian or non-vegetarian, Thails are essentially a tasting of different small curry dishes, served with rice and pappadams. Each tiny bowl has its own distinct flavour and it’s a great way to sample many different foods at one time, often for a very low price! You’ll receive as much rice as you like and sometimes you also get refills on the rest. One of the small bowls usually contains a dessert – rice pudding spiced with cardamom – yum! Note the warm tomato-pepper liquid, which is meant to be drunk after the meal for digestion. It’s not for everyone though.
Also called Dosha and Dosai depending on where in India you are, Dosas are a common Indian breakfast item. It consists of a giant pancake made from ground up rice, and you can find all types, from the simple onion Dosa, to the awesome Masala Dosa, with a mix of masala potato within. Naturally there’s a couple of dips on the side to add a bit of extra flavour and spice. Breakfast of champions!
Curry can be found at pretty much every eating establishment. And like I said before – it’s all good. Masala-based curries are very popular, widely available and taste amazing. Whether sampling vegetables or fish or meat, you pretty much can’t go wrong. And of course because no beef is eaten in India, if it is on the menu, you’re probably getting mutton – which is a tasty substitute!
Whatever you order India generally needs bread or rice as an accompaniment. There are many different types of bread available – naan, roti, chapatti, pappadam etc. But then we discovered our new favourite – Parotta – or Paratha, again depending on where you are. Parotta is, as we discovered in our cooking class, quite difficult to perfect, with a deliciously soft, flaky texture that makes it an amazing side dish to any meal.
We found this in one of our last stops – similar to Kottu Roti in Sri Lanka, made with Parotta. A combination of egg and vegetables goes on the grill, along with the Parotta, and then they chop the bejesus out of it into an absolutely delicious mixture, which is then served with an accompanying sauce. Definitely a group favourite!
This is a rice dish that can be ordered with all kinds of meat, fish, and of course vegetarian. I never actually got around to ordering one for myself, but often tried it from other people’s plates. The best one we found during the trip came cooked in a clay pot covered with a breaded lid.
Deep Fried Snacks
I know it’s not overly healthy, but damn these were good. The streets are lined with stalls from morning to night complete with huge vats of oil for frying. You can get standard samosas along with various ‘bread’ snacks filled with onion, coconut, meat or vegetables. We found that a couple of these together with a few sweet bananas made for a better breakfast than most hotel buffets. One of our favourites was a dessert where bread was coated with butter and sugar and then simply fried up. Delicious!
There are plenty of safe drink options in India. Lassis are tasty and refreshing – think of a smoothie-type drink that can be fruity, sweet or sour. Juices of all kinds were freshly squeezed on every street corner – just be sure to ask for no ice. I did have an interesting experience with a takeaway pineapple juice… in a bag… but it worked! Alcohol was often not available where we were – most of the restaurants, unless bigger or frequented by tourists, had few options available. Many of the home stays would provide alcohol if you asked for it in advance, otherwise you need to bring your own (and yes, we did carry 4 bottles of wine from Austria). Naturally we didn’t drink the water – bottled all the way – some things are just not worth risking.
Chai is everywhere in India. It’s damn good, and as long as you can see the milk boiling it’s generally safe to drink. Often they refer to ‘chai’ as just milky black tea with heaps of sugar – and when I say heaps of sugar I mean heaps of sugar. Masala chai is even better – with a mix of masala spices, ginger and cardamom – it is amazing, sweet, spicy and perfect with breakfast or just to pick up on the street. The servers will toss it from cup to cup for you, cooling the boiling milk down before serving it in a small metal cup.
Banana leaves and eating with fingers
No matter what you order – be it a Thali or a curry, there’s always a chance you’ll get a banana leaf instead of a plate. And naturally you have to eat with your fingers – many of us perfected the five-fingered eating-with-hands thing. But don’t forget to always use your right hand – left hand is the toilet hand!
And no, luckily there were no stomach problems for us in India. In fact, my stomach that usually complains daily about who-knows-what, never once complained – maybe I should switch to Indian full time!