Southern India

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Southern India

Southern India has been exposed to a variety of enriching influences through the years, including a number from Southeast Asia and Africa. Coconut and banana derive from Southeast Asia, betel leaf, areca nut, sago palm, and certain yams from Africa. Although the six tastes enjoined by Vedic practice are still more or less observed during a meal in most parts of India, the actual order in which the items are eaten differs from region to region. Broadly speaking, the South has a common order, and the arrangement of food items on a banana leaf used for eating is similar in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala.

Andhra Pradesh

The food from Andhra Pradesh is renowned for its sharp and pungent flavor. As in most southern states, the dosa (fermented rice flour and lentil pancake) is common everywhere. However, the favorite remains pesarattu, a rice pancake with a filling of semolina and onions, cooked together. This is served with sambar (a spicy lentil preparation) and a variety of chutneys. Rice is a staple food in the region. No meal in Andhra is complete without the famous Andhra pickles that come in several varieties. Rasam, a spicy lentil soup, is common to the entire southern region, but interestingly, mulligatawny soup derives its name from the Telugu mulligatanni or black pepper water.

Hyderabadi food is distinct, having been influenced by renowned Moghlai cuisine. The kitchens of the Nizams combined the Muslim influence of the Moghlai court with a predominantly Hindu subculture to create a cuisine that is the ultimate in fine dining.

Hyderabadi cuisine includes biriyani (rice layered with mutton and cooked), haleem (wheat pounded with mutton), baghare baigan (roasted eggplant), and tomato kut (a tomato chutney). The repertoire is rich and vast, both in vegetarian and nonvegetarian fare. What also distinguishes Hyderabadi food is its sourness, clearly a Telugu influence. Souring enhances the taste of the food and is considered good for the heart and for digestion. The various souring agents used in Indian foods primarily reduce spoilage by microorganisms and also counteract the pungency resulting from the use of red or green chilies. The favorite souring agents are lemon and tamarind, although dishes like the khormas (meat curries with a creamy consistency) are soured with yogurt, and some dishes of Western origin, such as lamb chops, are soured with vinegar. Green mango when in season is a favorite souring agent for meat dishes and dals. Another favorite is narangi, a sour citrus fruit, which is used to flavor various dishes. The tomato too is often used to sour a dish rather than as a vegetable. In Southern and Western India, ambada (roselle leaves), a kind of spinach with a distinct sour taste, is another great favorite. Fresh or dried prawns, chicken, or meat cooked with ambada can be quite delicious, as is common dal soured with ambada. Sour berries called karonda (Carissa caranda ) and sour fruits such as kamrak (star fruit or carambola) are also used to sour meat dishes.

Hyderabadi food can, in addition, be hot and spicy, another Telugu influence. Specialties include several dishes that are picklelike in flavor: chatni gosht (chutney meat), achar gosht (pickle-meat curry), achar ke aloo (pickle-potato dish), and mirchi ka salan (picklelike dish of green peppers and special herbs).

Chili peppers are used in Hyderabadi cooking in several waysthey can be chopped, ground into paste, slit, and deseeded, or an entire chili can be inserted in the dish. Certain red chili powders, especially those that come from the coastal Andhra region, have a flaming red color and a hot taste.

The procedure of seasoning, or baghar, is used in Hyderabad to great effect in order to infuse a dramatic nuance of taste into a dish. In baghar, food is seasoned by a process of dropping chilies, herbs, and spices into hot oil and then pouring that concoction over a dish while it is still sizzling. There are also exotic methods of seasoning that are quite unique to Hyderabad. In a lentil curry called thikri ki dal, a piece of freshly fired earthen pot is broken, heated until red hot, and added to the dish so that the rich aromatic flavor of the earth is captured. Similarly, in a dish called kabab kheema (minced kebab), a piece of red-hot coal is deposited in the center of the cooking pan and covered immediately so that the kebab absorbs the smoke and flavor of the burning coal.

Certain spices that are hardly used in North Indian cuisines are rather commonly used in Hyderabad, quite obviously due to Muslim-Moghlai influence. These are shah jeera (black cumin), khus khus (poppy seeds), magaz (seeds of muskmelon and watermelon), and kabab chini (cassia buds). Another spice used very often in Hyderabad, a South Indian legacy, is til (sesame seeds), which is scarcely used in the North.

A magical mix of various herbs and spices called bhojwar masala is indeed a Hyderabad offering to Indian cuisine. It is used in dishes like baghara baigan (seasoned eggplant), mirchi ka salan (green chili curry), and mahi gosht (a meat dish), and contains a mixture of coriander seeds, sesame seeds, cumin seeds, bay leaf, groundnut, dried coconut, and a lichen with an exotic aroma curiously called pathar ka phool (stoneflower). Another mix of herbs and spices from Hyderabad and much more exotic is potli ka masala, thus named because herbs and spices are tied in a potli, a sack of muslin cloth, and placed in the cooking dish. Potli ka masala is used mostly in nehari, a broth of pig's feet and goat's tongue, and chakna, a tavern dish of meat and organs. This mixture of spices is very different in taste and is literally an orchestra of fragrances. It includes sandalwood powder, dried vetiver roots, dried rose petals, bay leaves, coriander seeds, black cardamom, cassia buds, pathar ka phool, gehunwala (a kind of grain), pan ki jadi or kulanjan (a lesser variety of galingale), and kapur kachri (Hedylium spicatum ).

Hyderabadi cuisine is more nonvegetarian than vegetarian, but the repertoire of Hyderabadi vegetarian fare is also complex and indicative of a high level of cooking skill. Hyderabadi prefer rice to bread, although phulka and paratha are also eaten. An earthy Maharashtrian bread made from an Indian millet called jawari ki roti is very popular. Nonetheless, rice is overwhelmingly preferred. It is said that nearly forty varieties of biryani are made in Hyderabad, including pulao. In Hyderabad a delicious mixed-vegetable biryani called tahiri is often served. It is said that throwing a handful of it on the ground in a spray will test the quality of a cooked biryani. If each grain of rice falls separately from the other and the grains do not stick together, then the biryani has made the grade.

Hyderabad is also a curry paradise. Broadly speaking, Hyderabadi curries come in five to six forms. One is shorva (or shorba ), a thin, soupy curry with dumplings of meat and a vegetable, which could be potato, okra, some of the gourds, or colocasia, and soured with tamarind and a bit of yogurt. It is flaming red in color and can also be quite hot in taste as it is blended with red chili powder. Then there is khorma, which is a meat, chicken, or fish dish with a creamy consistency as it is flavored and soured with yogurt and spiced with red chili powder. All khormas are yogurt-based dishes. Then there are the thicker curries called khalias, which again are meat dishes with a vegetable in which the gravy is thick and saucelike. There are also the bhuna dishes, which are not exactly dry, as the name suggests, but have very little sauce, in which the mixture of spices coats the meat. Another group of curries without a specific name are those flavored with baghar or seasoning. In addition, there are some other curries outside these categories, but with a texture and flavor all their own.

Indians rarely bake their foods, except perhaps in the celebrated clay oven called the tandoor. Hyderabad, however, boasts of a few unique baked dishes, not surprisingly all made of minced meat. Most of these are actually kabab -like or are baked kababs, except perhaps the savory called tootak, made of semolina and minced meat. Some of the baked foods are obviously imports, from Arabian countries and Iran.

The gourmets of Hyderabad have incorporated other Arab dishes into their culinary repertoire, and the most spectacular of these is perhaps muzbi, in which an entire goat is stuffed with pulao, chicken, boiled eggs, and nuts and raisins, and then cooked. There is also marag, a rich broth of mutton and marrow, and the famous nehari, another fine broth of tongue and pig's feet. The Turks introduced Hyderabadi to shawarma, slices of goat's meat upon a special skewer. All these dishes have been subjected to Hyderabadi interpretation, and abundant use of unique Indian spices has imparted to them their own local flavor.

Another nonvegetarian category in which Hyderabadi food offers tremendous variety and culinary excitement is minced meat. Kheema or minced meat has a certain versatility that allows it to be cooked in several ways. A mince dish is not supposed to be watery and therefore has very little gravy. However, it goes very well with rice or bread. Several kababs are made with mince, as are baked dishes and savories. Mince also lends itself well to stuffing. In a group of dishes called dulmay, like the Greek and Armenian dolma, mince is stuffed in onion, potato, capsicum (sweet and hot peppers), and even fruits like apple and guava.

As in the West, there is a certain order in the manner in which food is taken in Hyderabad. Food is eaten in courses, but not served in courses. Everything is placed on the table at the same time, but eaten in a set order. A dry dish, generically called gazak (or appetizer), is first consumed. It could be a kabab, a savory, or even fried fish. The gazak is followed by khalia, a semidry mutton curry, which is eaten with phulka (a thin dry chapati). Then comes the shorva or khorma, which generally contains a vegetable. Alternatively, a biryani might be served in place of the shorva. Similar order prevails in the presented food at weddings and parties, only the fare is more sumptuous and has greater variety. At parties and celebrations, at least two varieties of gazak and two types of biryani are served. A chicken dish and mutton curry are also offered to guests, along with bread. For dessert, favorites include double ka meetha (a bread pudding), called shahi turka in the North, and khubbani ka meetha, an apricot dessert served with fresh cream.

No introduction to Hyderbadi cuisine would be complete without a word on its pickles. Since the Indian passion is for foods sour and pungent, one predilection is pickles made of green mango, lemon, tamarind, green chili, and even sour fruits like the kamrak (star fruit). The pickles are all seasoned and flavored with vinegar.

The Hyderabadi paan (betel leaf) is well known. Making a good paan is a delicate process and is often an exercise in nazakat (elegance). The Hyderabadi prefer the South Indian leaf. It is soft and does not have the coarseness or pungency of some other leaves. Each leaf is fastidiously cleaned of all its veins in order to soften it further. Both the katha and chuna (slaked lime) are processed at home. The katha is also treated with rose water. At the end of a meal, a silver paandaan (a container for the betel leaf preparation) is brought out and the lady of the house makes the paan with her own hands. The paan is rarely given by hand. It is placed in a miniature silver tray and offered with the right hand. (Food in Indian homes is always served and eaten with the right hand. The left hand is not used for either purpose, for traditionally the practice in Hindu homes is that the right hand is used to receive and/or give.) At parties, paans are decorated with chandi ka varq (silver leaf) before being served.

Andhra cuisine is largely vegetarian, except for the coastal areas, which show a preference for seafood. Fish and prawns are curried in sesame and coconut oils, flavored with freshly ground black pepper, and then eaten with rice. For vegetarians, rice is served with sambar (a spicy lentil preparation) and vegetables. Pakodas (potatoes or onions dipped in gram flour batter and deep-fried), vadas (fried dumplings made from split black gram) in steaming hot sambar, or idlis (steamed rice dumplings) are served as snacks. The Portuguese word for grain, grão, was first applied in India to the Bengal gram or chickpea, and later applied generally to all pulses; thus arose the terms red gram, green gram, black gram, horsegram, etc. Gram's use is unknown outside India.

A wide variety of fruit grows in Andhra Pradesh. These include custard apples (Anomas ), grapes, apricots, and mangoes.


Writings on food in Kannada date back approximately a thousand years. Rice was the premier food after the tenth century c.e. in Karnataka. Four varieties of a cooked rice-ghee combination dish flavored with garlic and salt, called kattogara, were prevalent. Crushed papads was added to yield one variation, crisp-fried sandiges, made of the ash gourd made for another, and various cooked greens gave rise to yet other variations. By mixing in lime, huli (a spicy lentil preparation), turmeric, tamarind, or the powders of roasted rice and split chickpeas, flavors could be easily changed. Cooking the rice in water in which, as a preliminary step, the leaves of tulasi (holy basil) were boiled resulted in "curd rice" (a traditional preparation) that would keep for several days.

An exceptionally large number of wheat preparations also continue to be consumed. Karnataka consumes roughly equal amounts of rice, wheat, and ragi (millet). The wheat foods may be roasted, baked, steamed, or fried. Roasting can take several forms. Mucchal roti is baked between plates, with live coal above and below, and kivichu roti on a kavali or tava (flat griddle plate) with a little ghee (clarified butter). Several tava -roasted rotis may be mounted one over the other with a pierced stick and flavored with ghee, sugar, edible camphor, and thale (Palmyra) flower to yield chucchuroti. A stack of gheesmeared circles mounted one over the other, savaduroti, is baked on a griddle under cover of a cup. A cup cover above, live coals below, and a ball of dough within yield uduru roti, from which the blackened crust is peeled off before consumption. Mandige or mandage is a delicate baked product: when baked on a heated tile, it is called white mandige, and when overheated but still very soft, it is called ushnavarta mandige. The stuffing may be varied. Sugar and ghee yield khanda mandige; multilayered fillings of cooked chana, coconut shreds, dates, and raisins result in a mandige variation called perane hurige. Today the mandige of Belgaum is a very large and fine paratha stuffed with finely ground sugar containing cardamom powder, baked on an upturned clay pot, and folded into a moderately stiff rectangle.

True baking within a seal of wheat dough, called kanika in Kannada, is used to make the bhojanadhika roti, in which mandige broken up into small pieces is mixed with milk, cream, coconut milk, mango juice, and sugar, and then pressed into a ball. This is placed within a covering of wheat dough and baked under seal on a hot tile with frequent turning of the vessel. When done, the upper crust is sliced off, and ghee and sugar are poured on the roti before it is consumed.

Wheat dough made with sweetened milk or even cream, rolled out into circles and then deep-fried, yields yeriappa and babara. Balls of dough made with wheat flour, curds, and sweetened cream are deep-fried to produce pavuda. A less viscous wheat batter prepared with sweetened milk is forced through a hole made at the base of a coconut shell cup (the usual extrusion device) directly into hot ghee for ropelike chilumuri.

Some preparations have been frequently mentioned throughout the centuries. Melogara is a dish of pulses and greens, with coconut gratings, but many variations are prevalent. To make it, mung dal (split green gram), avarai (flat beans), urad dal (split black gram), fresh chana (split chickpeas), or tuvar dal (split red gram) are first cooked with sesame seeds, then cooked again with greens, drumsticks, grapefruit, salt, and coconut gratings, and finally mixed with ghee and tempered with asafetida (gum resin) and thick milk. Even wheat dough pieces rolled into thin strands and fried may be added to melogara. Vegetables used for melogara are pretreated. Certain leaves are first washed in lime water before cooking, other greens are washed in turmeric water, and yet others with common salt or alkaline ashes. The surana root is first boiled with betel leaves, or soaked in rice water and then cooked with tamarind leaves. A melogara of dal and beans may be sweet, sour, or spicy.

There are many kinds of relish in this cuisine. Balaka is now made by soaking large chilies in salt water, drying them, and then frying the chilies in oil when needed as a crisp and spicy accompaniment to food. Historically, some twenty kinds of balaka have been prepared using various vegetables and their peels. Deep-fried items eaten as crisp and crunchy accompaniments to a meal include chakkali (called murukku in Tamil Nadu), a circular mass of continually widening rings extruded from a thick rice-urad (split black gram) batter, and numerous sandige, irregular lumps of spiced rice-urad batter, sesame powder, onion, or even vegetable skins like those of the ashgourd, sun-dried first, and then deep-fried until crisp in very hot oil. Curd-based relishes with greens and raw vegetables are called by various names, such as pacchadi, kacchadi, krasara kacchadi (this contains milk with curds), palidya (one variety is called kajja ), thambuli (with greens and coconut gratings), and raita (a commonly used condiment today). Kosamris are uncooked relishes made from chana or mungbean sprouts (green gram), which are soaked in water until they soften and swell, and then garnished with salt, mustard seeds, and fresh coriander.

In the cuisine of Karnataka, there has been a vast variety of sweet items, and they have altered little over a millennium. Sweet boiled rice, rice payasam (rice cooked in milk and then sweetened), rice-derived vermicelli payasam (vermicelli pasta cooked in milk and sweetened), mixed rice-wheat payasam (a mixture of rice and wheat cooked in milk and sweetened), rice kadabu with a sweet filling, and deep-fried delicacies of rice flour and jaggery (now called athirasa ) are all based on rice. Wheat, especially in the form of semolina, is suitable for the preparation of sweets; from it, kesari bhath (sweetened rice flavored with saffron), ghrtapura (a fried ball), payasam (kajjaya ), and ladduge are made. Wheat vermicelli is extruded to a fine consistency from hard wheat dough (it is then known as pheni ) and usually eaten with sugared milk. Sweet wheat rotis stuffed with a mash of boiled chana, jaggery (brown palm sap sugar), and coconut constitute purige, hurige, or the later holige ; a thinner drier form is obattu, and there is also the rolled-up cylindrical form called surali holige. Rolled-out pieces of dough are fried in various forms and then dusted with castor sugar to make phenis and chirotti ; madhunala is a small tube of dough (of wheat, rice, and chana with added mashed banana) filled with sugar, sealed at both ends, and then deep-fried. Karaji kayi is a half-moon puff with a sweet stuffing; if only sugar constitutes the stuffing, the result is sakkare burunde. Pulse flours of chana and black gram are also used to make sweetmeats. Boondi grains made from them are sweetened with sugar syrup and shaped into ladduge, pinda, moti chur, and manohara unde. Jilabi, tasty as nectar, are made of chana flour. Milk is the major ingredient for sweet payasa, as well as hal unde (balls of sweetened milk solids) and halaugu. Shikharini consists of curd solids lightly spiced and sweetened.

A typical breakfast in the region includes idli (made by fermenting a mixture of ground rice and split black gram) and vada (made from split black gram), accompanied by sambar (a spicy lentil preparation) and a coconut chutney, lemon rice, upitu (a savory dish made from semolina), or kesari bhath (a sweet made from semolina and flavored with saffron).

Vermicelli upma (a savory dish made with vermicelli pasta) is used as a snack in-between meals. The main meals are usually rice-based. Rice is eaten with clarified butter. This is followed by rice with rasam (a thin lentil soup), rice with sambar, and rice with curds for the final course. Usually, two vegetables called palyas accompany the meal. These are dry-cooked vegetables with green chilies, cumin, and grated coconut. A salad called kosamri is also eaten with the meal.

The Kodavas, Mangaloreans, and Udipis are distinct communities within the state; each has its own specialities.

Perched on the highlands of southern Karnataka in the Kodagu district are a warlike and distinctive people with a unique cuisine. Rice is eaten boiled or as a distinctive ghee-coated product (nai kulu ), or as a pulao with firm meat chunks and every grain coated evenly with a mixture of spices. Rice is also transformed in numerous ways, and each has a distinct nonvegetarian accompaniment. The akkiroti based on a rice dough rolled out on a wet cloth is roasted and eaten with a spicy sesame chutney, a red pumpkin (kumbla ) curry, or with a dry and salty dish of bamboo shoot chiplets (these shoots are also pickled).

With the pulao goes a tasty relish of ripe wild mangoes in a curd base called mangay pajji. A paper-thin, soft rice pancake, neer dosai, is accompanied by a chicken curry, into which a lot of fresh coconut is added. The nu puttu of Kodagu is the strandlike idi appam of South India, once eaten with jaggery water, but now with any liquid curry. Steamed balls of cooked and mashed rice constitute kadambuttu, which is paired with a pork dish with a very thick mixture of spices, of which an essential ingredient is the sun-drawn extract of the kokum fruit, locally called kachampuli (kerala kudampuli garcunia cambogia ). Its acidity serves to keep the fat on meat firm and springy. A breakfast dish, paputtu, is prepared from rice grits mixed with grated coconut and milk, and then steamed in metal pans. This is often eaten with either pork curry or ghee and the honey so plentifully found in Kodagu. Another breakfast dish is thaliya puttu, made from a batter of ground rice, fenugreek seeds, and soda bicarbonate, fermented overnight and steamed. Two fish are commonly used in this cuisine. One is the sardine, matthi meen, and the other the tiny whitebait (koyle meen ), cooked and eaten bones and all. There are also two popular desserts and both are based on the banana. Well-ripened fruits are mashed with the powder of roasted rice, to which a little fenugreek is added, to make uncooked thambuttu, which is eaten with ghee, fresh coconut gratings, and whole-roasted sesame seeds. To make koale puttu, mashed banana and small wedges of mature coconut are steamed in a banana leaf packet, which is opened to give a brown slab; the mixture is then eaten either hot or cold with fresh butter. The name is derived from koovale puttu, originally made with the soft, weepy variety of jackfruit called koovale.

Tamil Nadu

Located in the South of India on its Eastern coast, Tamil Nadu has a large Hindu population. The large community of Brahmins are vegetarian, hence, the state is primarily vegetarian by nature. The main cooking method in the South is steaming. As a result of this, every single home is equipped with a variety of small and large steaming pots. The word "curry" originated in Tamil Nadu. Contrary to popular belief that a curry is a dish with a gravy, curries in Tamil Nadu are dry, spiced dishes without gravy.

Most of the south, and particularly Tamil Nadu, has a hot climate, and this has been used to prepare some of the most delicious and nutritious dishes that require fermentation. For this process, no yeast is used, as the average temperature of 25°C does the work quite effortlessly. To counteract the heat, cooling ingredients such as tamarind are employed to great effect.

Idlis, small, savory rice cakes, made slightly sour by overnight fermentation and steamed the following morning, are served as breakfast to millions in the South. The process relies almost entirely on the weather to change a batter of ground rice and split peas into a light froth, which then only requires a quick steaming to become a deliciously light, highly nutritious, and very digestible breakfast.

South Indians are serious coffee drinkers. They make strong filter coffee, but do not drink it strong, preferring to mix it with lots of hot milk. The proportions vary from house to house. Sometimes, as little as 20 percent coffee is in an individual serving, and at other times it is a neat balance of half and half. Before the coffee is poured into separate glasses or cups, there is one more ritual to be performed: that of pouring the mixture from one vessel to another at some height in order to raise a head of froth.

A dosa is more satisfying than a simple pancake, as it is golden red and crisp on one side, smooth and white on the other. Made from almost the same batter, both idlis and dosas are the traditional breads of the South, as nourishing and digestible (due to the fermentation process) as they are delicious. They may be eaten with butter and honey or with chutneys, or they may be stuffed with a spicy blend of potatoes and onions. All these breads are unleavened and prepared in two stages. First, each round is cooked briefly on a preheated griddle; then, the partially cooked bread is held over an open flame for a few seconds. The direct heat causes moisture in the dough to turn quickly to steam, puffing the bread while the cooking is completed. For a crisper effect, unleavened dough may be cooked completely on the griddle until well browned on both sides.

The main staple in Tamil Nadu is rice. Simple vegetarian lunches consist of three courses, each eaten with rice. A typical lunch menu would be rice and rasam (a highly spiced lentil soup) and a preparation made from vegetables. This is followed by more rice for the second course, with sambar (a preparation of lentils) and papadams. The last course comprises rice, yogurt, and pickles. Southern meals tend to end this way: hot, fiery courses followed by bland, soothing ones.

Vegetarian meals using the same basic theme of rice, rasam, sambar, and yogurt may in skillful hands become much more elegant and elaborate. Examples include rasavangi, a kind of heady sambar with the tiniest of eggplants (aubergines) bobbing about in it; vendakai curry, delightfully crisp fritters made by dipping sections of okra into a spicy chickpea flour batter and frying them; keerai poricha kootu, a kind of thick soupy stew of lentils, spinach, and fresh coconut; and the popular rasavade, made with savory urad dal (split black gram) doughnuts, immersed in rasam just long enough to soften and soak up all the liquid's tart and fiery flavor.


Traders, merchants, and money-lenders by profession, the Chettiyars of Chettinad have traveled the seas freely since ancient times. Their wealth is enormous, and the Chettiyars are very comfortable with and open about this. They are known to begin collecting dowries for their daughters at birth. The Chettinad region of southern India that comprises Madurai, Virudhunagar, and adjoining regions is dry and arid. The cuisine of the region reflects this and also the fact that the early Chettiyars were traders in spices. Therefore, their cuisine is spicy (fiery hot) and rich in its variety of spices, the most prominent being peppercorn and red chilies.

In Chettinad a meal is traditionally eaten off a banana leaf. Some popular preparations are meen varuval, fried fish; varuval kola, fried meatballs made with a very creamy paste of meat, cashews, poppy seeds, coconut, fennel, and fenugreek seeds; koli kolambu, chicken cooked in spicy tamarind water; kari kolambu, meat cooked with roasted coriander seed and tomatoes. There are also dishes made from mixed vegetables cooked with the second water used for washing rice (mandi ) or idi appams, freshly made rice vermicelli, seasoned with mustard seeds and urad dal (split black gram), as well as dishes made from banana flowers, banana stems, dried mango, and assorted pickles and sweets. Fennel and roasted and powdered fenugreek are the predominant spices in Chettinad chicken, fish, and vegetable preparations.

Koli uppu varuval, a kind of peppered fried chicken, is a dish that has gained immense popularity outside the Chettinad region.


Kerala is a bit of heaven on earth. Located as it is on the West coast of India, with a long coastline, the food of the state has been influenced greatly by its climate and geographic location. There is a wealth of seafood, and the swaying coconut palms all along the coastline have resulted in the extensive use of coconut and coconut oil in the local cuisine. Other foods locally produced and consumed include many types of bananas and jackfruit. Kerala is well known for its spices. In fact, the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Chinese all came to Kerala to trade. Later, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English explorers arrived to profit from the lucrative spice trade.

Black pepper is the main spice grown in Kerala. It was used in the past as currency, to pay tributes and ransoms. Other spices that grow in the area include nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and turmeric. Tamarind trees and the curry leaf tree (Murraya koenigii ) are visible everywhere; the aromatic curry leaf has greatly influenced the cuisine of the Keralites as a result. Kerala also produces large amounts of coffee and tea, and manicured tea gardens can be seen on the hills of the region. There are three major communities residing in Kerala. Hindus, Muslims, and Syrian Christians make up the bulk of the population of the state, although there are other minority communities, including Jews.

Each community has its own distinctive cuisine. Unlike the royal families of other states such as Hyderabad and Mysore, those of both Travancore and the state of Cochin are extremely austere and spartan in their food habits and lifestyle, although they are great scholars and lovers of art. Other states were known for their opulence, both in lifestyle and cuisine, but this is lacking among the royal families of Kerala. However, during the Onam festival, all Keralites enjoy a festive meal. Nonetheless, there is no special cuisine that can be attributed to them.

The Syrian Christians. Breakfast for all Keralites, whatever their religion, is the popular appam (also called hoppers), a pancake, or palappam. These are rice flour pancakes, which have soft, thick spongy centers and lace-like, thin, crisp edges. The Syrian Christians eat palappam with a meat stew, whereas the Hindu community comprising the Nampoothiris and Nairs eat it with a mix of vegetables (aviyal ).

There are two other breakfast items common to all Keralites. The first is idiappam (cooked rice noodles or string hoppers), eaten with sweetened coconut milk or with a meat or chicken curry. The second is puttu (made of coarsely ground rice flour and coconut shreds, which are alternately layered in a bamboo tube, and steamed by affixing the bamboo tube to the mouth of a vessel containing boiling water). Being rather dry, puttu is commonly eaten with bananas or with a spicy dry chickpea curry.

Kuzhal appam is a fried crisp curled up like a tube; it is typically Syrian Christian. There are two other appams popular with this group, and both are sweet. Acchappam is a deep-fried rose cookie made of rice, the name derived from the frame (acchu ) needed to make it. Naiappam, called athirasam in Tamil Nadu, is a deep-fried, chewy, dark doughnut fashioned from toddy (fresh or fermented palm sap), fermented rice, and jaggery.

Another rice-coconut combination uses fried rice and is called avilose, a Syrian Christian speciality. It can be molded into an unda (ball) with coconut palm treacle. Churuttu (which literally means cigar) is also rice-based; it has a crisp, translucent outer case, filled with avilose and coconut palm treacle. Khumbilappam, eaten by all Keralites, consists of a mash of ripe jackfruit, roasted rice flour, and jaggery, folded in the form of a triangle in a cassia leaf and steamed. During jackfruit season, a preserve called chakka varattiyathu is made with jackfruit, jaggery, and cardamom. This preserve is served continuously throughout jackfruit season.

Syrian Christians in Kerala eat beef, and eracchi olarthiyuthu (fried meat) is a daily food item, which is also served during weddings. It is a dry dish of cubed beef boiled with spices and pieces of coconut and then sautéed in oil. Kappa kari, pieces of tapioca cooked with ground coconut and tempered with oil, is another favorite dish among this community. Most curries, including meat, always have a lot of coconut milk.

In Kottayam and Trichur, both sea and river fish distinguish local fare. In Kottayam, the fish is cooked using a sour fruit rind (Garcinia cambogia ), locally called kudampuli. Meen vevichathu, fish in a fiery red chili sauce, has a characteristic sour and smoky flavor, resulting from the kudampuli.

In Trichur, tender mango is the souring agent used along with coconut milk. Meen pattichadhu includes very small fishlike oil sardines, or even prawns with coconut gratings. A hot favorite with the laity and priests alike is mappas, a mildly spiced chicken curry with a thin coconut gravy.

A special sweet traditionally served at weddings is thayirum pazham pani, coconut palm treacle, which is poured on ripe bananas, mashed together, and then eaten with curd and rice.

The Muslims. The Muslims of Kerala are called moplahs ; they are direct decendants of Arab traders who married local Kerala women. Although the Kerala freely use rice, coconut, and jaggery, an Arab influence may be clearly observed in their biriyanis and a ground wheat-and-meat porridge, called aleesa, elsewhere referred to as harisa.

The Muslim kind of roti is the distinctive podi patthiri, a flat thin rice chapati made from a boiled mash of rice, baked on a tava (flat griddle plate), and dipped in coconut milk. Aripatthiri is a thicker version of this made from parboiled rice and flattened out on a cloth or banana leaf to prevent it from sticking. Naipatthiri is a deep-fried puri of raw rice powder with some coconut, fried to a golden brown. All these patthiris are eaten at breakfast with a mutton curry. Steamed puttus, eaten with small bananas, are also commonly consumed as the morning repast. A wedding-eve feast may include nai choru, rice fried lightly in ghee with onions, cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom to taste, and finally boiled to a finish. A wedding dinner generally includes a biriyani of mutton, chicken, fish, or prawns that is finished by arranging the separately prepared flesh and the cooked rice in layers and then baking them with live coals above and below. Several flavored soups are made from both rice and wheat, with added coconut or coconut milk, and spices. A whole-wheat porridge with minced mutton cooked in coconut milk is called kiskiya. A distinctive and unusual sweet is mutta mala (egg garlands), chainlike strings of egg yolk cooked in sugar syrup but later removed from it. Mutta mala is frequently served with a snowlike pudding called pinnanthappam made from the separated egg whites that have been whisked up with the remaining sugar syrup, steamed, and then cut into diamond shapes. This dish is indicative of the Portuguese influence in the area.

The Hindus. There are three main communities within the Hindu group, each with its own distinct cuisine: the Thiyas, Nairs, and Nampoorthiris.

The Thiyas are a community that formerly tapped palm sap, but have now entered many other professions. Appam and stew are typical breakfast fare, the stew being varied: fish in coconut sauce with tiny pieces of mango, mutton in coconut milk, or simply a sugared thick coconut milk. A specialty bread is naipatthal, in the shape of a starfish. The curd of favor is pacchadi (a dish made of beaten curd with cooked vegetable marrow and coconut ground with mustard seeds, and then tempered again with mustard seeds and oil). A popular dessert is prathaman, split green gram boiled in coconut milk and flavored with palm jaggery, cardamom, and ginger powder, and laced with fried cashews, raisins, and coconut chips.

The Nairs were the original warrior class of Kerala, whose cooking skills later led to their employment as professional chefs to nonvegetarian families all over the South. Breakfast typically consists of palappam or bamboo-steamed puttu, eaten with sweetened milk and tiny bananas. Certain vegetable specialities, although eaten by all Keralites, have special Nair associations. Aviyal is a mixture of green bananas, drumsticks, various beans, and green cashews (distinct to Nair cuisine), cooked with ground coconut and a little sour curd, and then topped with some coconut oil. Kalan is similar, but uses green bananas alone, with a gravy of yogurt, ground coconut, cumin, and green chilies. Olan is a dish of white pumpkin and dried beans cooked in coconut milk; fresh coconut oil is poured on top of it after the cooking pot is removed from the fire. A Nair wedding feast will generally include several types of pacchadis, pickles, chips, and payasams based on milk, coconut milk, rice, dal, and fried vermicelli. No meat is served at a wedding, although it is part of the typical diet. Such domestic meat and chicken dishes, although spiced, use a great deal of fresh coconut and coconut milk for tempering. A yogurt dish containing small pieces of ash gourd or raw mango cooked with coconut, curds, and chili paste is called pulisseri. A sweet mango chutneylike dish called puli inju (fried sliced ginger in a tamarind chili jaggery sauce) is served daily.

The Nampoothiris are the Brahmins of Kerala who probably first arrived there around the third century b.c.e. They are strict vegetarians who favor the idli, dosai, and puttu for breakfast with a coconut or curd accompaniment, and eat their rice with kootu (a preparation of mixed vegetables), kalan, and olan. The use of garlic in cooking is avoided. Other vegetable preparations consumed include thoran, which is usually made from runner beans, sliced fine and then steamed and tossed with grated coconut, ground turmeric, cumin, and green chilies and tempered with oil. Other bean varieties such as field beans, sword beans, green bananas, amaranthus, cabbage, and peas can all be made into thoran and eaten with rice. Aviyal and erusseri, a pumpkin curry, are also included in the Nampoothiri menu.

All Keralites eat yellow banana chips fried in coconut oil and lightly salted. The payasam of Kerala is made with rice and milk, but prathamans use milk, dried fruit, and dal or paper-thin shreds of a rice roll, which are then precooked and added to the sweetened milk to yield palada prathaman. Memorial services held once a year for ancestors routinely include chatha pulisseri in their menu. This is a sour buttermilk preparation with pepper, salt, and coconut paste that is thickened through boiling.

See also Curry; Hinduism; Islam; Rice.


Achaya, K. T. A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food. New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Achaya, K. T. Indian FoodA Historical Companion. New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Jaffery, M. A Taste of India. London: Pavilion, 1985.

Karan, P. Hyderabadi Cuisine. India: HarperCollins, 1998.

Philip, Thangam E. Modern Cookery for Teaching and the Trade. Vol. 1. Singapore: Longman, 1965.


Additional information on specific cuisines available at

Thangam Philip

Mirch ka saalan
(whole green chilies in a masala gravy)
Mirch ka saalan is among the better-known Hyderabadi dishes. Since it keeps well for several days, the Hyderabadi often carry it with them on long road or rail journeys.
Preparation time 40 minutes
Cooking time 25 minutes
Serves 68 persons
Green chilies, large 89 ounces, slit on one side
Onions 4, cut into 46 pieces each
Ginger 1-inch piece
Garlic ½ pod, with the skin removed
Coriander seeds 1 tablespoon
Cumin seeds 1 teaspoon
Sesame seeds 3 tablespoons
Peanuts ½ cup
Poppy seeds 1½ teaspoon
Dried coconut (copra) about 1 ounce
Fenugreek seeds ¼ teaspoon
Turmeric powder ¼ teaspoon
Red chili powder 1 teaspoon
Jaggery or sugar 1 teaspoon
Tamarind 2½ ounces
Curry leaves a few
Cooking oil 1 cup
Salt To taste
Soak tamarind in about 1 cup of warm water. Mash and sieve to obtain tamarind water. Discard seeds and other residues. Set aside
Roast the onions on a griddle until they soften and turn a pale golden brown. Then dry-roast together over medium heat the coriander seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, cumin seeds, poppy seeds, dried coconut (copra ), and fenugreek seeds until their shade darkens very slightly and they start emitting an aroma.
Grind together the onions, roasted spices, ginger, garlic, salt, turmeric, red chili powder, and jaggery or sugar into a fine paste. Mix with the tamarind water.
Heat oil. Add the green chilies. As soon as they acquire a few golden brown spots, remove from the pan and set aside. Add curry leaves to the oil and, after a few seconds, the ground spices. Cook for about 510 minutes. Then add the green chilies. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Add a little water while cooking, if desired. Cook for another few minutes until the oil rises to the surface. The dish should have a fairly thick consistency.

The Udipis

The Udipi region is on the coastal stretch of Karnataka, sandwiched between Goa and Kerala. The Krishna temple in the area is famous for training young boys (from the age of ten years) to work in the kitchen. All boys start as apprentices and gradually learn the trade. Thereafter, they are free to seek employment elsewhere. This has given rise to a whole chain of "Udipi restaurants" throughout Maharashtra and Karnataka. The food served at any of these places is completely standardized, with each item having the same weight, volume, and appearance. Long before the concept of chain restaurants came about in the West, along with the accompanying standardization of foods, the ubiquitous Udipi restaurant was already making its presence felt in India!

The Mangaloreans

The Christian community of Mangaloreans are an integral part of Karnataka. However, their food is quite different from Hindu cuisine, being as nonvegetarian as the Hindus are vegetarian. In fact, it has several similarities with the coastal cuisine of Kerala: both make use of coconut milk and similar spices. Seafood, being readily available, is also consumed in large quantities, as is heavily spiced pork.

Preparation time 15 minutes
Cooking time 45 minutes
Serves 68 persons
Potatoes 1½2 pounds
Onions 5, ground to a paste
Ginger paste 1½ teaspoon
Garlic paste 1½ teaspoon
Red chili powder 1½ teaspoon
Turmeric powder 1½ teaspoon
Vinegar cup
Sugar 2 teaspoons
Salt To taste
For tempering
Nigella seeds 1 teaspoon
Mustard seeds ½ teaspoon
Cumin seeds 1 teaspoon
Whole red chilies 8


Boil the potatoes. Peel and cut into 1-inch-sized pieces

Heat oil. Fry the potatoes until they are golden. Set aside. Leave about cup of oil and remove the rest. Next fry the onions until they are golden brown. Add the ginger and garlic paste and fry a little. Next add salt, turmeric, and chili powder, and then the fried potatoes. Add about half a cup of water and cook over low heat for approximately 5 minutes until the spices are well blended and a small amount of gravy remains. Turn off the heat. Mix sugar in vinegar and add to the dish. Transfer all to the serving dish.

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the dry whole red chilies, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and finally the nigella seeds. When the mustard seeds begin to crackle and the red chilies darken, pour the tempering over the dish.

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Southern India

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Southern India