South Indian food demystified: 10 dishes you need to try

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South Indian food demystified
South Indian food demystified

Tandoori, naan bread, butter chicken and rich vegetable curries are delicious, but these north Indian staples are just a fraction of the country’s diverse culinary offerings.

To get a more complete picture, you also need to head south. South Indian cuisine is vastly different – think steamed, spiced and coconut-flavoured.

The South Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka each have their own variants of common dishes as well as regional specialties. For an introduction to South Indian cuisine, here are 10 dishes to look out for.

Selection of ingredients typical for South India

1. Dosas: paper-thin crepes

A traditional breakfast food made of fermented rice-and-lentil batter, a dosa is much like a crispy thin crepe. It’s accompanied by sambar (a hot lentil soup) and coconut chutney.

Masala dosas are stuffed with a spicy mash of potato and onion; plain dosas are hollow; rava dosas are made from semolina; and some new-age variants get creative with fillings such as cottage cheese or mixed vegetables.

Whatever you choose (trust us and start with a masala dosa), the delightfully light dish is best eaten hot, when it’s fresh off the griddle.

Masala Dosa, India
Masala Dosa

2. Idlis: steamed rice cakes

Soft, fluffy and ivory-coloured, idlis are what many South Indian families eat for breakfast. A fermented lentil-and rice-batter is steamed in little circular moulds, and the resulting spherical rice cakes are served with sambar and chutneys.

Idlis are light and mild tasting, an ideal snack for when you want to give your stomach a rest from fiery flavours.

Idli, India
Fresh Idli

3. Vadas: savoury doughnuts

What’s that doughnut-like thing doing on your South Indian breakfast thali (platter)? While a vada won’t cure your sugar cravings, it will satiate your desire for something deep fried, hot and crispy.

Made from a batter of black lentils, gently spiced with peppercorns, curry leaves, cumin, chilli and onion, this crunchy fritter tastes best when smeared generously with coconut chutney.

Vadas, India
vadas

4. Uttapams: pizza-pancake hybrids

Is it a pancake? Is it a pizza? No, it’s an uttapam. A batter of fermented rice and lentils is ladled on to a griddle. Chopped tomato, onion, chillies, carrot, coconut and other toppings are then sprinkled on. The result is a fluffy, porous, delicious uttapam, softer than a dosa, and tastes great with chutneys or without.

Uttapam, India
uttapam

5. Banana chips: crisps with a twist

Roadside stalls frying up and selling packs of bright yellow crispy banana slices are a common sight. Banana chips are a popular snack in South India. Thin circular slivers of banana are deep-fried, usually in coconut oil. Sometimes they’re coated in jaggery. Salty with a mild coconut flavour, these crisps are a good teatime snack.

Banana chips, India
Banana chips

6. Malabar parotta with Kerala-style beef: flat bread and spicy beef

Tiring of vegetarian fare? Indulge in some fiery Keralan meats. Parottas are flaky, layered flatbreads made of flour. Eat these with a Kerala-style dry beef fry (erachi varattiyathu) – an incredibly spicy and delicious dish of beef chunks cooked with ground spices, black pepper, coconut and chillies.

parotta, India
parotta, India

7. Appams and ishtu: pancakes and stew 

Appams are like thin crepes, made from a batter of fermented rice flour and coconut milk. Soft, light and fluffy, they go best with ishtu – a fresh coconut milk-infused stew of veggies, shallots, mild spices and meat of your choice. Mutton, chicken and vegetable stews are the common options.

Appam, India
Appam, India

8. Kaapi: filter coffee

There’s nothing quite like a steaming tumbler of South Indian filter coffee to kick start your morning. Coffee connoisseurs will concede that nowhere else in India does kaapi like the south.

Beans from southern Indian coffee-growing regions such as the Nilgiris, Malabar and the hills of Karnataka are roasted, ground and sometimes blended with chicory.

The coffee is then brewed in a steel filter, mixed with hot milk and poured vigorously between two tumblers from a great height to create a frothy strong brew, served in a stainless steel glass.

Kaapi, India
Kaapi, India

9. Biryani: something like pilaf

The ubiquitous biryani is found in different forms all over India, changing in flavour and preparation style according to regional influences.

Biryani is essentially a dish of rice cooked with meat, veggies and spices such as turmeric, cardamom, bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, and pepper; sometimes garnished with cashews, raisins and caramelized onions. It can be vegetarian or have meats such as chicken, mutton or beef.

While there is no single South Indian-style biryani, you’ll find different varieties such as Hyderabadi dum biryani, Kerala-style Malabar or Thalassery biryani, the coastal Karnataka variant of Bhatkali biryani, Tamil Nadu’s Dinidgul biryani and so on.

Chicken Biryani, India
Chicken Biryani, India

10. Payasam: milky pudding

A milky, sugary rice pudding, payasam is a dessert that’s served across South India during festivals and major events. Rice or vermicelli (depending on the type of payasam) is added to boiled, sweetened milk and sometimes flavoured with cashews, almonds and cardamom. Coconut milk and jaggery occasionally replace the milk and sugar. Beware, this one is a jaw-gnashing kind of sweet.

payasam, India
payasam, India