While Northern India’s climate is better suited to producing wheat and dairy, Southern India relies more upon rice as the carbohydrate staple, as well as a larger variety of seafood, lentils, curry leaves and tropical fruits, such as coconut. As I’ve already covered in my Northern India blog, most of the curries that would be familiar to Westerners and served in international Indian restaurants are from the north, leaving the south as somewhat of an unknown quantity for me. As it turns out, the cuisine is remarkably varied, tasty and surprisingly healthy, and, despite my aversion to monotonous diets, I think I would be happy to eat this fare daily for quite some time.
There are many iterations of this meal across Southern India, all comprising a banquet of (usually vegetarian) curries served together with carbohydrates such as rice, dosa and papadums. Not wanting to appear to favour any particular region, I have listed two names for these types of banquets (although there are many more), and incorporated aspects of each into mine. “Thali” means “plate”, and is particularly popular in Tamil Nadu, where it is offered by canteens for lunch. If you are very lucky, you might even wind up in an establishment serving unlimited thali, the generosity of which is indicative of the deep belief that serving food to others is a noble act for humanity. No disagreements here! The ethos of the meal emphasises offering at least six different flavours on a single dish: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy. “Sadhya” means “banquet” and is served in Kerala, where it is almost always vegetarian and served at big celebratory events such as weddings. The individual components are often presented on a banana leaf, and can have as many as 24 dishes offered at once, or even up to 64 if you’re really aiming to impress your in-laws… It’s thought that the ethos behind the dish may be one of inclusion, as, if you offer 24 dishes, even the pickiest eaters among your guests are sure to find something they like. Personally, my patience wears a little thin with very picky eaters (ethical and medical reasons aside), so I would be tempted to not go so far to accommodate it, but I can’t deny it’s a very humble and generous gesture. In my thali/sadhya, I included (going clockwise around the leaf from the left): tomato and cucumber salad, white rice, eggplant pickle, banana chips, keera kootu, chana sundal, beetroot thoran, avial, raita, dosa, mathanga (pumpkin) erissery, cabbage thoran, sambar, chettinad potatoes, beans poriyal, mango pickle and papadums. Seventeen dishes! Goodness, no wonder I was tired. I won’t go through the ins and outs of each recipe, suffice to say that they involved a lot of vegetables and legumes, often flavoured (among many many spices) with grated coconut, sambar powder (a spice mix) mustard seeds and curry leaves, and were all terribly delicious. My favourite was undoubtedly the chettinad potatoes, which I think are in close competition with Greek lemon-roast potatoes for my favourite new way to cook potatoes. I prepared this for a New Year’s Eve sojourn into the mountains with some vegetarian friends and it was a lovely way to ring in 2018 with a burst of flavour.
Pani puri is a street snack, made with puri, which are created from unleavened wheat and semolina dough, deep fried until they become a spherical hollow puff, and pani, which describes the liquid filling. I had initial reservations about whether and how I would be able to make dough that puffed up nicely, so I bought some ready-to-fry panis. These came as hard flat little discs, and I remained dubious about how they would turn out, especially when I read the directions on the packet: fry for 30 seconds. “Surely 30 seconds is too short for such a miraculous transformation?” I thought. So I heated up the oil and put a trial pani in without much faith. I turned away to continue preparing the filling, then when I turned back shrieked in delight! A Harry Potter-esque miracle had occurred in my kitchen – the tiny flat disc had puffed up into a perfect, hollow sphere in a matter of seconds! Of all my cooking experiments in this challenge, this transformation inspired the most child-like awe and wonder in me. The beautiful crispy spheres are traditionally cracked open and filled with a mix of pieces of boiled potato, chickpeas, onion, coriander leaves, sev (fried noodles) and spices, including chaat masala and cumin. This filling is spooned into the puris, and topped with liberal amounts of pani, which is a beautiful green liquid flavoured with mint, coriander, ginger, chilli, tamarind, jaggery, cumin, lime and chaat masala. The net result is a single biteful that is an explosion of contrasting flavours and textures: the cool mint, tangy and sour tamarind, hot chilli, aromatic spices and salty puri with the soft potatoes, crunchy casing and smooth liquid. This dish was a delightful surprise to make and eat – I would recommend it as an easy and impressive vegan starter for even the strictest of dietary requirements.
Biriyani emerged from the Muslim population of India, perhaps originating from Arabic rice dishes such as pilaf/pulao. Biriyani is an Urdu word, thought to derive from Persian words meaning either “rice” or “fry”. Wikipedia yields a frankly overwhelming number of Biriyani varieties. To be honest with you, I ended up looking at a few of their recipes and creating an amalgamation of them based on what I felt like would be tasty. Although, to be even more honest, this is what I end up doing with most recipes… I marinated chicken pieces in yoghurt spiced with lemon juice, masala, pepper, turmeric, garlic, ginger, chilli, mint, coriander and onion. I then cooked the rice with cinnamon, bay leaf, cardamom, curry leaves, cloves, onions, tomato and salt. After frying the chicken mixture, I combined it with the parboiled rice and simmered it all together. I garnished it with raisins, fried onions, slivered almonds, coriander and hardboiled eggs. There’s nothing quite like rice and chicken – I’ve found a version in so many countries around the world and it’s a classic for a reason. There’s something about the combination of subtle flavours and textures that speaks of home-cooking and comfort food, and this aromatic Indian version is no exception!
Recheado masala fish and prawn vindaloo
Recheado masala describes a spicy, tangy paste made from ginger, garlic, dried chilli, cumin, pepper, cinnamon, fenugreek, cloves, mustard, turmeric, sugar and vinegar. It is used in Goan cuisine to flavour all sorts of dishes, but the most famous use is to stuff and coat fish, usually mackerel or pomfret. The paste is slathered inside the cavity of the fish, and then coated all over the outside, and the fish is then fried until the paste is caramelised and the skin is a bit crispy. I found this a wonderful way to prepare fish – quick, simple, full of flavour and delicious. I first encountered the concept of vindaloo during my childhood exposure to the classic British 80s and 90s comedy “Red Dwarf”. This sitcom is based on the premise of a space mission that goes awry, killing almost all occupants, leaving a skeleton crew millions of years later led by Lister, a relaxed, sloppy, dreadlocked worker who was coincidentally frozen in suspended animation at the time of the accident. Lister is joined by the hologram of his former bunkmate Rimmer, a tediously tidy, pedantic and power-hungry goody-two-shoes, “Cat”, the human-like result of millions of years of evolution from Lister’s former pregnant pet cat, and Kryten, a subservient but dim-witted robot. Convinced yet? Anyway, while Cat is understandably obsessed with eating only fish, “curryholic” Lister’s meal of choice is always variants of vindaloo, including abominations such as kipper vindaloo, caviar vindaloo, and chilled vindaloo smoothie for breakfast. The only other information about vindaloo that I garnered from this source is that vindaloo is very hot, hot enough, in fact, to render Lister’s tastebuds useless after many millennia of curry-addiction. Vindaloo is actually from the Goan region of India, and was formed from a hybrid of Portuguese and Indian influences, originally from the preservation of ingredients in vinegar by Portuguese sailors. Its basis is a paste made with vinegar, cumin, dry chillies, pepper, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, garlic and ginger. This is mixed with tomatoes, potatoes, onions and curry leaves to form a thick spicy sauce. A meat is then added to this mix, most traditionally pork, but for which I used prawns. I found the vindaloo very spicy, despite substantially (and with considerable cowardice) reducing the recommended amount of dried chilli. I can therefore understand why one could develop such an extreme addiction to it, given the demonstrated addictiveness of chilli due to its endorphin-releasing nature. I shall endeavour to foster my curry-addiction more attentively in the future.