India is an expansive nation that boasts incredibly diverse culinary traditions. The cuisine of Southern India is quite distinct from the cuisine of its northern neighbors. When talking about South Indian cuisine, foodies are referring to the Indian states of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Telangana. The Union Territories of Pondicherry, Lakshadweep and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are also included in the culinary heritage of South India.
One of the most notable features of South Indian cuisine is its reliance on heat and spice. In fact, the cuisine of Andhra Pradesh is regarded as the spiciest in all of India. Here’s a rundown of the flavorful culinary traditions of of South Indian cuisine.
History of South Indian Cuisine
While Northern Indian food was heavily influenced by the Moghuls, the food of South India is largely a product of its surroundings and tropical ingredients. While Muslims brought many meat dishes to India, some of which spread to the Southern Indian regions like Kerala, Hindus impacted the largely vegetarian nature of the cuisine.
Over the centuries, South Indian cuisine has been influenced by China, other parts of Southeastern Asia, Persia and Portugal. Both the Portuguese and British brought many New World ingredients to India like tomatoes, peanuts and sweet potatoes. Over the years, each state developed its own unique dishes, which all contributed to the development of South Indian cuisine.
Description of South Indian Cuisine
South Indian cuisine relies on rice as a staple ingredient. India is one of the world’s leading rice producers, and Andhra Predesh is the fifth-largest rice-producing state in the country. Lentils are also popularly used in the South Indian cooking, as are many types of spices such as garlic, ginger and chilis.
Other popular ingredients used in South Indian cooking include coconut, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, plantain, mango, tomatoes, millet, sorghum, curry leaves, fenugreek and tamarind. Stews are popular in South Indian cuisine, as are heavily spiced vegetarian and nonvegetarian dishes.
There are many staple dishes in South India that are so popular, you’ll often find them in Indian restaurants around the world. Some of the main dishes of South India include:
- Dosas: These crispy paper-like crepes are prepared with a batter of fermented rice and lentils. They’re often served for breakfast along with hot lentil soup or a chutney. Dosas can be filled with anything you like, but they traditionally contain a mash of potatoes, onions and spices.
- Uttapam: Like dosas, uttapam is made from fermented rice and lentils. It’s spread out very thin — in appearance, it looks like a pizza crust or pancake. Unlike a crispy dosa, uttapam is softer and more porous, so it’s used to soak up delicious chutneys or other ingredients including chilis, tomatoes, and sprinkled coconut.
- Appams and stew: An appam is a thick crepe made from coconut milk and fermented rice powder. Light and fluffy, it’s a favorite accompaniment for South Indian stews that typically feature coconut milk, vegetables, spices, and meat such as chicken or mutton.
- Banana leaf thali: Banana leaf thalis are popular small meals in South India. The banana leaf serves as the platter for various foods. The most substantial ingredient in a thali is rice. It’s accompanied by other, smaller piles of food like chutneys, pickles, or curry.
- Biryani: Biryani is similar to a rice pilaf but possibly more complex. This dish features rice, coconut milk, cinnamon sticks, cumin, cardamom and star anise.
What’s Unique about South Indian Cuisine?
South Indian cuisine is unique for its distinctive spice combinations and use of heat in its wide range of dishes. Many South Indian people rely heavily on vegetables, less on meats and seafood, although these ingredients are found in South Indian dishes. If you love foods that pack a lot of heat and spice-laden stews that combine both vegetables and fruits, you’ll love South India’s unique culinary traditions.
There are many variations of dishes within South India, many based on the state where they’re made. The difference between many South Indian dishes is their level of spice. As mentioned, Andhra Pradesh has the spiciest cuisine in all of the subcontinent. Also, while chicken and seafood are popular in many Indian states, beef is not. However, the state of Kerala is famous for its beef dishes.
If you plan to prepare a South Indian meal, you can vary the heat based on the types and amounts of spices you use.
Recipe: Kerala Beef
Kerala beef is one of South India’s most famous dishes and is often found in Indian restaurants around the world. To prepare this main dish, opt for a basic recipe like this:
2½ pounds of beef, cut into strips
2 thinly sliced yellow onions
2 finely chopped tomatoes (large)
2 tablespoons garlic paste
2 tablespoons ginger paste
3 green chilis
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
3 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
5 green cardamom seeds
20 black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
50 curry leaves
1 cup fresh coconut
1 tablespoon sunflower cooking oil
To create this dish, you’ll need a large flat pan. Heat the pan and then add cloves, fennel, peppercorns, coriander seeds, cardamom seeds and a cinnamon stick. Roast these ingredients while stirring. After they darken and you smell their perfume in the air, turn off the flame and let them cool. Then, grind them into a coarse powder using a dry coffee grinder or mortar and pestle.
Next, combine your sliced beef, chilis, onions, tomatoes, garlic paste, ginger paste, and ground spices in a bowl. Mix so the ingredients coat the meat completely. Set the mixture aside for about an hour to give the beef has time to absorb all the other flavors. Then, transfer the mixture to a deep pot and let it cook on medium heat until the beef is tender.
In another pan, saute onions in some oil until they’re translucent. Add in the mustard seeds, curry seeds and slivers of coconut. Cook until the coconut slivers turn pale gold. Add this panful of ingredients to the larger pot. The dish is considered done when the meat is browned and it all takes on a dark brown hue.
Serve Kerala beef with hot dosas or appams.