South Indian spice for a Sunday – or indeed any other occasion

Special virunthu meal Anjappar EatUpCrew Chettinad restaurant East Ham London South Indian

If your Sunday afternoons lack spice, you probably need to leave the roast to rest and switch on the radio so you can season your spuds to the soothing sounds of Ashanti Omkar’s velvety voice. But beware. After shaking your stuff to a few of the top tunes she spins, hearing the latest masala gupshup from the entertainment world, and fantasising over the South Indian food descriptions Ashanti can’t stop slipping in, the meal you’re making might seem a little meek.

The show’s focus is specifically on South India – a first for BBC Asian Network, and a long and hotly-anticipated format by both those whose roots are in the region and those who simply love the music, film, food and culture of the Southern states. I am the latter, and I’m delighted. A dedicated space to explore and expose the rich and vibrant artistic output of South India – not to mention the art the area’s cooks and chefs put on the plate – is a joyful thing indeed.

The appointment of Ashanti as anchor is one few will dispute. The self-confessed ‘Selfie Pulla’ (as the hot new film song of the same name from Kanthi sings it) and social media junkie knows the what’s what and the who’s who of the South Indian arts scene. Her encyclopedic knowledge is astounding; her garrulous and articulate sharing of such engaging; and her enthusiasm infectious. She knows, but she also knows that you might not know. And, critically, she knows how to inform without insulting your intelligence, and that making you feel ignorant is a no-no.

I aim for same when I speak of food. So, in honour of The Ashanti Omkar Show, I’d like to invite you to meet and eat some of my favourite South Indian specialities from the constituent states of  Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. And, should you already be familiar with these mouthwatering, tongue-tickling, splendidly-spiced items, just relish the excuse to reacquaint  yourself with some cracking cuisine… and get to know some great new radio.

Puttu

puttu South Indian Kerala breakfast food

Steamed rice flour is layered with fresh grated coconut in bamboo moulds and steamed. The crumbly logs can be enjoyed at breakfast accompanied by Kadala (spiced black chickpeas) in the Keralite manner, or Sri Lanka-style with soothing sothi  gravy and sambol relish –  both based on coconut.

Keralite recipe: Padhu’s Kitchen
Sri Lanka recipe: Vegemite on Oatcakes

Appam

Thiru Anathapuram South Indian Kerala restaurant East Ham London by Momtaz Begum Hossain egg appams hoppers

Also known as hoppers in Sri Lanka, appams are thin, saucer-shaped crepes made with a lightly-fermented rice and coconut batter. They’re super-soothing and endlessly versatile as menus from London joints like Nala’s Aapakadai attest: sweet or savoury, plain or flavoured. For me, the ‘bullseye’ variety hits the spot everytime – each enclosing a whole soft-yolked egg in that bubbly batter.

Bullseye appam recipe: Delectable Flavours
The ways in which different Keralite communities enjoy appams: Times of India

Lamprais

If you love Chinese lotus-wrapped rice, you will love the similarly treasure-laden Sri Lankan lamprais. The name for the Dutch Burger delicacy is seemingly derived from ‘lump rice’ – a rather accurate description for what lies beneath the banana leaf.  A quick finger forage through the rice will reveal all sorts of gorgeous gifts to gorge on: oft-including, but not limited to, meat curry, coconut sambol, vegetables, meatballs, and a whole boiled egg.

Recipe: Infolanka
More on lamprais: Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Kothu roti

The name of this Sri Lankan street food is is onomatopoeic – ‘kothu’ describes the sound of the blades chop, chop, chopping leftover godhamba roti (a type of  flatbread) into small slivers with whatever takes one’s fancy – veggies, eggs, meat, fish, or a mixture of any or indeed all.  The whole lot is moistened with a ladle of spicy gravy and eaten with aplomb. Much like bubble and squeak or hash, it’s a vehicle for leftovers that’s so lovely you’ll deliberately cook too much to start with in order to eat it.

Recipe: Rathai’s Recipes
Eat it on London streets: Kothu Kothu

Mutton rolls
If you grew up in the UK in the 1980s and 90s, you probably had a few encounters with a Findus Crispy Pancake, coated in bright orange breadcrumbs and, in its finest form, filled with savoury mince. Those retro treats may no longer be found in the frozen food section, but with mutton rolls – a classic Sri Lankan ‘short eat’, you can pretty much relive the experience…with added spice and all things nice. Even more cracking with ketchup.

Recipe: Karam Sethi
More on Sri Lankan short eats and a great guide to the country’s cuisine: Serious Eats

Idli

Kanchipuram idli South Indian Alfred Prasad Alice Griffiths

These small, soft, steamed, spongy pillows are made with the same fermented rice and dal batter as dosas – those incredible Indian crepes. Part of a classic South Indian  Udupi-style breakfast, they’re super soaked in sambhar and consumed with coconut chutney. Karnataka’s rawa – semolina – idli is also well-worth sampling, as are Ashanti’s favoured order at Saravana Bhavan – miniature cocktail idlis that are every bit as poppable as Pringles.

Idli & dosa recipes from a single batter: Spicy Treats
Idlis cooked as skewered kebabs: The Hindu

Uttapam

Often offered as ‘Indian pizza’, uttapams have a crisp exterior and a pleasingly chewy, slightly glutinous centre. Like idli and dosa, the thick pancakes are made from a fermented rice and dal batter, lending them an addictive sour tang. Like pizzas, toppings have become increasingly outlandish – but raw red onion, tomato, chilli and coriander is a classic for good reason. Also offered in smaller sizes as perfect party food.

Recipe: Udupi Recipes
How America’s Trader Joe’s fell in love with and adopted the uttapam:  Trader Joe’s

Dosa

spinach-dosa-the-diwana-bhel-poori-house_l

I call dosa the ‘incredible Indian crepe’ – and if you’ve eaten one, I’m sure you’ll concur. The thin, fermented rice and dal batter disc most commonly encloses masala potatoes, but also almost anything else you could care to name (check out this post on a London restaurant with over 100 varieties on the menu). Shaping dosa is almost South India’s answer to origami – the thin, crisp kind can come cone-shaped, triangular, rolled or as 6-foot cylinders to feed a family. For kids, thicker, softer dosas might be made into Mickey Mouse heads or rockets. If you don’t have time for the batter to bubble, rava (semolina) versions are almost instantaneous.

Frankly,dosa is a delicious subject and there’s much to say – click here for more.

Detailed dosa recipe: Edible Garden
Mega-post on all things dosa: The Spice Scribe

Rasam

Veg Recipe of India Dassana Amit lemon-coriander-rasam-recipe

Veg Recipes of India’s rasam

If chicken soup is Jewish penicillin then rasam is the equivalent South Indian cure-all. In his memoir ‘Picklehead: From Ceylon to suburbia; a memoir of food, family and finding yourself‘, journalist and author Rohan Candappa describes his father’s favoured cold remedy as the thin lentil-based broth, made chilli-hot enough to blow the top of one’s cranium clean off. The Tamil milagu (pepper) tanni (water)  is likely the original ‘mulligatawny’ soup.

Udupi tomato rasam recipe: Sailu’s Food
Tamarind rasam recipe: Sharmi’s Passions
Milagu rasam recipe: Tickling Palates

Ellu urundai

I first found these in a grotto full of edible jewels Tamil shop gratifyingly close to where I live, individually wrapped in clingfilm on the counter also with bars of some rather nice Indian-style fruitcake. Also known as til laddoos, these super-nutritious sweets have no added fat – the natural oils released when sesame seeds are roasted and ground is sufficient to bind it into bittersweet balls of joy along with powdered jaggery. For a dramatic appearance, use black sesame seeds.

Recipe: Sharmi’s Passions
Many, many South Indian sweet recipes: Kamala’s Corner

Bisi bele bath

bisi bele bhath powder MTR brand

The word ‘bisi bele bath’ feels lovely in the mouth – but not as lovely as a spoonful of the dish whose name literally means ‘hot rice and dal mix’. The vegetarian dish is protein-rich and is an ideal meal of you only want to prepare a single item – including grains, pulses and veggies. The recipe is pretty forgiving, but no-one will forgive or thank you if you mess with the lentil variety: only toor gives the inimitable and essential fragrance and flavour.

Video recipe: Archana’s Kitchen
Recipe: Padhu’s Kitchen

Vada

Damn God Curry Methu vada

Homer Simpson’s favourite Indian snack, probably. Although he might be shocked at the deeply savoury flavour of these ‘donuts’. Made with a fermented rice and dal batter like their breakfast bedfellows, idli and dosa, good vadas boast a friable, crisp casing and a fluffy, soft middle. They might come plain and simple, or spiked with curry leaves, chillies and peppercorns, but they should simply always be eaten with sambhar and coconut chutney.

Recipe: Veg Recipes of India
A word on vada nomenclature: Chowder Singh

Curd rice

Curd rice must be one of the simplest South Indian dishes to prepare. Cooked, cooled short-grain rice is mixed with curd that’s been thinned with a dash of milk, and seasoned with a hot oil tadka that might include curry leaves, mustard seeds and dried red chillies. Like revenge, it’s absolutely a dish best served cold, but, unlike the former, will rarely result in any unpleasant aftereffects. When your tummy needs soothing, a curd rice supper is superlative.

Recipe: Cooking and Me

Sambhar

A bowl of sambhar accompanies many snack items and meals down South, but this side dish is also the star of its own show. If you’ve only ever been exposed to the comforting yet somewhat bland British version of lentil soup, prepare to be blown away. This is a pulse porridge to get your heart racing – tamarind-sour, chilli-hot, veg-packed. Good, good, good-for-you stuff – think ‘rasam with a bit more body’.

Recipe (with many regional variations): Veg Recipes of India
Homemade sambhar powder: Rak’s Kitchen

Must-watch video-song:

Must-visit site:

  • Peppertrail – Food historian Ammini Ramachandran’s amazing site on Kerala’s ancient and modern foodways.

Some fantastic recipe sites for South Indian food:

The Ashanti Omkar Show is on BBC Asian Network from 2-4pm on Sunday afternoons. 

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28 responses to “South Indian spice for a Sunday – or indeed any other occasion

    • Centrally there’s Rasa, Woodlands and Drummond St near Euston, but all are more expensive and not as good as you’ll get anywhere in Tooting or East Ham – well worth a trip, make a day of it and shop too! Would often rather eat something else and save dosa fix for when I can get a good one… and of course there are street foodies like Dosa Deli and Horn Please if you’re happy to eat on the hoof. Check out the post I link to in the dosa section for more on topic.

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