Being born and raised in the heart of North India in the era of no internet meant many things — most of all, it meant that your exposure to the world was limited. That doesn’t necessarily mean that one is ignorant of the cultures and cuisines of foreign lands; in India, where diversity divides and unities an entire country, it is just as easy to be ignorant of what’s happening in our own land. Case in point, the South of India.
Distinctly different from the North, the deccan was largely shrouded in mystery. As a child of the 80s, all I knew about southern India was that there was a land called Madras, and people who lived there were called Madrasis. Yes, I was once guilty of the same ignorance, that is still afloat now. To my credit, I now nudge people towards better understanding with my knowledge of the five states, its many cuisines, it’s myriad cultures, it’s diverse people and distinct politics. But back then, I knew no better.
What affected me most was my limited understanding of the food in South India, which was obviously not possible to find and recreate in small-town Uttar Pradesh. First mistake: I thought all South Indian fare was vegetarian. Second mistake: I thought the vegetarian fare was restricted to crispy dosas and fluffy idlis served with sambar that people often drank. Third mistake: when my one South Indian friend showed his preference for curd rice over all else, I didn’t understand why.
Then, we made a trip down South.
It was here that I came to know of ‘meals’ and ‘tiffin’. The former, until then, was a word I had only read in textbooks and the latter meant the steel box we carried to school. I also learnt that dosas were not served for lunch or dinner. “That’s tiffin,” we were told, “come back in the evening if you want dosai”.
One would think that eating dosais across Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra would make me go back wiser. But going back to my cocoon meant going back to the old ways. And so, for years, I continued eating dosas imagining it to be the epitome of South Indian cuisine.
It was only after I met my husband, who was better versed with the ways of South India, that I learnt a little more about all things South. He laughed at my concept of dosa and idli and narrated stories of beef curry and trotter soup. He spoke of biriyani and chicken 65, and sang songs in praise of mutton roast, avial, tamarind rice and appams. He took me to far corners of the city to show me what a parotta was and how pongal tasted. I am not sure if he did all that for the love of the food or to woo his wife-to-be, but he ended up instilling in my mind a deep curiosity for the flavours of the deccan (and adding several inches to my waist) in the process. And so at 23, I became a South Indian food literate.
Discovering South India through food
The real turning point however came when we moved to Bangalore. I was in the city after twenty years, and the restaurants had changed. There were no strict uncles who looked down upon you when you asked for dosa in the middle of the day; they offered you gobi manchurian and fried rice instead. While the city had learnt to tolerate a North Indian’s desire for tiffin all day long, I was getting used to the deccan’s food culture — akki roti and bonda-soup for evenings, dosa and kara baath for mornings, and biriyani, parotta, rice, or ‘meals’ for meal times.
If Bangalore gave me a taste of the cosmopolitan flavours, Chennai taught me what good street food meant: trotter soup, parottas with curries, muruku sandwich, Andhra meals and Tamil thalis. Kal dosas were thick and soft, and roasts smelt of ghee and gunpowder. Beef, chicken, mutton, fish, were all cooked in South Indian flavours — I was in food heaven.
My tricks in the kitchen expanded too. From the basic sambar to the seemingly simple, yet complicated stew, from pongal to khara baath, from paniyaram to payasam, my ability to cook South Indian fare went well beyond steaming idlis. My chutneys weren’t chalky, my sambar was fragrant, and my dosas could beat any darshini hands down.
And then it was time to move back.
It has been years since I have returned to the land where many people still equate idli and dosa to the be all and end all of the southern cuisine, and now thankfully, I am not one of them.
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