Diwali, or Deepavali, the festival of lights celebrated worldwide, ended yesterday. The lights will rekindle again, but one light has extinguished forever. Best selling author and cooking icon Tarla Dalal died Wednesday, November 6. She has influenced many a kitchen, including mine. The following is a a piece I wrote for a writing segment originally published June 16, 2013 of this year. I would like to share it with you in honor of all who cook, who love, and who connect with their inner Amma.
Amma’s Guide to South Indian Cuisine
Don’t let the naysayers fool you. Cooking South Indian food is easy. All you really need is your very own Amma, along with some choice ingredients.
‘Amma’ is a term for ‘mother’ in South Indian languages like Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, and Telegu. ‘Amma’ also has a second meaning, which is ‘spiritual leader.’ Let’s expand that second meaning for a moment, because when you’re cooking in the kitchen, you are either the leader, or you’re a slave to the cookbook. While cooking dishes like sambar, bisibelebath, masala dosa, or even sweets like burfi and kesaribath, you cannot simply let the cookbook rule. Otherwise, you will miss out on the joy of cooking. Cooking these dishes requires a little bit of magic. The type perhaps you saw an elder using in the kitchen when baking a pie from scratch with nary a cookbook in sight. It is this ‘Amma,’ that comes from within.
Now, if you want to cheat, you can simply head over to your local Indian grocery store, and head to the isle where all of the MTR mixes sit. MTR makes great instant food. Their ‘heat and serve’ sambar package is adequate when you want a quick bite to eat. I would digress a little and suggest that if you’re ever in the beautiful city of Bangalore, you should head to the original Mavalli Tiffin Room on Lalbagh Road, you can even wander into the kitchen to watch the cooks in action. The food at this tiffin room is amazing, and puts the store mixes to shame.
Getting back to the cooking, you could bring in your nearest Amma, (mother), but keep in mind that if you are going to cook with her, you will need to trust in the art of cooking by rote. Put your notepad and pencil away, and put on your apron. Nothing is exact, which could be why so many South Indian cookbooks differ with the same recipe. That’s why you need your Inner Amma. It’s all going to depend on you and your tastes.
Next, let us touch on some of the necessary ingredients you may need. Unlike cuisine from the north, South Indian cuisine is comprised of stews (sambar), rice, pickle (not sweet or dill), dal (various types of lentil), vegetables, oil or ghee, and about 57,000 different spices. If you’re more of a wheat kind of person, many of the dishes can use semolina instead of rice. Dishes like rava idli, rava dosa, rava kesari are just as yummy as their rice counterparts. You can also fix chapati (called roti in the north), if you are craving flat bread to go with your paliya or kootu.
For cooking, you will need various pots, a pressure cooker, pans to sauté some of your 57,000 spices and chilies, a griddle for your chapati and dosa, and a rice cooker. Utensils include a knife for finely chopping chili and vegetables, ladles for serving, a spatula from Spatula City (or anywhere you find spatulas), and a couple of wooden spoons. Last but not least, you will need about 3-4 hours of cooking time from start to finish. More, if you’re preparing a buffet for guests.
“But wait!” you say, “I’m really confused. This doesn’t sound easy at all! All of that time, but no microwave or food processor? Where on Earth am I going to find 57,000 spices? Why do I have to stand cooking for 3-4 hours? Why would I want to cook this stuff if I don’t even know what it is? WHY?!?!?!?” Those are really good questions. Let’s take a deep breath, and I will answer these questions in order.
First of all, you can use your microwave and food processor. You can also utilize a blender, and all of the equipment your kitchen has to offer. That said, cooking a non-instant meal in the microwave would not lend the finesse to your dish. These dishes take time in a way that bread dough takes time to rise before you bake it.
“But where on Earth am I going to find all of those spices?” Simply put, if you own a spice rack, you probably have a lot of the spices utilized in South Indian cuisine. Turmeric, coriander, cumin, chili powder, garlic, fenugreek, and cinnamon are in most spice racks. Chances are, they might be in your cupboard as well. As for some of the more obscure flavors like saffron, asafoetida can be found at your nearest Indian grocer. For bonus flavor, these grocers also carry curry leaves, for fairly cheap. They lend a flavor to your dishes that no curry powder can offer.
Next, we cover time. Channel your Inner Amma for a second, and consider this. If you are baking anything from scratch, it takes time. Whether you are creating salsa or a marinara sauce, or even a cake from scratch. Every good dish takes time and love. It does not mean that you are married to the stove. You set your stuff to cook, and like a cake or a simmer sauce, you let it cook while you do other things. My Amma sometimes takes a nap while things are coming into their flavor. It’s not a ‘set and forget’ type of thing exactly, but you do not have to watch the pot boil by any means.
As to why you would want to cook this stuff, my answer is that it’s simply delicious. Now, I can’t just tell you to take my word for it, because you really need to simply experience the food for yourself. Perhaps we need to take a tasting field trip first. We don’t even have to hop the nearest flight to Chennai or Bangalore. Chances are, there might be a place not too far from you already. Yelp might be a useful tool here, so try searching for ‘South Indian restaurants.’
Including ‘south’ in your search is very important. Here’s why: South Indian food differs quite a bit from North Indian cuisine. First, much of the cuisine is exclusively vegetarian. Second, the flavors differ drastically from cuisine from the north. It’s like comparing French and Italian cuisine. There are some North Indian restaurants that offer South Indian food, but the taste isn’t as sharp. Aficionados have gone in with expectations of authentic food, only to be left rather disappointed. So go ahead and be specific in your search. Many South Indian restaurants feature names like Woodlands, Udupi, Masala, Sweets and Spices, or Dosai Place, to name a few. If words like ‘tandoori’ or ‘grill’ appear in the name or review, you’re looking at the wrong region, and should avoid these places.
Now that you have found a place to try out, let’s discuss what you might expect to eat. Much of the cuisine from South India includes soups like rasam, and stews called sambar. These dishes often include rice, yogurt and pickle. First time samplers might want to skip the pickle, because it is an acquired taste. Next, you might encounter a paliya a spiced vegetable dish served with either rice, chapati (tastes like a whole wheat tortilla), or on occasion puri (fried fluffy bread). Don’t expect to find naan at a South Indian restaurant. Instead, expect the yummy treat of dosa, a very thin crepe like dish made with rice flour and dal, often cooked until crispy and served usually with a savory paliya, chutney, and sambar. Desserts usually consist of fruity, nutty drinkable dessert called payasam. If you’re more of the ‘To Go’ type, you could opt for sweets to take with you like laddu or burfi.
You will not find items like chicken tikka masala at a South Indian restaurant. Chicken tikka masala is said either to have been invented by the British, or for the British in the north. Nor will you find tandoori meats, or paneer, both more affiliated with the north.
I hope you will consider giving these dishes a try whether at a restaurant, via an MTR mix, or from scratch in your own kitchen. All that I ask is that if or when you do, consider channeling your Amma, and enjoy what you create. You can even invite your mama Amma along for the adventure.