Despite traders, invasions, modernisation and religious conversions, Southern India has retained its deep-rooted and ancient cultural essence. After independence from Britain, it was divided – based on a linguistic basis – into four different states: Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka.
Cooking traditions are predominantly vegetarian, due to the majority of the population being Hindu. Ayurveda (the way of life and Indian medical system) has also played a huge part on Southern Indian’s cooking culture: they have a great respect for the therapeutic value of food.
A traditional meal is pretty much the same throughout the region: a banana leaf topped with a mound of rice, with a variety of vegetarian or meat dishes and pickles around it – arranged to provide nutritional richness and to balance flavours. However, new religions and cultures brought a whole new dimension to South Indian cooking. For instance, meat was introduced by the Muslims.
Each of the states has its own distinguishable cuisine. The spiciest food is said to be found in Andhra – hot Andhra chicken and lamb curries are extremely popular with fans of traditional Indian food.
Tamil Nadu is a temple state, renowned for its vast variety of tasty snacks and traditional vegetarian food. Dosas – rice pancakes, idlis – steamed lentil and rice cakes, and bondas and vadais – popular train snacks, are all contributions of the rich Brahmin community of Tamil Nadu. It is also popular in all the south Indian restaurants. In Chettinad – the southern area – very spicy chicken curries are very popular, even though the majority of the population here are still vegetarian. Sambar – with its tangy flavours, rasam – a spicy soup, and delicious rice preparations with yoghurt and sour tamarind are all perfect examples of Tamil cooking.
Karnataka, in the garden city of Bangalore, has its own distinct culinary identity. Apart from its border areas like Mangalore, it is predominantly vegetarian. Udupi, on the coast, is renowned for the cooking of its Hindu community, particularly famous for their dosas and delicious rice dishes such as Bisi Bela Bhath.
One of the most beautiful parts of Southern India is Kerala, on the southwest coast. It is known as the “spice capital” of the country, with a strong tradition of Ayurvedic practice. Cooking here is light, healthy and colourful – the range of diverse religions adds to the culinary variety. Tempting seafood dishes can be found in the fishing communities along the coast.
In almost all Southern Indian states, fresh ingredients are used in cooking, such as curry leaves, coconut and ginger. These, along with many spices, are home-grown, as well as commercially to be exported to other countries. Unlike Northern India, where breads often accompany curries, people of the South prefer rice – especially the local red rice.
Most Southern Indian dishes are boiled or stir-fried and then cooked in coconut-based masala pastes. Finally, dishes are ‘tempered’ with fragrant mustard seeds, aromatic curry leaves and dried chillies. The infusion of these magical ingredients is what makes South Indian curries and so special in the Indian restaurants .