South Indian cuisine, or food spanning the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh (and now Telangana), has remained distinctive, if less known globally than Punjabi or North-West Frontier food. Its subtle flavours are dominated by coconut, unique regional souring agents, rice, green chillies and curry leaves. Local vegetables are cooked with ginger and garlic, and sun-dried lentil crisps are a favourite snack across borders.

But closer examination reveals variety and nuance even within these similarities. Each state’s cuisine diverges uniquely as it moves from one region to the next. Karnataka alone contains incredible diversity – from Uttara Karnataka’s unique flavours and the coastal cuisine seen in Mangalore, to the umami-heavy Kodava cuisine and the ubiquitous temple cuisine of Udupi. It would require a lifetime of study to fully understand the depths of each culinary subculture.

But in A Cook’s Tour of South India, Vimla Patil attempts to provide a broad overview of the southern states’ palate, through recipes for a few festive dishes, and several everyday dishes. A beginner’s guide for all lovers of South Indian food, if you will.

Patil is a renowned author and editor. She spearheaded Femina, a women’s magazine, for over two decades, and wrote on subjects diverse subjects such as art, travel, social change and women’s emancipation. She famously used

Femina as a platform to intervene when Indian mathematician Shakuntala Devi was refused a mortgage because the bank wanted her father’s (or husband’s) signature. Patil travelled extensively promoting Indian textiles and handlooms, and wrote 12 books on cooking, including The Working Woman’s Cookbook, Entertaining Indian Style: Recipes for All and Fabulous Recipes from Indian Homes.

Spicy Brinjal Curry.
Spicy Brinjal Curry.

Following rituals

In A Cook’s Tour of South India, she begins with a meaty introduction to southern hospitality. “You may eat on a thali of silver, brass or steel, on a banana leaf or patravali, depending on the occasion and the social status of the host,” she writes. “But good hospitality extends beyond mere food, to include good music and good conversation in equal measure – to feed mind, body and spirit.”

Eating in India is often an elaborate ritual in which tradition, season, flavours and nutrition find a balance to create a meal with visual appeal and a variety of tastes. At village feasts and family ceremonies, food is typically served on banana leaves laid out on clean floors, alongside chattais or mats to sit on. The leaves are often marked with kolam (or rangoli) featuring motifs or lotus and paisley, with the gentle aroma from fragrant incense sticks filling the room. Each community serves food on the leaf in its own particular pattern, but the pouring of ghee over rice typically signals the beginning of the feast. Also common across the communities is that members of the host family will walk between the rows of banana leaves, checking on their guests as they dine, asking them not to hurry, and to eat in peace, ensuring their leaves are refilled a third, fourth and fifth time.

The first recipe we sample from A Cook’s Tour of South India is the Spicy Brinjal Curry or the Muzhukathrikkai Curry. From the Tamil Nadu section of the book, the recipe involves grinding a masala – always a promise of good things to come. The recipe is succinct without being vague. Surprisingly detailed for a book first published in 1988, even the measurements of oil used in the recipe are provided. But time measurements are omitted, and instead, like every effective cookbook, the recipe provides signs to look out for, such as “cook till the gravy thickens”, “fry till the brinjal is half fried” – this helps the readers not only master the recipe, but become more adept cooks in general by teaching them to pay attention to the sensory experiences of cooking.

Sundal.
Sundal.

We picked our second recipe from the snacks section of the book. Sundal or Pulse Snack was the dish of choice. Like the previous recipe, the instructions are clear and concise. The only grouse we spoon-fed recipe-followers have is that green mangoes make an appearance in the method, and not the ingredients, with no measurements included. To be fair, it is mentioned as optional.

The book is divided into six sections – Andhra, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Snacks and Sweets, as though the last two are separate territories that don’t fall into any of the South Indian states. By way of extra trimmings, there is a glossary section at the end which provides the English, Hindu, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada translations of several ingredients.

One of the things that we have lost in this era of fetishising food is cookbooks that serve no purpose except to provide instructions to cook from. No full-page colour photographs and lengthy prose on the context – simply textbook-style cheap paper, bound in an A6 size paperback, convenient companions in the kitchen, unlike the beautiful coffee-table-style cookbooks of today. There are pros and cons to each, but the older books were definitely more portable, and comfortable by the stove, with the splutters and splashes adding character to the book. A Cook’s Tour of South India takes this philosophy of no frou-frou a bit further – there are no photographs, illustrations or flowery descriptions – just solid, reliable recipes.

Sundal (Pulse Snack)

Ingredients
500 g Kabuli chana
6 red chillies
1/4th coconut, scraped
2 green chillies
1 tsp mustard seeds
A pinch of asafoetida
A pinch of soda bicarb
A few curry leaves
Oil as needed
Salt to taste

Method
Clean and soak the chana overnight in water with a pinch of soda bi carb.
Boil the chana with salt in the same water till soft. Drain and keep aside.
Heat 4 tbsps of oil and fry mustard seeds, asafoetida, broken red chillies, chopped green chillies and curry leaves.
Add the cooked chana and the coconut scrapings. Fry for a while.
Remove and serve hot.
If mangoes are in season, chopped green mangoes can also be added along with coconut scrapings.
Any pulses can be substituted for Kabuli chana.

All photos by Aysha Tanya.