Well, Deepanshu Bhatt, a 29-year-old food writer turned food critic turned food entrepreneur from Gurgaon, has his world revolving around the same question every day.
He kickstarted his blog ‘The Foodies’ in 2012 after realising his passion for food. Although he had plans to pursue a post-graduation course in food production and culinary arts at an esteemed institute in london, when that didn’t work out he chased his foodie dreams by becoming a blogger.
The first few times I tried masala dosai outside of India, I wasn’t impressed. Only in Fort Cochin (Kochi), India did I eventually warm to them. By the time we arrived in nearby Kollam, I was hooked. There was something so perfect in the combination of the crispness and nutty flavor of a dosa (a thin, large pancake made from a batter of ground rice and urad dal) and the mildly spiced crushed potato mixture inside (that’s the masala).
Super-Sized Dosa - Kathmandu, Nepal
A giant masala dosa. Breakfast of champions.
Add to this the pails of sauce that circulate in a typical South Indian cafeteria: sambar (a slightly sour-savory sauce made from tur dal, tamarind, and vegetables) and various wet chutneys, including ones made with popped mustard seeds and ground coconut (white), chili/mint/coriander (green), and tur dal chutney (red).
A full treatment of dosai – including Mysore dosa, rava, onion and all permutations thereof — could well be the topic of a tasty dissertation.
A dosa – in all of its wet topping goodness – is typically eaten with the right hand. South Indian restaurants have a sink at the back to wash your hands, before and after, but don’t be afraid to ask for a fork and spoon if you feel uncomfortable digging in with your paws.
- Banana Leaf Thali
Thalis are like many little meals in one, a little buffet on a banana leaf or metal tray. For the small plate snackers in us, a joy to eat. Simple and beautiful.
Lunch in Kerala’s Backwaters
Banana Leaf Thali in Kerala
A large pile of rice forms the base and smaller piles or tin cups of curries, chutneys, pickle can be found in orbit. Topped off with a chapati bread round or papadum and you are all set. The idea: salty, sweet, sour and bitter merge in the mouth in one sitting.
On our first day in Kochi, we poked into a vegetarian restaurant for lunch and had our first real South Indian thali served on a banana leaf. Piles of red rice in the center with endless ladles of dal (lentil), sambar, and cooked vegetables to go with. Typically, it’s all you can eat, and the price runs roughly $1-$2.
Think of a fried, savory and dense donut and you’ve got a vada. It’s the dal, lentil, gram flour and occasional potato mash that provide the vada its heft. It can be eaten straight as a snack on the street or taken in a restaurant with the familiar sides of sambar and wet chutneys.
Vada with Sambar and Wet Chutneys - Kualal Lumpur, Malaysia
Vada with Sambar and Wet Chutneys
Savory, steamed saucer-like cakes made of a batter from fermented black lentils and rice. The result is soft, almost fluffy. And, you guessed it – they are served with the side pails of sambar and wet chutneys.
When faced with the choice, we’ll choose a dosa or vada to an idli, but don’t hold that against them. Idli are especially popular in the morning and appealing, particularly after they’ve been steamed fresh.
- Kozhikode Biryani
I used to think of biryani as an inferior dish on the menu, akin to Chinese fried rice. I also used to think of it as only northern Indian. But then we tasted what we called “community biryani” in Kollam served straight from a pot meant to feed hundreds, the taste was surprisingly complex: cinnamon sticks, star anise, cumin, cardamom, even a little coconut milk.
Stiring the Biryani
Community Biryani in Kollam, Kerala
We usually found biryani in the Muslim areas of towns in southern India. They were often served with mutton, but there were vegetarian versions, too (especially when the local mosque is serving it for free). You can spot the biryani shops: men out front stirring a massive pot of colored rice, stewing and stirring it until the spices have settled in.