Exploring Diverse South Indian Cuisines through Food Promotions

lovers have shown interest in finer nuances of the cuisine, diversity of the ingredients and even the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in food across a single state. It is said that food changes every fifty miles, and even within that area, it often differs as per community, caste, and religion.


The South Indian states have a rich heritage of culinary traditions, with a plethora of micro-cuisines within each of the five states in the region. It is incorrect to even club some of these cuisines as the cuisine of a particular state, in fact, I often wonder if food can be classified as per political boundaries. Fortunately, for food lovers like us, who want to know deeper than perfunctory information available, a significant amount of work is going on to present or recreate old dishes, often delving into the culinary history of a region. The food festivals in various restaurants present islands of information about the culinary practices, often of a micro-region. The last few months have been a bonanza for food enthusiasts in Hyderabad in terms of many promotions showcasing different facets of the food from South India.


If we talk about research into South Indian food, the name that comes to our mind is “Dakshin”, the South Indian restaurant chain of ITC Hotels group. Under the aegis of “Kitchens of India” and other initiatives, an effort is put by the group to bring into focus various aspects of South Indian food. Our own Telugu states have a huge diversity in the dishes they offer, and baby steps have been taken to look at regional and district level food for example. Master Chef Sakala Sankara of Dakshin Hyderabad is a chef whom I rate very highly especially for his knowledge of Telugu food. A few months back, he had organized a promotion under “Master Chef Chronicles” where the primary focus was the homely food from Rayalaseema.  Chef Sankara is from Madanapalle of Chittoor district, and we got to taste interesting stuff from the interiors of the region like Enda Chapa Vankaya Pulusu (dry fish cooked with brinjal) and Koorina Kakarakai (karela stuffed with spices, podi and peanuts).  Ragi Sankati has quite a few variants, Nookala Saddha Sankati, which was presented is made with broken rice and bajra and is one of the staples with a spicy non-vegetarian curry.



Chittoor is definitely attracting a lot of attention, and this district is also the focus of “Aha Rayalaseema” festival at Rayalaseema Ruchulu, a Telugu restaurant chain in Hyderabad. Being a border state, it has a bit of Tamil influence in its food. The effort put in by Home Chef Rajeshwari Puthalapattu to bring out heirloom recipes from the Pattu households has a humongous number of dishes, with quite a few that you do not encounter ordinarily. Kalla Pulusu (Paya curry), Yetamamsam Munakkaya Korma (mutton cooked with drumsticks) and Antu Mammidi Chapala Pulusu (fish cooked with raw mango) brought out the distinct flavours of the area. Sundalu (an influence of the Tamil Sundal), Gorchikudu Nanchu (dry cluster bean dish) and Masala Vada Pulusu showcased the vegetarian side. Finer nuances of the cuisine like using Odimi (a kind of sun-dried tempering ball) were brought out during the discussions.



Food researcher Shri Bala completed a hattrick of sorts in Hyderabad, curating three festivals distinctly different from each other at three different restaurants in the city. Her forte is extensive research into the history of South Indian food through studies into literature like Sangam (300 BC) for the cuisine of ancient Tamizhagam (where the food habits were predominantly non-vegetarian) and Supa Sastra, which talks about the old vegetarian food from Karnataka. Shri Bala rues the fact that not enough information has been preserved on the history of Telugu food. Her “Rajoupacharam” again at Dakshin focused on the food of the Royals from the Chola and Sethupati dynasties of Tamil Nadu, Vijaynagara in Karnataka and the Kakatiyas of Warangal. Some of the dishes just had the description, so the recipes had to be recreated from it. Tomatoes, chilies, and onions were not used in most of these dishes, as they were not available at those times. Perunsuru (a rice and meat dish rolled in palm leaves) from Cholas and Kadai Milagu Pirotal (black pepper flavoured quail fry) are some examples of recipes that were presented.


The promotion at Green Park Hotel by her, called “Little Bites of History” was slightly different, with the recipes from the past given a modern look by Chef Vignesh Ramachandran. The dishes here too were recreated from the ingredients, references, and recipes available from the historical records and literature. Thus there was Kosambari (a lentil and cucumber based salad from Vijayanagar), a thick crab soup (Nandu Sambaram) from the Chola Dynasty, butter-laden rawa stuffed betel leaf pockets (Benne Rava Unde), and an excellent mustard flavoured curry with Banana Stem (a recipe from the Kakatiya era). A touch of dishes from the era of the British Raj in Madras Presidency (which had influences on the Christian community around that area) was also added to the festival through Prawn Rolls and Kubab Curry. Foxtail millet based Thinai Puttu, Bhojanadhika Roti (crushed roti with cream and tender coconut) and Pathir Peni were among the desserts served.


Her third feat “A Culinary Journey through Deccan” at The Trident Hyderabad was very different. Here the focus was to bring forward current dishes from the coastal regions of South India including Malabar, the Chennai coast and Southern Andhra Pradesh.  Kaya Attirachi Curry (from Kerala, where mutton is cooked with raw banana), Karimeen Polichathu, Prawn Ishtu, and Prawn Karamani Thokku (where a contemporary Chennai street food is presented with a twist) as well as Menasinakai Gojju (sweet and tangy pineapple curry) and Kara Kuzhambu (Shallots and berries dish) were some of the interesting dishes on offer. The Ellu Kara Dosa was dofferent from the traditional karam dosa of Anantpur and Kadappa, as the karam is added to the batter instead of being spread on the surface. And finally, I was happy to find Mutta Malla from the Mapillah land featuring among the desserts.


Talking about South India cuisines one cannot ignore the food of different Royal families. Another festival making its mark was at Dakshin which presenting the food of the Maratha Royal family of Thanjavur.  Heirloom Recipes from the Royal palaces are often lost due to lack of documentation. ITC Hotels along with the Maratha Royal family of Thanjavur have come together to present the food of the royals through a series of festivals conducted in major cities. Marathas, a warrior group, had reached as far as parts of Tamil Nadu and have left impressions on the cuisine including the signature dish “sambar” which is supposed to be named after Sambaji Maharaj. From this promotion, where Chef Praveen Anand has collaborated with H.H. Abaji Rajah Bhonsle of Tanjore, we could know in details about the food of Tanjore Royals who had a set of 5 different kitchens including one for the Brahmins and one purely for sherbets. Rustam Gola (A mincemeat and poppy kabab), Khendata (the star of the day, a mixed veg and lentil curry), Komda Kalia (a slow-cooked country chicken gravy) and Masyache Korma (Murrel Curry) were different from the usual Marathi food with influences of South Indian ingredients seeping in. The soft Laat Bhakri (rice rotis) were perfect foils for the curry. Shakar Biranji (a sweet rice pulav) was the best from the desserts which also included a nice Doodh Bople Peta. All the items are cooked in ghee, with tamarind, poppy seeds and coconut being some of the major ingredients. While there were striking similarities to the food from Maharashtra, this looked a different micro cuisine altogether.


From the food of the Royals to the food of the masses. The Sattvik Tambrahm Food Festival at Novotel HICC showcased the Tamil Brahmin food of the Palakkad region of Kerala bordering the state. The cuisine which does not use any onions and garlic and a minimum amount of oil was presented by Home Chef Gita Hari, who is originally from that region and is currently promoting the cuisine pan-India. As per her, the cuisine of the Tamil Brahmins have differences in different regions of the state. But the focus remains on Sattvik Ahar which relies on natural flavours. The recipes were all picked up from the Palakkad homes including Amma's Potato Curry (a home recipe), Mango Pulissery, Pidi Kozhukattai (rice dumplings), Puliyogare and Sundal.

All the food festivals bring out in bits and pieces the diverse nature of the traditional cuisines of South India, the historical connect, the micro-cuisines of different regions and castes, as well as a little bit of contemporization. I cannot say that I can put all the puzzles together and form a comprehensive view, as that is the job of far more erudite researchers. But these promotions surely enrich us to appreciate the different notes and finer nuances of South Indian regional food.

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