South Indian Food Is Having a Major Moment in America
Regional cuisines found in the Southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh are finally becoming more mainstream in the United States
There are over 400 Indian restaurants in New York City, and only around 40 serve typical South Indian dishes and snacks, says Krishnendu Ray, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University. “That ratio is even smaller nationally among the 4,000 Indian restaurants in the United States,” he adds.
But that number is poised to grow.
At Junoon, the only New York City Indian restaurant to boast a Michelin star, chef Akshay Bhardwaj says that South Indian cuisine, which many associate with fast foods like dosas and idlis, has not been as popular in the United States because the first wave of entrepreneurial Indian immigrants were from the North, so focused on their own regional cooking techniques.
Popular dishes like Chicken Tikka Masalas and Dal Makhnis are recognized, in part, because of good advertising.
But many chefs are veering towards ingredients like mustard seeds, curry leaves, coconut and other ingredients that are common in South India. Junoon offers five dishes that showcase the cooking techniques of different regions and states, including the Kerala coast. Their Malabar-style shrimp curry contains a generous amount of mustard seeds, jaggery, curry leaves and fresh coconut. The Duck Tellicherry Pepper, which Bhardwaj says is incredibly popular, is flavored with peppercorns that are robust, full and fruity.
Since regions in South India are so vast, so are the flavors.
In the state of Tamil Nadu and its capital, Chennai, stews like sambhar made with lentils and drumsticks are cooked in a hearty tamarind broth. Hyderabad, the capital of the state of Telangana, has an amalgam of Mughal, Turkish, Arabic cuisines; the term “Hyderabadi cuisine” refers to the style of cooking of Hyderabadi Muslims.
“We have attempted to offer cuisine from Madras in the past, like the sambhar,” says Bhardwaj. “But because it is a sauce that you would eat with a dosa (a fermented rice crepe), it becomes harder to keep it as traditional and authentic as possible.”
These types of complex sauces often take a lot of time to get just right: “It’s easier to train someone to make a roti (a dry bread, typically found in North Indian cuisine) than to make a good dosa,” he continues. These steps involve the fermentation of the rice, leaving it overnight and then making a rich, thick consistent batter to produce crisp dosas. “Also, good South Indian cooks are hard to come by,” he adds.
The restaurant plans on adding a new dish in the upcoming weeks: a seared black bass topped with a Madras curry, served with slices of fermented mango.
Vikram Sunderam, group executive chef of Rasika, Raskia West End and Bindaas in Washington D.C., says that the image of South Indian cuisine needs a transformation. “There are a lot of meat dishes in this cuisine, although most people tend to lump it as ‘vegetarian’,” he says.
At Rasika West End, Sunderam serves a Chettinad-style duck roast with a cauliflower bezule (a street snack), and showcases a range of regional cooking styles from Mangalore, Chennai to Hyderabad.
“There’s a broccoli and cashewnut poriyal (a fried vegetable dish) on the menu that does so well,” he says, and it was included in the restaurant’s cookbook, released in October.
When guests eat such a dish, of course, they’re not always aware that it's from South India. “But that is gradually changing,” he has observed. His Lamb Chettinad, made with a roasted masala paste, coconut and flavored with 15 different spices including star anise, stoneflower, cardamom and clove, does particularly well.
There is also general misconception that all Indian food – and particularly South Indian food – is spicy. In the cookbook, Rasika tried to make sure that people understand that Indian food is much more about complex, nuanced flavors than being heavy-handed with chili powder.
The West Coast Embraces South Indian Cuisine
Campton Place Restaurant in San Francisco, which boasts two Michelin stars under the helm of Srijith Gopinathan, has inspired locals with its “Cal-Indian” cuisine. Gopinathan, who was born in Tamil Nadu and has worked in the Maldives, earned his stripes at the Culinary Institute in Poughkeepsie. He has a signature “Spice Route” dinner that is a multi-course journey blending the flavors of the East and West.
He feels that because the South Indian community “came late outside the country, and were very mellow in their entrepreneurship,” that style of cooking has taken longer to assimilate into mainstream cooking. Skilled labor is hard to come by, and some dishes like the appam (a type of pancake made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk, typically from Kerala) need to be continuously made fresh; “that gets expensive,” he adds.
On his multi-course menu, he serves curd rice with curry leaf granola and a turmeric whey. This jazzed-up dish is a riff on the traditional “rice and yoghurt” fare found almost everywhere in South India; the term “curd” refers to unsweetened yoghurt.
He shirks away from the term “fusion” and does not think that that is necessarily the best way to make South Indian food accessible. He plans to start another restaurant focusing exclusively on this type of cuisine.
Other cities have caught onto this trend, too.
Paper Dosa opened its doors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in March 2015 and chef Paulraj Karuppasamy has received glowing praise from locals for his dosas, uttapams and street bites like the onion pakoras (a fried snack, typically made with a flour batter). The restaurant also serves green chile cheese dosas, because Santa Fe has a love affair with green chiles. A plated three-course tasting menu is $35.
Namkeen, an Indian street food concept, opens this January in Denver, C.O. at Zeppelin Station. The restaurant under Cindhura Reddy will offer snacks like murukku, which is traditional to the Tamil diaspora but has become common enough around other parts of India.
Of late, many restaurants that could have focused exclusively on North Indian dishes are branching out.
Old Monk opened in New York City’s East Village this summer under Navjot Arora, who hails from Punjab. But he has not restricted himself to serving dishes from his native state. South Indian dishes like Iyengar Pongal (crispy rice fritters served with tomato chutney, from Tamil Nadu), rasam (a tamarind-based soup) and Coconut Curry Prawns from Andhra Pradesh are popular with his guests.
Arora says that some stalwarts like Dawat (founded by restaurateur Sushil Malhotra, co-owner of Old Monk) began incorporating South Indian fare into their menus and found that it makes the dining experience more multi-dimensional.
Professor Krishnendu Ray, the author of The Ethnic Restauranteur, says that Southern Indian food is more interesting, refreshing and less tired than the over-exposed curries of the northern heartland.
“There is room there for real innovation at the upper end of the market,” he adds.