Foods of South India: Nannari Sharbath

Nannari sharbath is a very sweet and fruity tasting drink made with sarsaparilla root syrup. Nannari is just another name for sarsaparilla. Whenever I look up individual ingredients used in Indian cooking, I almost always find theoretical associated health benefits. Nannari supposedly helps one cool down, which is what you want to do when the temperature hits 106 Fahrenheit and the humidity is 100 percent. In Chennai, that's called May and June. We only felt the tail end of the extreme heat because we arrived in early July. Most days are topping out at 100 or 98 now.

The drink pictured at right has basil seeds floating on top, which I adore. Basil seeds that have been soaked long enough to create a jelly layer on the outside are common in southeast Asian drinks. The texture feels similar to soaked chia seeds. Basil seeds also apparently have some health benefits: cooling, digestion aid, and so forth.

Sarsaparilla was popular in the United States back in the 19th Century, when people were into health tonics and elixirs. You might also recognize it from The Big Lebowski as the drink The Stranger (played by Sam Eliot) orders at the bowling alley bar.

Foods of South India: Coconut Chutney

Coconut chutney, I believe it's unique to south India, though I have no doubt you can get it elsewhere. Coconut chutney is a dip or condiment, like any other chutney, but it's more savory than sweet, which might confuse anyone who's used to sweetened shredded dried coconut.

In southern India and similar regions, coconut chutney is commonly seen at breakfast, served alongside idlis and vada.

Coconut chutney has heaps of fresh shredded coconut, which is more toothsome than the sweetened kind that you'd find in a macaroon. When the chutney is mounded in a dish or onto a plate (which might be nothing more than a banana leaf) coconut water and cream drain to the bottom, leaving a lot of meat in the scoopable top part. Mixed into it might be a few black peppercorns or chilies, or curry leaves (not to be confused with curry powder). 

I’ve mostly had white coconut chutney, but it can have a greenish tint or be fully orange-red, depending on the other ingredients.

Foods of South India: Medu Vada

Vadas, or medu vadas, I like a lot. They look and taste like deep fried doughnuts, but they're savory. Like idlis, vadas make for a fairly nutritional breakfast, if you can see past the fact that they're deep-fried. The dough is made with ground up lentils flavored with curry leaves and chilies, and you dip bites of vada into a lentil soup called sambar. All those lentils add up to some decent protein. 

If you’re me, however, you dip hunks of vada in chutney, because I just can't get enough chutney. 

I've read that a "vada" can be any kind of savory fried snack or fritter, so I'm not sure if the doughnut variety is specific to Chennai or if I simply haven’t encountered other vadas yet.

Foods of South India: Idli

Idli or idly is a breakfast food, but you can eat this mild-mannered rice cake any time of day. In the photo here, there are two idlis stacked on the right, and it looks like a scoop of rice. Look closely and you may be able to see they're more like pancakes.

They remind me of the rather bland "dumplings" you find in Czech cuisine that's more like steamed bread than the filled Taiwanese dumplings that many Americans are accustomed to eating. Idlis may be bland but the upside is they go with everything, so you can use them to sop up any kind of chutney, soup, oil, or spice on your plate. 

Idlis are made by soaking dried rice and dried lentils, separately, in water overnight, grinding them down into a runny paste with water, letting that mixture ferment slightly one more night, and finally steaming them into palm-sized pancakes. Idlis should be very soft and served hot out of their special steamer basket. In Chennai, idlis almost always come with one particular accompaniment: coconut chutney.

Foods of South India: Malabar Porotta

Malabar porotta might be my new favorite food. I ordered it with dinner at a restaurant that specializes in food from the Kerala region of India. Sometimes also called parotta or barotta, it's a circular bread the size of a salad plate that’s as flaky as a croissant, but also has spiral layers like a cinnamon roll. I don’t know how someone from Kerala eats malabar parrota, but I pulled away long strips of it and folded them over as much fruit chutney as I could manage. After it's baked, golden flecks of crust become crisp on the top and bottom, while the center stays chewy. 

Foods of South India: Fruit and Cashew Halwa

I recently moved to India and have decided to go back to my blogging roots and write about food, at least until the novelty of South Indian cuisine wears off. Enjoy!

Halwa might get me into big caloric trouble. The halwa I've found here in South India is a gelatinous (but room-temperature stable) dessert dotted with nuts or fig seeds and sliced into bars. 

I have what I would like to describe as a "wonderful appreciation" for chewy, gooey treats made with dates, pistachios, apricot leather, rose sugar water, and other calorie-dense foods. This sweet tooth of mine has gotten me into trouble in Indian markets in both London and the Murray "Curry" Hill neighborhood of New York. So when I found a sweet shop within walking distance of my apartment that sells dried fig halwa, cashew halwa, and samosas (so I can pretend like I’m eating lunch), I realized the next thing I’d have to find is a gym.

Foods of South India: Madras Filter Coffee, or Kaapi

I recently moved to India and have decided to go back to my blogging roots and write about food, at least until the novelty of South Indian cuisine wears off. Enjoy!

Madras filter coffee, also called kaapi, is a small cup of coffee with hot milk, and usually some chicory, served in two nested stainless steel cups. One cup looks like it's meant to catch the drips, but as with pulled tea, you actually pour the coffee between the two cups to aerate, mix, and cool it.

Any time of day, you can see people drinking kaapi from sidewalk vendors in little white paper cups that only hold maybe four ounces at a time.

Madras filter coffee is strong in coffee flavor but not a dark roast (roasting dark dissipates the caffeine level) and mad sweet. You can ask for "sugar separate" to sweeten it to taste, or add some water to adjust the strength. Most importantly, you always wait until the end of a meal to order coffee, even at breakfast.