2000s Archive

The Spice Route

Originally Published July 2000
Coconut, cumin, and coriander are the scents of the South, home to the Venice of India and a collection of seaside towns where the masalas are made with lobster and crab and the dosas are always hot off the griddle.

He says, ‘do you want to eat shrimp?’”

Our guide is translating the words of our taxi driver, who is sitting in the sun with us drinking toddy, the coconut “beer” of Kerala state. We’ve sought out this toddy shop because we’ve heard it has great food, and for the past half hour we’ve been devouring quarter-inch clams fried in coconut and sweet spices, a crumble of dry-scrambled eggs with tomato and chiles, fish in tamarind sauce, and a plate of (completely illegal, we later learn) egret curry. Of course we want to eat shrimp.

But instead of heading toward the kitchen shack to place an order, the driver goes to his car and brings back a plastic bag. Carefully he opens it and sets out several small containers. Inside are shrimp masala, curried peas and tomatoes, yogurt, rice, and a jar of rasam, the peppery soup whose fragrance seems the very essence of South India. It’s his lunch, packed that morning by his wife. Voracious though we habitually are, we glance at each other uneasily. Should we eat this nice man’s meal? Well…sure, if he’ll share ours. We dig in, and taste what foreigners rarely get to taste in India: food straight from the cook’s heart and hands, food with its personality intact.

The two of us—a historian and a professional cook—have come to South India on a quest for exactly this meal, though we didn’t know it when we planned the trip. Frankly, we knew almost nothing about South Indian food when we planned the trip. In New York and San Francisco, we tasted and loved a few dishes from the region—especially airy, crêpe-like dosas and the tender little rice cakes known as idlies—and found them utterly different from the North Indian curries and tandoori dishes that Americans know so well. We arrive in India certain that the South is guarding some extraordinary culinary treasures.

We’re right about that, but most of our other preconceptions are flat wrong. A previous trip to North India convinced us that some of India’s best cooking is home cooking, and that at restaurants one rule of thumb usually applies: The more inviting the restaurant, the more boring the food. Carts on the street, smoky cubbyholes with an ancient grill out front, dim and cavernous dining halls—we’re sure that these are the only places where we’ll find the real thing in South India.

Wrong. Many of the most memorable dishes we are about to taste will come from the kitchen of a luxury hotel and from restaurants so comfortable we’re sure they’ll be a dead loss. We find some of the fresh, local, traditional food we crave in suitably grungy places, but we also find that authenticity can be less than charming.

We will also discover that South Indian food is not, as we had presumed, primarily vegetarian. It has a fantastic variety of dishes that dosas and idlies don’t even begin to suggest. This isn’t one cuisine; it’s many.

We start our trip in Kovalam, simply because it’s a beach town. What better place to have jet lag? But just one lackluster hotel dosa makes us realize that lounging seaside in a delightful stupor at the Kovalam Ashok Beach Resort is going to be a waste of time. Although this famous hotel was once the pride of Kovalam, its beach is the only thing that hasn’t been allowed to deteriorate. So the next morning, we head out early, looking for an honest breakfast. Amid a cluster of ramshackle shops and food stalls, the Hotel Udaya catches our attention. Hotel, in India, often means just a bare-bones spot for a meal, which certainly sums up the Udaya. But guides and motor-rickshaw drivers are eating here, a promising sign, so we sit down in a dim room hung with aging Christmas streamers and pictures of Hindu gods. The man in charge brings us what everyone else is eating—hot, spicy, rustic food on plain metal plates. It’s a meal we will talk about for the rest of the trip.

We begin with appams, rice-flour pancakes that are spongy and thick in the center and lacy at the edges. Tearing off bits of these light cakes, we sop up soft, almost melting potatoes in a lentil-thickened sauce made smolderingly hot with fresh green chiles. We also have puttu, hefty logs of steamed rice flour with grated coconut. These are pretty dry until we mix them with a hard-boiled-egg curry, an intoxicating stew of eggs, chiles, shallots, and a typical Keralan mix of coriander, fennel, cumin, and curry leaves. Incendiary with green chiles, this curry is a perfect example of how South Indian cooks use hot peppers not just for heat but as elements in an overall balance of flavors. The men at the next table mash small, sweet bananas into the curry to mellow it.

At lunchtime, the Udaya dishes up crisp, crunchy wadas—fritters of coarsely ground lentils that are full of shallots and chiles, a greaseless cousin of falafel. Soft, chewy round breads called parottas follow, right off the griddle, and a fresh batch of potato curry. The drivers drink tap water; we have glasses of sweet, milky tea, which goes beautifully with the spicy food and, surprisingly, the steamy hot weather, too.

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