A special night of home-cooked dishes from southern India brought back memories of a past trip to Karnataka. If you’ve never traveled to India, you likely have eaten more dishes from northern India than from its south. But Indian is so much more than what most of us know. Take a culinary jaunt to the state of Karnataka without leaving home.
With over 50 states and greater than 1/7 of the world’s population – that’s over 1.2 BILLION people out of over 7, India’s people and cuisine are quite diverse. If you thought your neighborhood Indian restaurant’s menu was lengthy, that’s nothing! Outside of India, the most popular Indian dishes come from North India, and often from Punjab. If you love the rich cream, cashew, and tomato-based curries of your local Indian restaurant, then you’re probably less familiar with the rice and vegetable dishes of its southern states and regions. That’s not to say that people in the south don’t cook traditionally “northern” dishes or vice versa – think of it as a Californian making grits or chicken-fried steak, or a German cooking Italian. Yet with so many states and subcultures, food is a powerful source of community and family identity in India.
I was introduced to southern Indian cuisine a few years ago during a trip through the southern state of Karnataka and which also took me to the northern cities of Delhi (busy) and Agra (not a fan). I was lucky enough to experience a home-cooked dinner and breakfast in Bangalore. The food was magnificent and spicy, and most memorable was a spicy noodle breakfast dish made with rice vermicelli (semiya upma) and tossed with cashews, onions, chilis, curry leaf, and the distinctive flavor of whole mustard seeds.
So I was ecstatic when one of my good friends invited me over for her mother’s home cooking. I knew I would leave fat and happy, but it was more so than I expected.
The meal began with hors d’oeurves of panipuri and mushroom cutlets. Panipuris are deep-fried puffs stuffed with several fresh ingredients: channa (chickpeas), cooked potato, diced tomatoes, red onion, herbs, and familiar chutneys – brown, sweet tamarind, and green chile, mint, and coriander. The single bite snack packs a spectacular burst of flavors – savory, sweet, spicy, earthy. I commented that they were so addictive that I would just as soon eat these at a Super Bowl party as Seven Layer Dip. The breaded mushroom cutlets were the night’s only store-bought course, but they were delicious comfort food with a surprisingly spicy kick.
Our main course was the family’s own recipe for lemon chicken; Tender drumsticks braised with greens, spices, and lemongrass are the family’s most demanded dish during family gatherings. The meal’s centerpiece was a fragrant lemon rice dish, called Chitranna in Kannada, the local language in Karnataka. Colored bright yellow with turmeric and seasoned with cumin, mustard seeds, curry leaves, peanuts, and, of course, lemon juice, it needs no heavy sauce.
A delicious stewed eggplant side and another of greens and white beans rounded out the bold, flavorful meal and my quota of vegetables. In Karnataka, a small serving of plain yogurt follows the meal to aid in digestion, and we followed suit this evening.
For dessert, we went Western with pastries (I chose a mini-Napoleon) and bright orange mango. What could be better?
Answer: Leftovers! I was sent home with plenty of leftovers, which were every bit as good a few days later.
This meal brought back so many memories – and made new ones. The food wouldn’t have been half as good without the wonderful company and hospitality of my hosts, as my friend’s mother regaled us with stories of her childhood. Her favorite dishes, her missions to fetch and blend her mother’s special coffee mix infused more love and life in her wonderful dishes.