Southern India is a large peninsular extension of India. Its eastern coast lines the Bay of Bengal, the extreme southern tip lines the Laccadive Sea, and the western coast lines the Arabian Sea. All are part of the larger Indian Ocean that touches Africa, Australia, and the Far East. The coastline is frequently called the Malabar Coast.
This region includes several states and two Union Territories. The State of Goa lies mid-way along the Western coast of India. To its south is Kerela, its southeast is Karnataka, whereas Tamil Nadu, Telengana, Andhra Pradesh border the eastern edge of the peninsula. The Union territory of Puducherry includes four districts that were previously part of the French colonies in India: Pondicherry (now known as Puducherry), Karikal, Mahé, and Yanaoan. Southern India also includes the Lakshadweep Islands, another Union Territory, an archipelago off the coast of Kerela to the West.
There are many more pockets of strictly vegetarian communities within Southern India compared to the rest of India. Prior to the widespread British rule, regions that were the stronghold of the Mughal Empire added culinary complexity to the local fare. For instance, when Islamic culinary influences took over the local Andhra fare, it gave rise to a Hyderabadi cuisine. This region also benefited from the Iranian migrants, to create a distinctly Hyderabadi Irani cuisine. Similarly, along the Eastern Malabar coast, preparations like Sulaimani Chai emerged under Islamic rulers.
Although Europeans settled in different parts of India between 1500-1740, India’s coastal peninsula was an important part of their sea-faring trade routes. During these years, the Portuguese, French, Dutch, Danish, and British occupied at least sixteen different port towns. Through these ports, the colonies traded in spices, tea, coffee, silks, ceramics, and there was a brief time when the colonies engaged in slave trading. Colonial customs overlapped and sometimes clashed with the deeply engrained rich traditions of local kings and their kingdoms. For instance, it created uniquely regional cuisines such as the Goan cuisine with heavy Portuguese influence and the Pondicherry cuisine with French-inspired dishes. In addition, the cuisines of different religious communities in this region also evolved in time, especially within the Catholic and Jewish communities that occupied the coast.
Southern India has many diverse food traditions. Here are some ways to stock a pantry to confidently navigate the many foods from this complex region.
Baking Supplies and Dry Mixes
- Baking powder, baking soda, and dry active yeast: These are commonly used in Anglo-Indian-inspired dishes like cakes or breads.
- Flours: Unlike in Northern India, wheat flour is not as popular in this region. White flour is used in cakes and breads, like the Goan dessert Bebinca.
- Gluten-free flours: Flour from rice, pearl millet, finger millet, fox millet, are very popular in this region. These are used to make griddle-fried breads, and are often included in batter-based preparations.
- Tea/Coffee: Black teas from Southern India are extremely popular alongside filter coffee, which is often ground with chicory stem.
Vinegars and Oils
An oil extracted from raw sesame seeds, but at a higher temperature, called gingelly oil is very popular, as is coconut oil. Vinegar is popular in dishes from regions that were inhabited by the Portuguese.
Indian spices are divided into three categories: Everyday whole spices, everyday powdered spices, and garam masala spices reserved for special dishes.
- Essential whole spices: brown cumin seeds, black or brown mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, and whole coriander seeds.
- Essential powdered spices: Turmeric, cayenne pepper, coriander powder, cumin powder, and asafetida. Some dishes use dried and powdered mango, fenugreek leaves, or dried Indian mangosteen fruits (not Thai mangosteen), and tamarind.
- Garam masala means either a selection of whole spices or a pre-made blend of the same spices in powdered form. Whole garam masala spices include cinnamon, both black and green cardamom, clove, star anise, nutmeg, Indian Bayleaf, mace, and saffron.
- In addition to other spices, a South Indian kitchen includes podis, or spice blends, and chutney powders, such as sambaar powder. They can enhance a dish or can be mixed with a generous serving of ghee or gingelly oil to make quick dipping oils.
- Various kinds of whole, dried red chilies are an essential part of many of the cuisines of this region.
Sauces and Condiments
Achaar: Indian-styled pickles made from many ingredients are popular, but South Indian pickles include diverse regional flavor combinations such as Andhra-styled Gongura pickles made from Roselle leaves, or Goan styled shrimp pickles.
Shallow fried sun-dried chilies are also favored as a meal accompaniment.
Dried Beans, Grains, Pasta
- Lentils: Whole, split, skinned, and unskinned versions of these lentils are considered pantry staples: tuvar daal (pigeon peas), moong daal (mung bean), masoor daal (horse gram or pink lentils), urad daal, channa daal (chickpeas), lobia (black-eyed peas), and rajma (kidney beans).
- Rice: An important grain for this region, raw rice is used to cook many sweet and savory dishes in addition to just steamed rice. Parboiled rice is perfect for dosa, idli, and a myriad of other dishes. Rice flour is also steamed and converted into string hoppers. Flattened rice and puffed rice are also popular.
- Semolina (not semolina flour) and cracked wheat are used for Upma or Halwa.
- Sev or semolina vermicelli, and rice vermicelli make quick sides and desserts.
- Tapioca pearls are a popular pantry staple to convert into snacks like sabudana khichdi, or add to desserts.
- Like in Northern India, papads, or dried lentil flour diskettes, can be flame roasted or deep-fried are fun meal additions.
In modern Indian pantries, canned beans, tomatoes, and unsweetened coconut milk are convenient for hearty stews and entrees.
Meat and Seafood
Seafood preferences vary along the coast based on the local catch. For instance, conch dishes are popular along the southernmost tip of India. The cuisine of Lakshadweep Islands includes preparations made with dried tuna, octopus, and even red tuna as well as beef. Meat preferences are like the rest of the country.
- The cuisine of southern India prefers many of the same vegetables as those across Northern India, including baby white graffiti eggplants, and several regional gourds.
- Fresh and dried coconut is equally important to many cuisines of this region.
- Curry leaves, Gongora leaves, and moringa leaves are very popular as flavor enhancers in stews, chutneys, and even on their own for spice blends.
In addition to sugar, jaggery, palm jaggery and honey are pantry staples.
Regional Alcohols and Flavoring Agents
- Palm toddy is considered a pantry staple in Southern India as it helps naturally ferment and flavor dishes like Apam (or hoppers), and seasonally-prepared steamed dishes like sanna.
- Feni, made from fermented cashew apples, is not only consumed by people in Goa but is also considered a flavoring agent.
- Screwpine essence and Vetiver essence are quite popular in classic dishes.