In the UK, we are lucky enough to be familiar with Indian cuisine and a little of the culture, but as any native will attest, our restaurants are no substitute for the real thing. Growing up I spent a good chunk of my time in an Gujarati home kitchen, I was the only girl in the family collective, and the only vegetarian, so was drawn towards the simmering smells of what is some of the best food I have ever eaten (and learnt to cook).
Spending time in Kerala, whilst familiar in part, was particularly exciting as I experienced South Indian food – a vastly different ball game. Kerala is home to the breakfast of champions, ‘idli and sambar’ and ‘masala dosa’ by far my favourite of Indian dishes.
What makes it distinctly Southern? The exclusion of dairy, fewer flatbreads, and the Tandoor oven is not used so there is no ‘roasted’ flavour. Ingredient wise differences are the use of mustard seeds, kokum, tamarind, tomatoes, coconut, curry leaves, fermented urad dal for starters. The food is lighter, more sour, hotter, always accompanied by rice, coconut sambal and chutneys, and usually vegetarian. The spices are ground into wet masalas rather than being dry toasted as they are in Northern India. You could think of the Southern Indian cuisine as edging towards South East Asian and the Northern cuisine edging towards Middle Eastern if that helps to define them.
Masala dosa and sambar
A large light pancake, crispy and sweet from caramelized rice on one side, fluffy on the other, simply filled with potato masala, and gently folded over. Served with sambar – a thin lentil and vegetable soup that you administer yourself (not unlike tarka dahl with added veg). On the side there will always be coconut sambal (chutney) or another chutney of your choosing. It’s simple – some of the best things are.
The batter is made of ground up rice and urad dal fermented until bubbly – the same mix can be used to make idli (a steamed breakfast ‘cake’), though you would make it slightly thicker for them.
For authenticities sake if you wish to go through the grinding process there is a very good blow-by-blow explanation here. However as many Indian households advocate, and in the name of getting involved (despite a lack of time and or equipment) please feel free to purchase the pre ground mix, to which you add water and ferment overnight in a warm place (such as an airing cupboard). Use a big bowl it can really bubble up. It’s available at any Indian supermarket.
Once the batter is fermented, to make dosa, you simply need to heat a little coconut oil in a large frying pan or crepe pan and ladle some batter into the pan, spreading it round in a circular fashion with the base of the ladle. I suggest having the masala and sambar ready as you make the dosa as they don’t need to be piping hot.
The dosa only needs to fry on one side, you will know its done as the batter will have browned on the under side and have little air holes on the top – like a scotch pancake.
This is for filling your dosa, but makes a great potato side dish too.
-Oil – preferably coconut for health and flavour, vegetable oil will be fine
-1 tsp black/ brown mustard seeds
-A small handful of curry leaves (fresh are best and they will freeze well)
-2 green chillies – sliced lengthways in half
-A thumb of ginger – peeled and finely chopped
-1 large onion – thinly sliced
-2 large floury potatoes – peeled, cubed
-1 tsp turmeric
-½ a lemon
-A handful of fresh coriander – chopped
-Heat 1-2 tbps of oil in a large pan, add the mustard seeds, curry leaves and green chillies and fry over a medium heat until the mustard seeds pop and jump (stir to avoid burning).
-Add the onion and ginger and continue frying until the onion has softened but not browned. Add the potatoes, 1 tsp salt, the turmeric and enough water to just cover the potatoes.
-Simmer with the lid off until the potatoes are cooked and beginning to break down and the -water has evaporated. (You are aiming for a lumpy dry mash).
Add a squeeze of lemon juice and sprinkle with fresh coriander.
Full of protein and goodness, this will give you slow release energy throughout the day, wake you up fantastically and the spices will help your digestion which in turn improves well being and energy. Reems better than sugar laden cereals and pastries. Leftovers are great with rice, I like to make a triple batch and freezing for next week.
Oil – preferably coconut for health and flavour, vegetable oil will be fine
A breakfast bowl of cubed white pumpkin or bottle gourd (available in ethnic supermarkets, alternatively you can use a combination of carrots, green beans, peas, courgettes etc)
-1 onion – finely chopped
-2 tomatoes – roughly chopped
-A handful of Toor dal known as pigeon peas in the Caribbean
-2 tsp of tamarind paste/ or soaked tamarind (use half a small block)
-1 tsp of jaggery (or use light brown sugar)
-2 tsp Sambar Powder*
-½ tsp Turmeric
-1 tsp Mustard seeds
-1 red chilli – sliced lengthways in half
-A pinch of Asafoetida (hing) – 1 clove of garlic minced is a good substitute
-A pinch of curry leaves (fresh are best and you they will freeze well)
-Boil the toor dal until cooked, strain and mash.
-Heat 1 tbsp of oil and fry the onion over a medium heat until it’s translucent.
-Add the tomatoes, vegetables, jaggery (or sugar), tamarind, sambar powder, turmeric, 1 tsp salt and enough water to just cover.
-Simmer until the tamarind tastes less raw and the vegetables are cooked through then add the mashed dal and heat through.
-In a separate pan heat 1 tbsp of oil, add the mustard seeds and red chilli and fry until the seeds begin to pop, then add the asafoetida and curry leaves, fry for a further few seconds. Immediately add this into the sambar which should be soupy, not too thick like porridge, not as thin as rasam.
Serve the sambar with idli or masala dosa. A coconut chutney makes a welcome addition too, but raita, red chilli chutney or green coriander chutney work well too. For a quick fix and to avoid the labour involved in scraping the flesh from a fresh coconut, you can soak a handful of desiccated coconut in some boiling water. Combine with a good squeeze of lemon juice, a pinch of salt, some chilli, a pinch of sugar, a clove of garlic and blitz with or without yoghurt.
*Sambar powders are sold in any good spice retailer or ethnic supermarket.