To most of us in the north, south Indian food is a largely homogenous entity, comprising idlis, dosas and not very much else. So I was in for a surprise last week when Trident, Gurgaon, invited me for a festival that was nothing short of brilliant. Not only did the variations in the food of each state stand out, the chef single-handedly brought out the brilliance of fish curries, poriyals (dry, tempered vegetable dishes) and staples from four different—and disparate—regions.
More than meets the eye: A variety of oils and souring agents differentiate the curries of the four southern states. Ravitej Nath / Trident, Gurgaon
To chef Saneesh Verghese, who heads the Samudra kitchen at Trident, Chennai, the difference between cuisines from the southern region is vast. He does admit that almost all cooking from the four states has tempering as a basic principle. In the northern half, tempering is what you do to dal; for all other purposes, it is non-existent. Tempering is usually done with mustard seeds, curry leaves, crushed red chillies and sometimes urad dal, but there the similarities end.
Kerala’s cuisine uses coconut oil almost exclusively; Tamil Nadu has its gingelly oil, Andhra Pradesh favours peanut oil and Karnataka has a variety, depending on which part of the state you are in—in Mangalore, coconut oil is favoured. Fish curries vary widely not only from state to state but from region to region. Thus, northern Kerala, populated mostly by the Muslim community, has a fish curry that is thick and spicy and is soured with tamarind, something that would never happen further south along the coast. In central and south Kerala, it is only fish tamarind or kodampuli that is used as a souring agent, and the texture of the gravy is decidedly silky and thinner than in any other of the four states. Because of the use of coconut milk/ground coconut, the colour is either fiery orange or mild yellow.
Kerala’s northern neighbour, Karnataka, has fish and prawn curries, the most famous of which are in Mangalore (though Mangalore by itself is not representative of the cuisine of the state)—they are the thickest in the region. Never made with coconut milk alone, they all use ground coconut with Kandapuri or Bedgi chillies, both of which grow in the state. Gassi, as the fish curry is called, is traditionally eaten with sanna, a spongy bread fermented with toddy vinegar. It is the country cousin of Kerala’s appams.
On the east coast, coconut is used as an ingredient of cooking, but never in a fish curry. Why? I’d be interested to hear your view; I can’t think of a plausible reason. Both Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu use approximately the same ingredients: onions, tomatoes and tamarind, but in Tamil Nadu, according to chef Verghese, the taste is more sour, while in Andhra Pradesh (as befitting the country’s chilli state), the curries are more spicy. The result is a bright red fish curry in Andhra that has a slightly thick gravy, while in Tamil Nadu, the gravy contains both pulp of cooked tomatoes and onions, and a thinner sauce.
And that’s just the fish curries.
Thoran (from Kerala’s central region)
250g long beans
1 tbsp coconut oil
1 tbsp mustard seeds
2 red chillies
5 curry leaves
1 green chilli
2 tbsp coconut, grated
Clean and string the beans and then chop them evenly. Steam in salted water till tender. In a kadhai (deep pan), heat the coconut oil, add mustard seeds and when they splutter, add the shallots and fry. Then add the red chillies, breaking them with your fingers, curry leaves, chopped green chilli and salt to taste. Add the beans and cook for a while. Take off the fire, stir in grated coconut and serve.
Recipe courtesy chef Saneesh Verghese.
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