I love the brilliant spices and subtle flavors of Indian food, but only know the standard dishes found in most American Indian restaurants. So it was a culinary windfall for us to be introduced to Southern Indian cuisine yesterday at the vegetarian restaurant Saravanaa Bhavan by my friend Sambhavi and her family.
We started off with this Madras coffee. Though the non-native drink was introduced by western settlers, India is now a nation addicted to the brew, apparently even in a worse way than our venti-hugging nation. Frothed with milk, it comes in a stainless steel cup and deep saucer. Sambhavi showed me how to drink it from the rolled lip: without mouth ever coming into contact with cup. People from the region of her hometown Chennai are fanatic about hygiene, she explained, and this method really cuts down on dishwashing. Utensils are generally eschewed for fingers, and “really orthodox” traditional older women, she added, have perfected the art of “flinging food into their mouths” without touching fingers to mouth so as not to spread their germs in communal plates. Before they have mastered this art, children have been known to create a holy mess from missed shots.
After this lesson in eating technique (though I wasn’t brave enough to try the flinging method), we dived into some delicious appetizers. Most are made with a fermented rice and white lentil flour prepared in different ways. Steamed “mini ghee idlies” were lovely light dumplings napped with sambar, a sauce of dal (lentils) and other vegetables and spiced with curry leaf, fenugreek and tamarind. We loved their texture, and the contrasting crisp outer shell of another preparation, sambar vada, a deep-fried donut like appetizer accompanied by creamy coconut chutney, coriander chutney and sambar. There were whole chili fritters made with chickpea batter (chili bhajji), and a Bombay street food called pav bhaji, a kind of spiced vegetable stew served with a toasted soft white bun.
For main courses, we tried a variety of dosas. I chose the onion rava masala since Sambhavi promised the addition of semolina would render it extra crispy. It looked like a giant lace napkin or a butterfly had landed on my plate, and was deliciously flavored with cumin and whole peppercorns. Underneath was a mess of creamy potatoes blended with mustard seed and onion, and then the various chutneys to dip them in. We also sampled puffed-up deep-fried puri that was as round and bumpy as a blow fish, and an even more dramatic-looking paper dosa, which resembled a gigantic, very crispy crepe rolled into a cylinder. I would be happy eating like this every day.
Last, Sambhavi ordered a round of comforting desserts: gulab jamon, fluffly, milk-curd-based orbs floating in a rose water syrup, and badam halwa, a ground almond pudding cooked in honey and butter and scented with saffron.
Next it’s our turn to find a place that will put together an interesting and delicious vegetarian feast. Any suggestions?