Monday, August 30, 2010
The Southern Peninsula of India
South India is comprised of four states, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The Western Ghats (steps) merge into the Nilgiri, or Blue Mountains and Cardamom Hills near Kerala and continue to the southern tip of the peninsula. At the very tip is Cape Comorin, where Hindus believe bathing in the waters where three oceans meet will wash their sins away. Beyond the Western Ghats a plateau slopes eastward to the broken chain of the Eastern Ghats. The climate is hot and humid except when the cool monsoons blow in, drenching the forests and rice paddies. Dravidian dynasties competed for supremacy in the south over thousands of years, but no one kingdom ever controlled the whole pendant-shaped tip of the peninsula. The Malabar Coast was strategically important in the lucrative spice trade. Today spices and chiles permeate the cuisine of South India. While each state has their own specialties, similar ingredients are used. Rice is the staple grain and many varieties are grown. Rice, known as sadam in the south is flavored with lemon, tamarind, coconut and yogurt and made into puddings and other sweets. Rice is ground into flour and used to make batter for fritters, steamed cakes, pancakes and noodles. To make string hoppers, cooked rice dough is pushed through the holes of a press, the strands swirled into flat nests and used to sop up curry or sweetened coconut milk. Fish and shellfish come from the sea, rivers and backwater canals. Tropical fruits and vegetables grow in abundance. Tea and coffee are cultivated in the cool hills. Coconut and date palms sway in the warm breezes. Coconuts, coconut oil, curry leaves, turmeric, mustard seeds, shallots, tamarind, lime juice and smoked kokum called kodampoli or “fish tamarind” are widely used in southern cooking. Two other unusual ingredients are kalpasi, a dried fungus collected from rocks along the beach and vazlapoo, the pale yellow inner buds of banana blossoms. The moss is used in biryanis and the buds are often ground with chickpeas to make fritters. In general, South Indian food is less oily and lighter than in the north where cream and ghee make the food richer and harder to digest. Only in the south are small amounts of split lentils roasted or fried and used as a seasoning, adding a nutty flavor to many dishes. In the south curries are hotter and thinner than in the north, perfect for mixing into the plain foil of rice. Hot, thin rasam (literally “dal water”) and slightly thicker, tangy-hot lentil and vegetable sambar accompany rice at all meals. The duo is also served with paper thin rice and lentil pancakes and spongy steamed rice cakes that resemble flying saucers. Cooling tamarind and other souring agents are used in abundance to help balance the large intake of chiles. Tamarind also preserves the vitamins of vegetables and helps soften the hard water found in many parts of the south. Food is served on banana leaves, which are fed to cows when the meal is over. The size of the leaf and placement of dishes on it differ in each community, and one glance tells a person the status, wealth and origin of a family. Chewing paan (betel leaf) after meals originated in the south as a digestive.