The vocabulary, once foreign to me, is now becoming more comfortable, as these types of words often do. They conjure up feelings of hunger, satisfaction and familiarity. They represent family, community and tradition.
They are the foods that Prem grew up eating for breakfast and I now crave and find comfort in alongside him with each trip to his home country, India. With each meal, whether in his mom’s kitchen, a restaurant or a thattukada, I learn more about the preparation, the common serving combinations and the best way to eat each of these dishes (with your hands, of course).
Most of the foods that stand out to me from my experience eating with Prem’s family are from Kerala, their home state, in the south of the country. Kerala cuisine makes its way to the top of my list because it’s presented and talked about so often in the company we keep. Here are a few of my favorite breakfast dishes from my limited experience.
Idli is a soft and spongy cake, round in shape, made with fermented rice and lentils. The preparation begins in advance, as the lentils and rice need to be soaked, ground and left to ferment overnight. The next morning the batter is steamed in molds and served warm alongside chatni, a paste usually made from coconut and varying spices, and sambar, a slightly spicy vegetable stew. Since idlis are not too large, only about 4 inches in diameter, it’s easy to consume many during one meal. Prem’s dad boasted that as a kid he once ate 18 idlis in one sitting! At Prem’s aunt’s house in Kerala this past trip I had enough after two and was met with a surprised “that’s all?” from his family members.
Vade is a fritter that comes in many different varieties but the one we eat most is made from lentils, spices and curry leaves and best served for breakfast alongside idli, chatni and sambar. It looks a bit like an unglazed donut and there are in fact sweet versions, but this variety is savoury. In Bangalore, Brahmin’s Coffee Bar is a must for an idli and vade breakfast, where we order food from their limited menu at the counter, pick up a filter coffee, and eat standing up at one of their many high tables. At less than US$1 for some of the most delicious idli and vade you will find, we usually end up in line for seconds. There is a “chatni man” off to the side who will top your plate off as often as needed. This type of breakfast and coffee bar - darshinis in Karnataka - is most popular with locals on their way to work.
Dosa is a crepe using slightly diluted idli batter and can be prepared several ways. Prem’s mom, and most households, prepare plain dosa as a thin pancake on the griddle, flipped once and served warm. While eating, you break off pieces of the dosa with your hand in order to soak up the sambar and chatni it’s served with.
In restaurants you will find a much thinner version, often called “paper dosa”. The thinness allows for extra crispiness and results in a final product larger in shape. It’s served folded over and eaten the same way as above.
While plain dosas hit the spot, masala dosa has quickly become my favorite variety. The dosa is stuffed with a potato filling made with curry leaves, mustard seeds, chillies and other seasonings. In Bangalore, MTR and Vidyarthi Bhavan are two restaurants that have been around for over 70 years each and serve delicious masala dosa. MTR’s crowd is younger while Vidyarthi Bhavan feels more traditional. Vidyarthi Bhavan is also worth going to in order to see how the server comes out of the kitchen balancing about a dozen dosas on his arm as he dishes them out to hungry customers. Bangalore masala dosas are thicker than the two mentioned above, but very crispy, folded over with the masala stuffing inside.
Puttu is fast becoming another favorite of mine. Powdered rice and grated coconut are steamed together in a special device called puttu kutti, forming a log shape. Puttu is most often served with egg curry or kadala (a type of chickpea) curry. I also learned to eat it with bananas, which I think is what makes it one of my favorites; you mash the banana and puttu together with your hands while eating, giving the dish a whole new texture and adding a level of sweetness.
Eating with Hands and Other Rituals
One dish meals are an anomaly in India; most meals are served family style or as unlimited “meals”, meaning a plate with a little bit of a lot of items surrounding rice or bread. This has its obvious pros (sense of community, coming together at the table, opportunity to try different dishes) but is not without its cons. We have found that this way of serving means we end up eating way more in India than we do at home in New York. One reason is that aunties will take offense if you don’t eat a second (or third!) round of their food. The other is that when the serving bowl of curry is so easily accessible or waiters are coming around to the table offering more chatni, it’s hard to say no. After all, what else will you soak the remainder of your dosa up with?
On this recent trip to India I felt more comfortable eating without silverware, in part thanks to some tips from Prem and his brother. The majority of dishes in south India are eaten with your hand, singular, keeping one hand clean to pick up your drink, camera, or the serving spoon, for example. The bread, or rice, that accompanies the meal is broken into pieces, using your hand, to sop up the curries. All restaurants have a “wash station”, sometimes separate from the restroom, to clean hands before eating, while the most common way to clean hands after a meal in a restaurant is with the “finger bowl” of hot water and lime slice that is delivered to each guest after their plate is taken away.
Although these foods are becoming more and more familiar they are still a novelty to me and will remain so for now, specially reserved for our trips to India to visit Prem’s family.