South Indian food demystified: 5 dishes you need to try

Tandoori, naan bread, butter chicken and rich vegetable curries are delicious, but these north Indian staples are just a fraction of the country’s diverse culinary offerings. To get a more complete picture, you also need to head south. South Indian cuisine is vastly different – think steamed, spiced and coconut-flavoured.

The South Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka each have their own variants of common dishes as well as regional specialties. For an introduction to South Indian cuisine, here are 5 dishes to look out for.

1. Dosas: paper-thin crepes

A traditional breakfast food made of fermented rice-and-lentil batter, a dosa is much like a crispy thin crepe. It’s accompanied by sambar (a hot lentil soup) and coconut chutney.

Masala dosas are stuffed with a spicy mash of potato and onion; plain dosas are hollow; rava dosas are made from semolina; and some new-age variants get creative with fillings such as cottage cheese or mixed vegetables.

Whatever you choose (trust us and start with a masala dosa), the delightfully light dish is best eaten hot, when it’s fresh off the griddle.

2. Idlis: steamed rice cakes

Soft, fluffy and ivory-coloured, idlis are what many South Indian families eat for breakfast. A fermented lentil-and rice-batter is steamed in little circular moulds, and the resulting spherical rice cakes are served with sambar and chutneys.

Idlis are light and mild tasting, an ideal snack for when you want to give your stomach a rest from fiery flavours.

3. Vadas: savoury doughnuts

What’s that doughnut-like thing doing on your South Indian breakfast thali (platter)? While a vada won’t cure your sugar cravings, it will satiate your desire for something deep fried, hot and crispy.

Made from a batter of black lentils, gently spiced with peppercorns, curry leaves, cumin, chilli and onion, this crunchy fritter tastes best when smeared generously with coconut chutney.

4. Uttapams: pizza-pancake hybrids

Is it a pancake? Is it a pizza? No, it’s an uttapam. A batter of fermented rice and lentils is ladled on to a griddle. Chopped tomato, onion, chillies, carrot, coconut and other toppings are then sprinkled on. The result is a fluffy, porous, delicious uttapam, softer than a dosa, and tastes great with chutneys or without.

5. Banana chips: crisps with a twist

Roadside stalls frying up and selling packs of bright yellow crispy banana slices are a common sight. Banana chips are a popular snack in South India. Thin circular slivers of banana are deep-fried, usually in coconut oil. Sometimes they’re coated in jaggery. Salty with a mild coconut flavour, these crisps are a good teatime snack.