There’s far more to Indian food than butter chicken, tandoori chicken, and naan. These North Indian staples may be on more restaurant menus, but they’re just a small sampling of the flavors of the subcontinent.
To broaden your palate, you’ll want to head south where carbs reign supreme and tandoori flavors give way to hints of coconut. South India is a vegetarian’s paradise. South Indian cuisine comes from five southern states—Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu—and a collection of territories in the southern portion of the subcontinent. South Indian food is as varied as the region itself, but rice, lentils, chiles and coconut are staples. Tamarind makes frequent appearances as do sambar powder and dried curry leaves. And of course, no meal is complete without coffee.
Here’s what to eat— and drink—when traveling in South India.
If you're familiar with Indian food, you're probably familiar with biryani. Hyderbadi biryani is a variation that comes from Hyderabad. It's typically made with basmati rice, vegetables or meat, onions, spices, lemon and saffron.
Dosas come in several varieties and are similar to crepes. They’re made from fermented batter often made from rice and black gram, a bean native to India. Dosas tend to be thin and crispy. They’re served hot and accompanied by sambar, a light spicy soup that’s perfect for dipping, and an array of chutneys, condiments made from ingredients like coconut, tomato, mint and more. Dosas can be eaten plain or stuffed with a mix of spiced potatoes and fried onions, known as a masala dosa. Leave your silverware to the side though. Dosas are meant to be eaten by hand.
Think of the Uttapam as the dosa’s cousin. It’s made from the same type of batter, but tends to be thicker than a dosa and more like a savory pancake. Onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and cheese are often mixed into the batter.
Forget bacon and eggs. In South India, idli is what's for breakfast. Idlis are savory rice cakes made from steamed batter of fermented black lentils and rice. A variation is made with semolina. Idlis are made in special dishes that give them their round shape and served with sambar, chutneys, or a spicy powder usually mixed with oil.
Think of vada as a kind of savory donut. South India is home to several different varieties of vada, both savory and sweet. Vada is typically made from legumes that have been soaked in water and ground into a batter. The batter may be seasoned with cumin, onion, curry leaves or chilies. The mixture is formed into a donut shape, then deep-fried, giving vadas a crispy outside and a soft, fluffy inside. Vada is sometimes served submerged in sambar or a yogurt sauce.
Upma is a popular breakfast item. It's a kind of thick porridge made from dry-roasted semolina or a coarse rice flour. Vegetables and spices are added, paving the way for as many variations as you can think of. In Tamil Nadu, upma is served for dinner as well. Vegetables and spices are typically added to the mixture, paving the way for as many variations as a cook can dream up.
Appam hails from Kerala. It’s an almost bowl-shaped pancake made from fermented rice batter. It’s often served with coconut milk or a curry-like dish called korma, typically made from vegetables and yogurt.
Under the weather? Head straight for the rasam. Rasam is a light spicy soup made from ingredients including tomato, tamarind and black pepper. It’s often served with rice and a popular home remedy for sore throats and colds.
Sambar is stew made with a lentil base, tamarind broth and vegetables, often okra, radish or eggplant. It’s often served with dosas, idlis or rice.
Jigarthanda is kind of like a milkshake. It comes from Madurai, a city in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It's made from milk, ice cream, almond gum, sugar and sarsaparilla root syrup. Jigarthanda is a local favorite and a great way to cool down on a hot summer night.
This is another one for your sweet tooth. Payasam is a dessert made of rice, milk, ghee and sugar. Milk and sugar are typically boiled with rice or vermicelli and flavored with cardamom, raisins, saffron and cashews.
Poori is a carb lover’s dream. It’s a thick bread fried to a puffy crisp that’s often served with potatoes or a curry of spicy chickpeas. Don’t be surprised if your poori is as big as your head.
South India may be a vegetarian’s paradise, but it’s got plenty of options for carnivores, too. Chicken 65 is one of them. Chicken 65 originated in Chennai and is a spicy deep fried chicken dish flavored with red chillies. There are several different recipes for Chicken 65 nowadays, but the original was created at Chennai’s Hotel Buhari.
Chicken Chettinad comes from the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu, a state at the tip of the Indian subcontinent. The chicken is marinated in yogurt, turmeric and a mixture of red chillies, coconut poppy seeds, onions and garlic. It's typically garnished with coriander and served with rice or paratha, a type of bread popular in the region.
Avial is a dish referenced in 7th century Indian poetry. It’s especially popular in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and a great option for getting in your daily vegetables. Avial is a mix of more than a dozen vegetables and coconut. Typical vegetabls for avial are carrots, green beans and moringa.
If you're in South India, there's a very good chance curd rice is on the menu. It's a simple mixture of steamed white rice and yogurt. The rice is steamed to a point where it almost breaks down, then seasoned with ingredients like curry leaves and mustard seeds before being mixed with yogurt and salt.