One of the things that distinguishes south India from the north is its unique variety of breads — that is, those staple foods that are made from flour and eaten every day.
North India is known for its ubiquitous wheat-based flatbreads such as paratha, roti, and chapati. They're consumed in south India as well but often they'll be made from different ingredients, along with the other exclusive breads in the region. Rice, in combination with lentils (daal), forms the basis of most south Indian breads because it's the most popular crop there. Unlike in the West, the breads are usually steamed or cooked in a pan, rather than baked.
It's virtually impossible to list every bread item you can find in southern India due to the incredible local diversity. However, these are the major ones you're likely to come across.
South Indians are fanatical about their idli, especially for breakfast! These soft, spongy discs are made out of a batter of fermented urad daal (black lentils) and rice flour. It's steamed in a special cooker, which gives the idli the round shape. The addition of lentils provides protein. Best of all, the cooking process involves no oil or butter, making it healthy. By itself, idli is quite tasteless. However, it's served paired with sambar (a spicy vegetable soup) and chutney, which provide bursts of flavor. Dip pieces of idli into these and enjoy!
Dosa is made from the same batter as idli, however it's smeared on to a pan and cooked, making it thin and deliciously crispy. It's eaten for breakfast or as a snack. The most popular type is the masala dosa — a dosa rolled up with a mixture of potato, onion, and spices inside. However, the options for fillings are almost endless. In its simplest form, the dosa is eaten with sambar and chutney on the side, similar to idli.
A different variety is the neer dosa, which originates from the Udupi region of Karnataka. Neer means water, and true to its name, the neer dosa is made from a watery batter of rice flour that's not fermented. This gives it a very light and soft texture, like a crepe. It's usually not served crispy like regular dosa but instead comes slightly stretchy, and frequently accompanies seafood.
South Indian vada (not to be confused with that from Mumbai in Maharashtra) can best be described as a savory version of the western doughnut. It's crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The most common type is the medu vada, fried from a batter of urad daal. The batter is often flavored with spices such as ginger, cumin, green chilli, and pepper. You'll find vada served alongside idli for breakfast, with sambar and chutney. It's popularly eaten at any time of the day though.
Uttapam is made from the same batter as dosa (and idli) but it's cooked much thicker. It also has toppings, kind of like a pizza! The toppings are usually tomato, onions, chilies. However, all kinds of vegetables can be added, including bell peppers and cilantro. Chutney is served on the side.
This essential Kerala bread comes in a bowl shape, and is cooked crispy like a dosa on the edges and spongy like an idli in the middle. The batter consists of rice flour, coconut milk, and yeast. Sometimes toddy (locally brewed palm liquor) is added to the batter instead of yeast to give a fermented flavor, and the appam is then called kallappam. Another variation, the palappam, is made with thick coconut milk to give it a softer and sweeter center. Appam is also widely eaten in Tamil Nadu but it's usually made without yeast. It goes really well with vegetable stew.
Adai is similar to dosa, except the texture is much coarser and heavier. Nutritious and protein-packed, the batter is predominantly made from a variety of lentils. Hence, this south Indian bread is very popular in vegetarian households. Adai is traditionally served with aviyal, a mixed vegetable curry cooked with coconut and curd. This dish originated in Kerala but is found in Tamil Nadu and parts of Karnataka (particularly Udupi) as well.
Native to Andhra Pradesh, pesarattu is also made from lentil batter but the lentils used are green moong daal (mung beans). It's one of the most common breakfast items in the state. You'll find it served with rava upma (which is kind of like oatmeal except it's made with semolina and is savory), and chutney.
Paniyaram shares the same rice and urad daal batter as idli, dosa, and uttapam. Fried onion and spices are added to the batter, which is then placed in a special pan with round molds to cook, similar to a cupcake or muffin tray. This type of south Indian bread is eaten with chutney as a snack or for breakfast. It can also be made sweet, by adding coconut and jaggery (unrefined sugar) to the batter, instead of onion and spices.
Idiyappam is another type of south Indian bread that's eaten with chutney for breakfast in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It's prepared from a dough of rice flour and water that's made into noodles and pressed into idli molds and steamed. Idiyappam is consumed with coconut and sugar in the Malabar region of Kerala, where it's known as nool puttu. It can also be dipped into curries.
A traditional breakfast dish and comfort food in Kerala, puttu is a mixture of rice flour and grated coconut that's been steamed in a special cylinder-shaped container. It's typically paired with kadala curry (black chickpea curry). However, it can be served with a wide variety of dishes, making it very versatile. Puttu has such iconic status in Kerala that it appears in many movies there, and has a place in the Guinness World Records (for the longest puttu). It also impressed MasterChef Australia judges when they visited India.
Known as paratha in the north, this Indian bread is called parotta in the south. It's not only the name that's different but the texture too. The south Indian version has its roots in Sri Lanka. One of the most well known types is the Malabar parotta, also referred to as the Kerala parotta. It's multi-layered and flaky — and so satisfying to tear apart with your fingers!
South India also has its own versions of roti, the omnipresent flatbread that's made from wheat flour and accompanies main meals in north India. In the south, roti is made from many different flours. Akki roti, a classic flatbread in Karnataka, is made from rice flour. Kerala also has its own style of rice flour roti, called pathiri, that originated in the Malabar region. Jolada roti, made from jowar flour, is common in north Karnataka.
While poori is everywhere in south India these days, it's not considered to be a traditional bread there like it is in north India. Fat, round and juicy, poori is made from wheat flour and deep fried. It puffs up while being cooked. You'll most often find poori being served alongside a bhaji of spiced potato for breakfast. It's a classic combination!
Chapathi is eaten all over India, and the south is no exception. This flatbread is very similar in nature to roti, except it's always thin and soft (whereas roti can be thick) and made from wheat flour. It's consumed with curries, chutneys, and pickles.