For most of us in the North, South Indian food is a largely homogenous entity, comprising idlis, dosas and not very much else. So I was in for a surprise last week when Trident Gurgaon invited me for a festival that was no short of brilliant. Not only did the variations in the food of each state stand out, the chef single-handedly brought out the brilliance of fish curries, poriyals and staples from four different – and disparate – regions.
To Chef Saneesh Verghese, who heads the Samudra kitchen at Trident Chennai, the difference between one cuisine from the southern region and another is vast. He does admit that almost all cooking from the four states have tempering as a basic principle: in the northern half, tempering is the thing you do to dal; for all other purposes, it is non-existent. Tempering is usually done with mustard seeds, curry leaves, broken red chillies and sometimes urad dal, but there the similarities end.
Kerala’s cuisine uses coconut oil almost exclusively; Tamil Nadu has its gingelly oil, Andhra Pradesh favours peanut oil and Karnataka has a variety, depending on where in the state you are: in Mangalore, coconut oil is favoured. Fish curries vary widely not only from state to state but from region to region as well. Thus, the northern part of Kerala, populated by the Muslim community, has a fish curry that is thick and spicy and is soured with tamarind, something that would never, but never happen further south along the coast. In central and south Kerala, it is only fish tamarind that is used as a souring agent, and the texture of the gravy is decidedly silky and thinner than in any other of the four states. Because of the use of coconut milk/ground coconut, the colour is either fiery orange or mild yellow.
Kerala’s northern neighbour Karnataka has fish and prawn curries, the most famous of which are in Mangalore (though by itself, Mangalore is not representative of the cuisine of the state) that are the thickest in the region. Never made with coconut milk alone, they all use ground coconut with Kandapuri or Bedgi chillies, both of which grow in the state. Gassi as the fish curry is called, is traditionally eaten with sanna, a spongy bread that is fermented with toddy vinegar. It is the country cousin of Kerala’s appams.
On the east coast, coconut is used as an ingredient of cooking, but never ever in a fish curry. Why? I’d be interested to hear your view: I myself can’t think of a plausible reason. Both Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu use approximately the same ingredients: onions, tomatoes and tamarind, but in Tamil Nadu, according to Chef Saneesh, the taste is more sour while in Andhra Pradesh (as befitting the country’s chilli capital) the curries are more spicy. The result is bright red fish curry in Andhra that has slightly thick gravy while in Tamil Nadu, gravy contains both pulp of cooked tomatoes and onions and a thinner sauce.
And that’s just the fish curries.
Recipe courtesy Chef Saneesh Verghese
Thoran from Kerala’s central region
250 grams long beans
1 tbsp coconut oil
1 tbs mustard seeds
2 red chillies
5 curry leaves
1 green chilli
2 tbsp grated coconut
Pick over the beans, remove the tough fibrous string that runs through each bean, chop evenly and steam in salted water till tender. In a kadhai, heat the coconut oil, add mustard seeds and when they splutter, fry shallots. Then add 2 red chillies broken up with your fingers, curry leaves, chopped green chilli and salt to taste. After taking off from fire, stir in grated coconut and serve