Get to Know Lighter, Spicier South Indian Cuisine with Chandra Ram

Lighter and spicier than North Indian food, South Indian cuisine features spicy, tangy, coconut-laden dishes, including curries that are brothy rather than creamy.

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Buckwheat Queen
Pictured: Kerala Chicken Curry .

South India is far too underrepresented in American and European kitchens, but more and more people are getting to know the spicy, tangy, coconut-laden dishes from this part of the Indian subcontinent. The cuisines found in this part of India are strong on vegetables, seafood, rice and lentils. They tend to be lighter and spicier than North Indian food, with curries that are brothy rather than creamy.

You see the difference from the beginning of the day. Idli, dosa, and uttapam are classic South Indian breakfast and brunch specialties. They are made from a batter of ground rice and lentils that is fermented until it's airy and bubbly; the same batter can be used to make all three dishes. Idli are steamed cakes, while dosa are thin, crispy crepes often wrapped around vegetables. Uttapam are thick savory pancakes topped with vegetables, chiles and chutney. All are usually served with sambar, a spicy, brothy lentil and vegetable stew.

Rice is essential to South Indian cooking and is the center of some of its most beloved dishes. Biryani, which the Mughals brought from Persia, is cooked and eaten throughout India, but the version made in Hyderabad is famously delicious because the meat and rice are cooked together, infusing each grain with flavor. Curd rice is another rice dish beloved in South India; it's a mixture of cooked rice with yogurt that is topped with chilies, curry leaves, spices, and often nuts, fried in ghee to bring out their flavor. And in Tamil Nadu, people flock to temples on feast days to eat tamarind rice. This dish, of cooked basmati rice mixed with tamarind paste, jaggery or another sugar, curry leaves, nuts, mustard and cumin seeds, and chiles, contains a myriad of flavors in each bite. Tamils also eat a lot of rice noodles in a dish called string hoppers, for breakfast or as a snack.

Authentic and Easy Shrimp Curry
Authentic and Easy Shrimp Curry. Allrecipes Magazine

Pickles are an essential condiment in South India. Here, chile-laced pickles called achaar made with limes, tamarind, eggplant, unripe mango and other fruits and vegetables sit ready to add their tangy heat to any dish; the spiciest ones come from Andhra Pradesh. You'll also find podis throughout South India; these housemade powders of ground dry lentils, chilies, and spices are spooned onto rice along with a little ghee to season and flavor it. There are regional favorites; gunpowder is a favorite podi in Andhra Pradesh (and is especially spicy), while coconut podi is popular in Kerala.

Coconuts feature strongly in South Indian cooking, and jars and bowls of coconut chutney can be found on most tables. It's made by grinding together unsweetened dried coconut with mustard seeds, lentils, curry leaves, chiles and other seasonings, and is dolloped on rice, dosa, bread…virtually anything. It's one of the many chutneys and pickles that turn a simple plate of rice or a few idli into a meal full of flavor.

Coconuts are especially popular in Kerala, at the tip of India on the southwestern coast; the state's name means "land of coconuts." The oil is used for cooking—especially frying street food and snacks—while the milk is used in drinks, soups, and stews, and the meat is used in chutneys, curries, and in sweets like coconut fudge and halwa. Kerala has a large Christian population, and that community has developed its own cuisine, often featuring beef in roasts, curries, and the famous Kerala beef fry. The meat is often seasoned with the peppercorns grown in Kerala; India produces a third of the world's pepper, much of it grown in Kerala along with cardamom, cloves, and turmeric. Kerala's location on the Malabar Coast and its booming fishing industry makes seafood a big part of the local cuisine; fish curries, stuffed mussels, whole baked fish and shrimp or prawns fried with chile and garlic are among the local favorites.

Seafood also features prominently in the food of Goa, which is located north of Kerala along the southwestern coast. The local kingfish, tuna, sardines and shellfish are fried, curried, steamed in banana leaves and roasted. But this former Portuguese colony is most famous for its pork vindaloo, a dish of pork braised in wine with lots of garlic and chiles whose ingredients reflect its colonial history.

Goan Pork Vindaloo
Goan Pork Vindaloo. Alina

And just north of Goa is Mumbai, India's largest city and one of the country's culinary epicenters. The city is known for its Irani cafes, which were opened by Zoroastrian Irani immigrants in the 20th century, and are respites for cups of chai, pastries, egg dishes, samosas and other treats. But step outside and you'll find just about any food from around India cooked or eaten by one of the 15 million people who live there. Mumbai is famous for its street food, and you can find and eat any number of biryanis, pavs (similar to sliders) stuffed with braised vegetables or spiced fried potatoes, and chaat. The city is also home to Bombay Chinese food, which uses Indian spices in Chinese stir-fries for bowls of the famous spicy gobi Manchurian. Cool off with a juice, lassi or wedge of kulfi ice cream from a street vendor, and savor the flavors; here, you can find them all.

Check out our collection of Indian Recipes.

Chandra Ram is the author of The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook: 130 Traditional and Modern Recipes.


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