Come Onam, it is wise to be prepared with the 10 stomachs of Ravana himself if your travel plans point south to Kerala. That way you can have a fresh tummy for every two-three dishes at least. Because the single-course sadya ladled out on the banana leaf like a game of culinary Chinese chequers can easily cover two dozen items—and if it is a particularly lavish wedding, each of your stomachs might have to stretch to five or six items each. Holding down the centre of the leaf, by sheer weight, is rice—red rice. To be eaten with curries as diverse as a thick parippu (lentil dal) with ghee, sambhar, spiced yogurt pulissery perhaps flavoured with mango or pineapple, the spicy-sour thin rasam, starchy kaalan, pumpkin-sliver olan, and tempered buttermilk. ‘Dry’ sides will feature theeyal with ground roasted coconut and thoran with fresh grated coconut, the iconic coconut-milky aviyal mix and the lentil-thickened kootu, hot dry erissery and raita-ish pachadis. There will be crunch from fried unniappams, lentil vadas, sweet flour crisps and the redoubtable banana chips. There will be mouthwatering slurpiness from pickles and preserves, top left, of tamarind, green mango, amla, lemon and vegetables like cauliflower. There will be soothing sweetness in payasams and pradhamans, pancake and puddings with lentils, fruits, milk or coconut milk and often tender coconut water and flesh. And there will definitely be the punctuation marks of appalam and banana, at bottom right. Shame on your stomach(s) if you still have room to follow up banana leaf with betel.
Biryani in Hyderabad
At the heart of a good biryani lies...a goat. At least when it comes to the city of Nizams, this is the meat of choice. The only real choice left is whether to cook it *before introducing it to the pot of paddy grain, or *after. So what will it be, janaab? Pakki yakhni, or kachchi biryani? The former is a faster fix, the more democratic version perhaps, therefore. The latter, more challenging and needing careful coddling, is food fit for kings. And being a royal repast, it disdains any positioning as a convenient one-pot meal, however fragrant or famous. Nay, it must have attendants—there must be mirch ka salan for a spicier mouthful, dahi chutney for a soothing gulp, a kachumber for extra crunch and maybe an unctuous baghara baingan for a creamy finish. One last choice, then: Bawarchi, Paradise, Shadab or Bahar?
Where to start picking off Pondy’s palate-pleasers? Depends on when you arrive. If it is nearly lunch time, the fine-dining Creole menus at the Hotel de l’Orient or La Maison Tamoule or its rivals (and sisters) the Palais de Mahe or Maison Perumal will set the bar excellently high for the rest of your foodie days. If you have time for just one or two main meals, choose these over the more popular Satsang and Rendezvous, for our money. If it is elevenses or small eats you want, Baker Street is the place—especially if you have a lazy hour to spare as the cases fill and refill with changes from breakfast to lunch to snacks, all very moreish and excellent coffee. But if you are quite full and just need to indulge your sweet tooth, Choco La will serve you a demitasse with a chocolate spoon and melting boxes of chocolate flakes to play with, between sips. If you are just browsing, there is mutton samosa and aatu kaal soup opposite the railway station, Burmese mohinga from the cart opposite Café Xtasi on Mission Street, the seafood cart opposite Nilgiri’s with crab and squid and fish, and on Lenin Street the chap with the mushroom bondas! Past the Cinderella hour, Hotel Rolex will still serve an hour’s worth of muttai dosa, brain fry and parottas. For an earlier takeaway, try a beefy biryani from Arcot or Salamath or appam-stew-liver fry-beef curry from Kerala Mess—‘small hotels’ all. A cold exotic drink and dainty eats are delish at Café des Arts or Kasha ki Aasha. Eclectic meal in a pretty place? Do Villa Shanti or La Maison Rose. For wood-fired pizza, pannacotta, sorbet, tiramisu...see Tanto (and shop for edible collectibles at Happy Food farmer’s market right across). And if all you wanted was a square veg thali, Surguru is the go-to for that. For carnivores, Appachi does Chettinadu. And your Auroville excursion must include nuncheon, Naturellement!
Mysore pak in Mysore
Do you like your brownie fudgy or cake-crumbed? Is your preferred cookie chewy or prone to crumbling? Important questions to answer before you embark on the pak quest in Mysore. Because there lies your clue to whether you should seek the ghee-drenched greasy-fudgy chunks sat in trays beneath bigger neon signs such as Sri Krishna or Indra Sweets or the porous bricks stacked in the corner shops’ jars. So some say. But the descendants of the man who made the ur-pak, Kakasura Madappa, don't seem to believe in bias—at Guru Sweets the sweet is served warm from the kadhai, neither pasty nor powdery, melting and aromatic with cardamom and turmeric. Elsewhere there are butter-based and low-sugar alternatives. Here, no one would suffer such indignity to be offered to royalty—for Kakasura was cook to Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV himself.
A Reverie, Goa
Aakritee and Virendra Sinh insist on putting the fun into fine dining, and Goa on the global glocal fine-dining map at A Reverie. From classic Taj hotels cooking to edible installations is a bit of a sharp trajectory. But Aakritee’s playful start with edible Goan beach sand to support a steamed fish with *seven sauces (because seven seas), a ‘poder’s cycle’ of poie bread and soups, a mushroom soup with cocoa dust, balchao chowmein, chorizo ‘pao bao’, dimsum sliders, Indian taco truck, an eggless egg tray, a Thai bento, a Japanese barbecue, a fish that swam from Yorkshire to ‘Amritshire’, a very fanciful ‘exploration of salt + sugar’, an edible landscape called ‘birds and bees’, three variations of Bondla forest honey, a palate-renewing ‘breath of fresh air’ on a toothbrush(!), a savoury ‘neuros and churros’ and shavings from a coconut pencil/piece made us sit up and bite the bait. www.areverie.com
Mappila melting pot
The Muslims of northern Kerala, the Mappila community, have a menu that will induce deja vu in visitors as disparate as the Yemeni and the Portuguese, the Dutch and even the English. There is the iconic pathiri, a steamed ‘rice roti’ that straddles Southern Indian and West Asian preferences of rice and flatbread. Fish steamed between these makes an innovative sandwich, meen pathiri, that puts pita pockets to shame. Thicker orroti mops up ishtew and aanam, in which aromatic spices such as cardamom, clove and pepper run strong. The eggier mutta sirka rice pancake comes to breakfast with spicy scrambled eggs. Biryani, not unexpectedly, is a staple—but runs uniquely to seafood in this coastal culture. Aleesa, the ground wheat-and-meat porridge-y cousin of haleem, turns up too. Kerala parottas are eaten, yes, but more distinctive are the meen (fish) and erachi puttu, powdery rice and coconut steamed logs that only among Moplahs is topped with a pound of flesh. Locale speaks loud in ghee rice with a curry of mussels (kallummakkaya), and in drumstick-mango curries and banana blossom cutlets and sides of spicy-sour okra and brinjal, the shy vegetable leavenings of a meat and bread style of eating. Stuffed roasts like kozhi nirachathu (chicken stuffed with egg and baked in dough), arikadukka (stuffed mussels) and even stuffed prawns, and the habit of several diners eating off one communal platter recalls further Western Asian habits. Snacks are often sweets, which include sweet stuffed banana parcels like unnakkaya and pazham nirachathu and chatti pathiri (layered and filled flour flatbreads), vatillappam (like a jaggery-laced eggy flan) and muttamala (a two-ingredient egg-yolk garland that resembles fluffy chick-yellow string hoppers) partnered with egg-white pinjanathappams (think meringue meets Turkish delight). We are happy to drink a nannari sharbat laced with sarsaparilla to the Mappila marriage any time!
Street food, Mumbai
Maybe the fine dining capital of India, aamchi Mumbai, but it is also the seth of street eats. Vada pav at Anand and lassi opposite; Sarvi’s beef skewers and Sardar’s pav bhaji; the Elco panipuri with the chickpeas and sprouts are the stuff of local legend. Bhelpuri is everywhere, but must be eaten on Chowpatty for best effect. Everyone has their favourite stop for vada pav, but I personally prefer the crunchy sev-chivda-sprout-filled misal pav at Vinay Health Home, and will take ragda pattice or sabudana vada over batata vada too. Find kanda poha for breakfast, sabudana khichdi for tea. For kheema ghotala, we insist on Olympia; for chicken rolls and eggy baida roti, Bademiya. Rough it out at stalls opposite Victoria Terminus for the zunka-bhakar—roti and potatoes never tastes so good. The best garlic-slathered crabs are at Trishna’s and Mahesh Lunch Home, of course. Koliwada prawns were invented by a Punjabi chappie, would you believe? The real thing is at Hazara. Hit up Tibbs for a Lebanese-style frankie, Badshah for falooda and Nandu for dosa, chocolate dosa even. Go to Gajalee for bombil fry and Radio Restaurant for bheja fry. Get a gola on Marine Drive, and in the wee hours hit Churchgate for bun-maska and chai. Ah yes, I see you noticed—some of Mumbai’s best street food is found off the streets. We’re democratic like that.
They take the balanced meal seriously in Gujarat. With as many vatis to left as to right. With sweet and sour, astringent and fermented, fiery hot and salty coolness, crisp and soft, wet and dry facing off and joining ranks on the khomcha. Some particular preparations even yoke them all together, rather like a good Chinese dish. The staples are roti, dal or kadhi, rice, perhaps also khichdi, and shaaks—various vegetarian curries, with both juicy gourds and dried beans in equal evidence alongside sweetened thickened milk and yogurt and buttermilk. Chaas and pickles, steamed or fried farsaan (snackables that are also part of a full meal, besides constituting nashto) and sweets are indispensable—the four legs that raise the simple square meal to impressive heights. Seasonal variations are wide and strongly encouraged. Pea-stuffed ragda nu pattice in winter and khandvi or dhokla in summer, bajra rotla and bhakri to line the stomach against dessert chills and a lighter phulka to stay easy when the sun shines strongest, mango pulp aka aamras to celebrate the season of the king of fruits or lapsi when the wheat is new—so it goes, always a seesaw. This tendency persists in the eating as much as the serving. A bite of farsaan and chutney, a spoonful of shrikhand, a little khichdi, a palate cleanser of stuffed karela or methi-flavoured potatoes, a mouthful of laddoo, zig-zag across the bowls it goes—so very different from many Indian cuisines that go by courses round the clockface.
Everything in Chettinad is sunny side up—eggs garnish almost every second dish. And once and for all, the egg comes before the hen: chicken Chettinad is not the pinnacle of Chettiar cooking. Personally I prefer a roly-poly mouthful of a paniyaram (think idli with extra curves and crispy edges) or a rotund seeyam (a sort of batter-dipped lentil bun), both either savoury or sweet, any day and that sticky red rice pudding, kavanarisi, these merchant kings borrowed from Burma. Also: the choice in seafood is better than the chicken and mutton (Chettiars would not eat beef or pork; they are happy to munch rabbits and quails and partridges and pheasants, though). Though one can hardly say nay to an aatukkari kozhambu, tangy dal with meat in it. Mop it all up with space-saucer appams, stringy iddiyappam, yellow adai and of course dosai and rice. Vegetarian? Plead for palkatti—that’s paneer, you Northie, you! But mushroom Chettinad may be more authentic. Oh alright, don’t despair: urlai roast potatoes and cabbage poriyal trounce such culinary trivialities as French fries and tandoori aloo and coleslaw. Just add thayir sadam (curd rice), appalam and spicy tomato chutney for a full meal. Or with rice, opt for drumstick soup, kootu (dal vegetables with lentils) or masiyal (leafy greens with dal) and a tangy pachadi and sour rasam. Pal payasam makes a sweet finish, but perhaps hold out for a sweet kolukottai (a steamed rice dumpling similar to modak, also made in a savoury variant). Two things to bring back from the Chettinad spice box, if you can: kalpasi (a lichen called pathar ke phool in the north) and maratti mokku (dried buds that taste like capers)—the rest of the spices, save maybe star anise, are already in your kitchen.
Malvani coastal cuisine in Sindhudurg
If you are out to conquer Sindhudurg, we suggest arming yourself with sol kadhi, the pink drink of kokum and coconut. Malvani cuisine prides itself on serving up spice. Seafood is, of course, the highlight—unless you are vegetarian, like the Konkanastha Brahmins or Lingayats or Gujarati Vaniks—and preserved as dried fish just in case the day’s catch is poor. Rice and nachni flatbreads are the staples, turning into vada, really a fried puffed bread of nachni flour, on special occasions. Coconut is a mainstay of the pantry—grated fresh, dried and grated, fried, ground into paste, strained into milk. Red chillies are king among spices, and if kokum is queen, then tamarind and raw mango are her junior co-wives. Goan-style spicy red fish curries use pomfret or shark; the fried fish are famous—bombil aka Bombay duck or bangda aka mackerel; the chicken curry called kombdi and Malvani mutton are eaten with vade as special-occasion favourites; vegetarian delicacies include phanasachi bhaji (jackfruit) and cashew amti. Where there is surprising variety compared to most Indian cuisines is in the grain department—soft rice vermicelli called shevaya, the lacy fried pancake called ghavan, the semolina and cucumber baked cake known as dhondas, the rice-flour tandalachi bhakri and fermented polis like amboli. Why, you could try a different staple a week at a Sawantwadi homestay and not be done!
There is, unbelievably to visitors, much more to Tulu cooking than the Udupi usuals. Like Mangalorean fish curry and prawn gassi. Like the Catholic community’s yeasted or toddy-fermented idlis called sannas and leavened unde bread, best dunked in pork—dukra maas or bafat, as kalleze un kiti (an offal dish), the pork roast called laitao, the bloody Portuguese curry called cabidela; or perhaps in fish roe curry, though bifa (beef), bokrea (goat), kunkda (chicken) are not spared either. Like spicy sorpotel and Muslim biryani. There is that Tuluva beauty, neer dosa, the spicy Udupi bisi bele baath and the lesser-known kori rotti (flaky rice crisp, best enjoyed with chicken curry) and akki rotis (softer rice flatbread) and adde (dumplings) and kottige and patholi (various leaf-steamed rice cakes, plain or flavoured or filled). It is the rare Indian tradition that still retains Vedic-era soups as saaru and tambuli, seasoned lentil salads as koshambri and nectars as rasayana). There are Konkani vegetarian delights like daali thoi and bibbe uppukari (with cashews) and menaskai (made with ambade, hog plum) and patrode (stuffed steamed colocasia-lead rolls) and chane ghashi and foka (okra and cashew) and such substantial local vegetables such as the Malabar spinach (basale), jackfruit, breadfruit, plantain, bamboo shoot and the sweet cucumber called taute. Tangy foods are dearly beloved, with puli munchi and other curries inflected with kokum, tamarind and raw mango. Happala (papad) and sandige (fritters) and bajjis and putnis (curd chutney) are relished on the side. Sweets rely on palm jaggery rather than sugar, with guava, banana and wheat halwas commonly offered to guests, though it may be gourd or jackfruit too. And the sea throws up kane (ladyfish) and bangda (mackerel) for the famous spicy-sour fried fish Mangalore-style, crab and lobster, and tuna for drying to add to a sambar-like pollu. Cadge a Christmas hamper called kuswar from a kind lady in Mangalore if you can: it will have churros-like kulkuls, stuffed neuri puffs, macaroons and rose cookies, sesame laddoos and jawbreaker golios. If it’s summer, let her surprise you with a drink of bonda sharbat.