Being born and raised in the heart of North India in the era of no internet and limited television meant many things, but most of all it meant that your exposure to the world was limited. That world did not necessarily mean the foreign lands; often it was your own backyard. Case in point, the south of India.
As a child of the 80s, all I knew about the southern India was that there was a land somewhere beyond the horizon, which was called Madras, and people who lived in and came from there were called Madrasis (yes, I am guilty of that crime!). But more importantly, I knew that they ate some amazing food, which was hard to recreate in the home kitchens of small towns in Uttar Pradesh—long and crispy dosas with a flavourful potato mix (which was always too little for the large dosa), fluffy idlis that were served with steaming sambars (which people drank bowlfuls of), and the chutney that looked and tasted like chalk in water (but we ate it nonetheless!). It was important because this was the only food that was eaten outside – a rarity in those times. Not surprisingly the dosa and idli were our favourite foods.
There was one more thing I knew of though: curd rice.
My only south Indian connection back then was a Tamilian friend and we often had our dose of dosas in his house. It is another matter that I did not like the homemade pancakes that his mother served in the name of dosas one bit: wasn’t dosa supposed to be crisp and golden and drenched in ghee? While I tried making peace with the thick discs, gulping them down with bland sambar (no sign of spicy restaurant sambar either), he stuck to curd rice. “It is very good for your tummy!” he’d often tell me while stuffing spoonfuls in his mouth. The sight made me thank god for the dosa – even if it was a home made one.
Then we made a trip down South.
It was here, in the restaurants we ate every meal, that I came across words like ‘meals’ and ‘tiffin’. The former until then was a word I had only read in the textbooks and the latter meant the steel box we carried to school. I also came across a funny realisation: they would not serve us dosas for lunch or dinner. ‘That’s tiffin’ they said, ‘come back in the evening if you want dosai”. And so, even as I dreamt of buttery dosas I had to make do with puris served with the same potato mixture. The elders meanwhile enjoyed their ‘meals’ that came in large platters with dozens of bowls of different coloured liquids – and the same puris.
One would think that after this experience across states – Karnataka, Kerala, Tamilnadu and Andhra – one would go back wiser. But not me. Going back to the cocoon meant going back to the old ways. And so for years I ate dosa imagining it to be the epitome of South Indian cuisine. Oh! and I also believed that South Indian food was always vegetarian (Tambram filter, you see.)
It was only after I met the husband that I learnt a little more about all things South. He laughed at my concept of dosa and idli and narrated stories of beef curry and trotter soup. He told me stories of Biryani and chicken 65, and sang songs in praise of mutton roast, avail, tamarind rice and appams. He took me to far corners of the city to show me what a parotta was and how pongal tasted. I am not sure if he did all that for the love of the food or to woo his to be wife, but he did end up instilling in my mind a deep curiosity for the flavours of the deccan (and adding several kilos to my body) in the process. And so at 23, I became a South Indian food literate.
The real turning point however came when we moved to Bangalore. I was in the city after twenty years and the restaurants had changed. There were no strict uncles who looked down upon you when you asked for dosa in the middle of the day; they offered you Gobi Manchurian and Fried Rice instead. While the city had learnt to tolerate a North Indian’s desire for tiffin all day long, the north Indian was getting used to its ways – akki roti and bonda-soup for evenings, dosa and kara baath for mornings, and biryani, parotta, rice, or meals for the meals.
If Bangalore gave me a taste of the cosmopolitan flavours, Chennai taught me what good street food meant: trotter soup, curries with parottas, murku sandwich, Andhra and Tamil meals. Dosas that came thick and soft, roasts that smelt of ghee and gunpowder. Beef, chicken, mutton, fish—I was in food heaven. I learnt to extend my culinary skills too. From the basic sambar to the seemingly simple, yet complicated, stew, from pongal to khara baath, from paniyaram to payasam, I learnt to cook beyond the idli. My chutneys weren’t chalky, my sambar was fragrant, and my dosas could beat any darshini hands down.
And then it was time to move back.
It has been years since I have returned to the land where many people still equate idli and dosa to the be all and end all of the southern cuisine, thankfully I am not one of them.