The Rice People

A dosa and the spontaneous dance moves of a South Indian waiter led us here to Chennai.

We knew we wanted to visit India as far back as October 2009, when the Diwali lights, Indian sweets and the smiles of Singapore’s Little India unexpectedly charmed us. But it was in Melaka that we encountered the fermented rice pancake that would obsess us all the way from Malaysia to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Five months and three countries later, we finally sat in a South Indian restaurant and ordered a masala dosa. This time, I was the one who felt like dancing.

Due South

The cultural diversity of India boggles the mind. Although they all proudly claim their Indian heritage, the Indians at both ends of the country are separated by language, ethnicity and tradition. As we rode the train slowly from Kolkata in West Bengal to Tamil Nadu’s capital of Chennai, through the cities of Puri, Bhubaneswar, Visakhapatnam and Vijayawada, we traveled in four states, each with its own heritage, cuisine and language. As we made our way south along the coast, the languages became undecypherable, the alphabets alien, the people darker-skinned, supple, graceful. The familiar spices of Bengal gave way to a completely new and exciting blend, with frequent accents of chili, aniseed, asa fetida, cinnamon and fenugreek.

Whereas the northern Indians tend to claim Aryan origins, the southern Tamils are fiercely proud of their Dravidian roots. Hindi, the national language of India, is spoken less here than English, and the state boasts its own movie industry, Tollywood, with its own megastars and blockbusters, distinct from Mumbai’s Bollywood.

Hinduism remains the dominant religion in the south, but Christianity has proven a popular alternative to the rigid caste system. Legend holds that Saint Thomas the Apostle himself made his way here after Christ’s death, and was martyred within the limits of what would later become Chennai. Given the extensive history of the Tamil culture, San Tome, as he is known here, must have encountered people, food and traditions that have persisted from long before the birth of Christ to this day.

The Rice People

Given the starkness of the contrast between South India and elsewhere, it’s no wonder their food truly distinguishes itself as well. Whereas Punjabi cuisine in the north favors bread as well as meats in thick sauce, the south shines with its vegetarian cuisine that revolves around rice. The inventiveness of the South’s rice dishes is truly staggering: rice here is eaten in many forms, some barely recognizable, and all delicious, light, healthy and predominantly vegetarian.

The aforementionned dosa is a thin pancake made of fermented rice and lentil, served with sambal, a spicy soup-like sauce, and a thick coconut chutney, with occasional variations including chili or coriander. Dosa come with a variety of stuffings, including onions, coriander, or masala dosa, stuffed with curried potatoes and spices. The dosa in Melaka was good enough to send us dreaming of South India; the ones in Tamil Nadu confirmed the journey had been worthwhile.

Uttapam, a thicker pancake than the dosa, is pan-fried with vegetables and spices. It resembles a small pizza, and its fluffy, crispy thickness highlights the pleasant sourness of the dough.

Idli, a breakfast favorite, consists of small, oval rice flour patties or dumplings, which you dunk in sambal or coconut chutney. It provides a quick, light and tasty meal. The idli itself proves versatile: it can be deep-fried, or chopped and pan-fried in sauces and spices.

A Meal for the Senses

But the most straightforward yet grandiose expression of the South’s love of rice is, without a doubt, the meal.

A South Indian thali, called “meal” in the south, consists of a mountain of white rice, served heaping on a large, green banana leaf. The rice comes with several tasty vegetarian side dishes, ranging from sweet desserts and buttermilk, to fiery mango pickle, sambal, and thick vegetable curries.

As with all South Indian dishes, it is eaten with the right hand, which should be washed both before and after the meal at the sink provided for this purpose. You use this hand to mix the side dishes in your rice, and to scoop the resulting mixture to your lips.

The banana leaf reputedly imbues the rice and side dishes with its own flavor. Combined with the use of one’s right hand, it provides a surprisingly sensual lunch experience, as you get to feel the temperature and texture of your dishes with your fingertips. After a South Indian meal, utensils seem cold, sad instruments meant to segregate you from the true experience of food.

South Indian meals are found everywhere in Tamil Nadu, and at the unbelievable price of approximately 60 cents for an unlimited serving, they’re a popular lunch option for workers over the whole state.

Songs of the South

We spent two weeks in Chennai, our days punctuated by rice. Through our daily visits to Hotel New Suriyas, we befriended the staff who, in an echo of the waiter who first charmed us in Melaka, broke frequently into song, grinned happily at us, or mock-fought between themselves. As we walked around the Muslim area of Triplicane, we chased the choking heat with fresh fruit juices or lassis, retreating to our room until the evening call to prayer announced milder temperatures.

If we are what we eat, then for a time, we too were of the rice people.

And that’s something worth dancing about.

Where to go

“Hotels” (restaurants) serving South Indian meals are ubiquitous throughout the south, in particular in Chennai; but the one meal that drew us back day after day was at Hotel New Suriyas, near the Comfort Hotel in Triplicane. Their idli, dosa and meals are all above-par in my opinion. The restaurant features an adjoining juice bar, where you can enjoy a fabulous mango lassi or butter fruit juice, when in season.

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."

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