I'm getting freaking addicted to the vegetarian cuisine of southern India

Here in Silicon Valley, we’re blessed with a large immigrant Indian population who have brought their brilliant cooking to enliven the dining scene. I’ve eaten the more formal, meaty Indian food for years: lamb vindaloo, butter chicken, etc. But lately the foodie fashion here is for casual, southern Indian foods such as chaat (snacks) and simple home vegetarian cooking.

Yesterday I was introduced to the joy of dosa (a huge, crisp crepe filled with spicy potatoes and onions and maybe cheese or chilis or just about anything). It’s served with a spicy vegetable chowder and coconut chutney on the side. It’s robust and filling and hot as hell. It’s fun to break off the crispy thin lacy edges of the crepe and see how much hot chutney you can stand to scoop up. The middle of the crepe gets pleasantly soggy with the steamy hot potato mixture.

Then we also had some idli, which are spongy steamed cakes of rice and lentil flour. They’re pretty and snow white lens-shaped discs, and they were also served with the chowder (sambar) and coconut chutney. In addition, there was a peanut chutney served with the idli that was blisteringly hot and and addictive.

Other people’s tables showed all sorts of fascinating dishes which I also want to try, so I’ll be back. Our neighbor, an Indian man who is an engineer at Google, seems to be scornful of all this chaat and simple vegetarian food. He only likes the high-end aforementioned curry restaurants. Can someone enlighten me about any social distinction going on here?

Heh, I love hearing Indian foods described in a Western context, because I never think of it that way, a Dosa is kinda like a Crepe I suppose…

I am not really aware of the social distinction, but I haven’t really hung around enough indians to take note. I know my family members who are actually from India prefer the cuisine of their own home state, while enjoying other forms less, while I happen to LOVE Punjabi cuisine vs. my own home state’s foods. So there might be regionalism going on with the simple vegetarian food (Is your friend a vegetarian? If not that might be why, as I too am not a great fan of the simple vegetarian foods, though the ones you’ve listed are all great- I’ve grown up on Dosa, Idli, and such things).

If you like Dosa and Idli, you might want to try Handvoand Dhokla(I’ve aways prounced it Dokh-ra and not la though). As those 4 are the common grouping of vegetarian snack foods along with Chaat and Papard or whatever it’s called.

I’m a fan of Pakoramyself though- that plus the sweet brown sauce… Man… now I’m hungry.

I’d never be able to describe bhel puri in a Western context. I had that a week or two ago, and posted a thread about it. There’s nothing like it anywhere but India.

To everyone who has never had it, here’s the scoop: puffed rice, other crunchy bits of cereal stuff, brown chickpeas, diced onions, cilantro, chili slices, and mango chunks. Moisten the whole with some hot/sweet/tart cilantro chutney, stir, and serve while it’s still crunchy. You never had anything so fantastic in your life - it’s crunchy, hot, sweet, soggy, salty, and chewy all at the same time.

Now, is there anything comparable in Western cooking, or for that matter, anywhere in the world? Unique is what it is.

The South Indian dishes you mention are everyday staple foods all over South India, and they are all very cheap. That said, South Indian food is absolutely delicious - dosa, idli, utthapam, etc. are among the best food I have ever had. I have lived on nothing but idli, dosa and coconut chutney for weeks! Consider yourself lucky to have found a decent place to have it outside India. I don’t think I have ever seen a South Indian restaurant in Europe (rumour has it that there is one in Wembley, but I live in Denmark, so…)
As Ro0sh says, the most likely explanation is that your neighbor is from a different part of India - the food changes quite dramatically as you move from North to South India, and he might just prefer the North Indian stuff.

I thought of the “Maybe he’s a North Indian” regional explanation too, but it doesn’t quite account for his dislike for the general category of chaat, does it? I mean, it might account for his dislike of dosas and idlis and so forth, but I wouldn’t have called those “chaat”, I don’t think; bhel puri and so forth are what I think of as chaat. (But what do I know?)

My boyfriend and I are both South Indian (I’m marathi & goan, he’s telugu, as in from Andhra) and neither of us prefer to go out to South Indian restaurants. We love the food, of course, but we’re both really health conscious and south indian restaurants are even greasy spoonier than Ye Olde Indian Restaurant. If I go to a north indian place I can order the tandoori grill and come away having eaten something reasonably healthy. I also think chapatis are healthier than rice. Going out for South Indian is just a carb & oil fest. Also, I’ve grown up on my mom’s dosas and idlis and I’m picky.

By the way, try the vada sambar and coffee.

Most of the Indian restaurants in Jersey City (along Newark Avenue) are South Indian – relatively cheap dosa places. It’s perhaps the cuisine I miss the most up ere in the sticks – North Indian is available here and there, but I don’t think there’s anyplace that serves this wonderful food closer to me right now than JC, or Jackson Heights, Queens. (Maybe Albany.)

I never really remembered which dosas contained what, though.

There’s a South Indian restaurant across the street from my house and I’ve talked to numerous Indian co-workers about it and they all say it’s one of the best in the area. It’s almost always packed and on Thursdays and the weekends they’re almost impossible to get a seat in, despite the fact that they’ve recently upped their prices on damn near everything. A Masala Dosa used to be $5 and now it’s $6.50. They’ve expanded their menu and bought the store next door for additional seating and can now seat about 150 and they’re still full pretty often.

I’m a semi-regular there and the owner and several of the workers know me by sight(I’m the big white guy with a red beard). I like their Dosa and Utthapam, and their chaat is pretty good(pani poori/puri and bhel puri/poori are my favorite), but what I go for are the samosas and sambar. They have a side dish bar with two large trays of fresh sambar and all the cutneys in the center of the restaurant and you get unlimited sambar whenever you want. Their sambar is the best I’ve ever had. I buy it by the quart($5) to take home. Take a fresh(HUGE) samosa and break it open and drizzle some sambar over it before each bite, mmmm. A co-worker of mine saw me eating my samosa and sambar like that one day and said he’d never seen anyone do that. Then he told his wife about how I ate my samosa and sambar together and how he had laughed and thought it was weird. She said “you ass, that’s how I eat my samosas. We’ve been married three years and you’ve never noticed and now you call it weird!” He told me about it next time we got together and we had a good laugh.

If you’re looking to branch out, try the rava dosa. This is made with a different type of batter(rice instead of lentil I believe) and has a different flavor and texture. Also if you’re a fan of paneer, they do all kinds of yummy things with paneer in South Indian cuisine. Tawa paneer is basically a chili sauce made with paneer and some of the same type of spices you see in aloo gobi(potato and cauliflower curry) and is a nice spicy dish. Make sure you try the drinks too. Mango lassi is a favorite among my family, but the plain(or salt) lassi seems more popular among my Indian friends. It’s savory instead of sweet.

As some have mentioned though, this is not health food. At each cooking station at the chaat house across the street they have huge bowls of ghee(clarified butter) and they use it liberally on everything they cook. I’ve been learning how to cook Indian food for some time now and I’ve had to make substitutions for ghee(and suet) many times. I don’t get quite the same flavor in my naan or kebabs without ghee or suet, but I sleep better at night. Now I just need to stay away from the sev snack packets they sell at the door on my way out.


The next time you go up to the east bay, go to Vik’s chaat cornerin Berkeley. Eat anything they have available. It’s fantastic. A bit pricier and far more fancy than when I was a student at Cal, but still incredibly good and worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Rava dosa, eh? I believe I saw that on the menu of this place. They served upwards of 30 types of dosa, I believe.


Here’s an image of a rava dosa. Damn, that does look good. Says they’re made with semolina flour rather than the rice/lentil batter. I think I’ll try one next time.

I also remember seeing idli made of semolina at this place. There’s no end of goodies to try here!

I am North Indian, and vastly prefer North Indian food as a rule, but I will cross over hot coals to get to a good dosa.

Mmm, dosa.

We just got a great Southern Indian/vegetarian restaurant here. We have a number of great Indian restaurant as there is an Indian temple in our town, one the few around.

Dosas are wonderful!!!

I have indeed been to Vik’s, which was my first introduction to chaat. However, that was a few years ago. I hear they’re going to move to a more convenient, comfortable location over on Fourth Street. When they do so, I’ll return, because the warehouse setting at their current place is a bit dodgy. However, their cooking rocks.

Sunnyvale down here in the South Bay is undergoing an explosion of chaat joints, so bay area folks with an interest in this cooking ought to come down and seek them out. Chaat Paradise on El Camino Real has a terrific bhel puri thali. The place I’ve been discussing upthread is Saravanaa Bhavan, which isn’t a chaat joint but a dosa, idli and roti kind of place. It’s very popular and gets packed every day at lunch.


Less-than-fancy, I’ll give you - more a take out place IMO. But I equate dodgy with crime and unsavory characters. Vik’s is usually packed primarily with college students and upper-crust Berkeleyites. But I’ve never seen anything dodgy. Also it’s already functionally on the corner of Fourth Street and two blocks from day laborer/chi-chi central ( that shopping area never fails to crack me up - it’s SOOOO Berkeley in that sense :stuck_out_tongue: ).

But then it’s within walking distance for me, so I’m a quasi-frequent lunch customer ;).

Nah, not crime. By dodgy I meant that the picnic table seating, and not much of it, made it less than comfortable. That’s how it was laid out a few years ago, when I went there, anyway; as far as I know, perhaps it has improved greatly since then. Lucky you, within walking distance of Vik’s! Hopefully you can still get there easily once they move.

Oh, well…yeah. That’s about the same. They considered it a great compromise when they introduced plastic sporks a few years back, instead of just making you eat with your hands like they used to :D.

Samosa chat is my favorite food, ever. There was only one Indian restaurant here that served it, and it was pure heaven. I was devastated when they shut down. They had excellent uttapam and dosas too. There is only one other chain Indian-restaurant here, and it is no good at all; mostly meat dishes, no flavor. I haven’t had samosa chat in so long…

I should try to make it sometime. Has anyone had any experience making it, or is it one of those things you have to really know what you’re doing to get it to resemble the real stuff?

That’s a lot of different types of dosa! Of course most of them are just different fillings, but that’s still a nice variety. Rava dosa are made with holes in them so you get lots more of the crispy edges than with most dosa. As far as desserts go, halwa is quite good(generally vegetables mashed up and sweetened within an inch of their lives and served in a consistency similar to cream of wheat or oatmeal). A carrot and raisin halwa is one of my favorites. Some of the vermicelli desserts are good too. A sweetened condensed milk base with vermicelli and some spices doesn’t sound too good, but it’s a nice finisher to a savory meal. I’d recommend staying away from the gulub jamun if you’re health conscious. I can’t even describe it adequately, but its closest nutritional equivalent is probably fried cheese, with a side of far too much sugar. The custards are generally nice, and Indian ice cream(called kulfi) is closer to what Americans call sorbet(made with milk instead of heavy cream) and comes in interesting flavors(mint, coconut, mango) but most places don’t make very good kulfi. Save it for when you find a really nice place.

Also, don’t be afraid to eat with your hands, but you’ll get some funny looks if you eat with your left hand. Looking around you’ll probably see most Indians eating with only their right hand and keeping the left in their laps, only bringing it to the tabletop to tear bread or pass dishes. It’s a tradition in India to use the right hand for most tasks and keep the left hand for other things(mostly toilet related). After a few years in this country a friend of mine had lost the habit of using only his right hand and when his mother came for a visit she slapped him when she saw him using his left hand at mealtimes. A co-worker of mine said she’s raising her son(in the US) to eat with his right hand only because if he ever moves to India she doesn’t want him to be an ABCD(American-Born Confused Desi), which is an Indian who doesn’t follow India’s cultural norms, instead using American norms. ABCD’s are the butt of many jokes in India.

I’ve found that many Indians view their cuisine as a major point of cultural pride and by showing an appreciation for it you can be accepted and friendship offered. I’ve been christened “half-Desi” by some of my friends because of my efforts to learn about Indian food and be able to speak cogently on the topic. I asked once about learning some Hindi or Telugu to use some polite greetings and phrases and one friend(an ethnic Shikh) laughed and said “You already know how to talk about the food, that’s pretty much all you need.” After using the topic of food to break the ice with a new Indian co-worker today I’m beginning to think he may have been right.