Learning to Cook South Indian Food

With the help of some experts

by Lavanya Ramanathan, ‘The Washington Post,’ November 3, 2014

Really. I chucked my tiny four-cup nemesis into a dumpster, and with it any illusions that I’d ever make dosa, please my parents and become some sort of hipster Madhur Jaffrey.

“It’s too complicated! There are too many spices,” I’d fume as I toasted mustard seed, lentils and turmeric into a blackened, bitter mess.

South Indian food is also fairly unfamiliar stateside, its tamarind, coconut, tiny-but-potent chilies and fresh herbs more reminiscent of Southeast Asian flavors than the vindaloo Americans know.

Unlike the northern regions of India, where wheat flourishes and is milled into an array of naans, rotis and ghee-soaked parathas, southern India is tropical, shaded by coconut and banana trees and filled with forests of black pepper as juicy as berries on the vine. And just beyond the 24-hour clatter of cities such as Chennai (population: 8 million), the southern plains are covered in a lush, green carpet of rice paddies.

 For the large number of vegetarians from the coastal state of Tamil Nadu, where my family is from, rice is everything. It is boiled for a pantheon of rice dishes. For crisp dosas and spongy idlis, it’s ground into a batter. It’s even pounded flat and fried for crunchy hot mixes that serve as a midday snack.

Rice is in my blood. But I’ve never been able to cook it.

Oh, sure, I have charred it. I have pulled it from that rice cooker so waterlogged that, as my friends arrived for the Indian feast I had promised, I sobbed large, panicked tears.

Among children of immigrants, cooking is often fraught: It’s a way of carrying on cultural traditions, of fighting off the anxious feeling that you are a generation away from blurring into everyone else. Each narrowly avoided grease fire was evidence that my very Indian-ness was tenuous.

“You were not interested,” my mother, Lakshmi, tells me in her lilting, faintly accented English when I ask her why I never embedded myself in her spacious suburban kitchen, where a zillion pungent spices hide in as many burnt-orange Tupperware containers.

A few years ago, Mom optimistically presented me with my own stainless-steel spice box. The boxes are staples of Indian households, offering quick access to frequently used spices. Perhaps because she knew I was a lost cause, mine is so small it’s almost dainty, about the right size for a 5-year-old’s Easy Bake kitchen. I left its seven tiny little cups empty for years.

It has not been all my fault. There are no cookbooks in the South Indian household, no binders full of casserole recipes from which to pull dinner plans. There are no measuring cups or spoons in our home. Ask my mother how to make rice and she suggests that one can “take two fingers water, and one finger rice,” or something to that effect.

These are not recipes, I often chide her. They are riddles.

When one’s culinary track record is as bleak as mine, it is wise to call in the big guns. And so I sheepishly explain to Vikram Sunderam, the James Beard Award-winning chef of Rasika, that I’m hoping he can teach me to cook, beginning with rice.

Astonishingly, he is sympathetic to my plight. His menus span all corners of the subcontinent, each dish always pitch-perfect in its distillation of the cooking traditions of its particular region. But his father is South Indian.

“Just cook it like pasta!” Sunderam insists when I meet him in the subterranean kitchen of Rasika West End. He is emphatic that I forget about the rice cooker — done and done, sir — and use what he calls the draining method, which is to boil the rice and then drain off the water when it’s done, as if it were spaghetti.

I enlist Sunderam to teach me to make one meal, a simple but common trio of vegetarian dishes: lemon rice, a vegetable stir-fry known as poriyal, and a yogurt accompaniment called pachadi. As he dices carrots and effortlessly tosses his spices in the pan, Sunderam explains the traditions that I, as a vegetarian, haven’t experienced, such as the rich seafood dishes that also hail from the southern state of Kerala as well as Tamil Nadu, which sits on the edge of the rich, blue Bay of Bengal. The never-ending train of explorers and invaders who came into India from the north centuries ago deeply influenced North Indian food, Sunderam says, but in the South, the cuisine was and still is driven by the tropical geography.

I leave with recipes with actual measurements, which feels like a minor miracle. When we’re done, he also asks me to taste everything, arguing that it will help me as I attempt to re-create the dishes later.

I sigh, as I often do when I’m a diner in his restaurants. It tastes exactly like home.

When I try to explain South Indian food to friends, I always begin with dosa, a dish with enough exposure in the West that it rarely needs an introduction. A golden lentil-and-rice crepe that can be as crispy as a potato chip (while never crumbling like one), it’s a crowd-pleaser. But it’s hardly representative. The crepe itself is a blank canvas, made for dipping into accompaniments that have the range of hot, sour and cool that the cuisine can evince.

If the poriyal and rice were my attempt to add home-style food to my arsenal, my desire to learn to make dosa is about having a party trick. For sambar, a lentil-and-vegetable stew with an army of ingredients, I will defer to a packaged spice mix. But I want to learn to make the crepes and the coconut chutney that is so often its accompaniment.

Ananda Poojary, the owner of Woodlands restaurant in Langley Park, where some of the region’s best dosas are made, agrees to meet me with ingredients in hand. For dosa, he shows me just three: rice, the lentil called urad dal, and fenugreek seeds. The secret to the crepe is what you do when you’re at the griddle. A dosa should never be flipped like a pancake; It should be so thin that it cooks through. Poojary tells me the ideal dosa is crispy to the bite, but pliable; to show me, he takes one in his hands and rolls it slightly. When it is my turn at the griddle, I carefully pour on a half-cup of batter and use the stainless-steel cup’s rounded bottom to spread it. Behind me, I can make out the unmistakable sound of the restaurant’s dosa cook, snickering.

I have one last stop: a South Indian temple. In many temples around the world, vegetarian food is cooked by holy men and offered to the gods and then to devotees as blessed food, known as prasadam.

On a Frederick County hilltop, the $8.5 million Sri Bhaktha Anjaneya Temple will open in the next few months. One of the priests, Thyagarajan Subburathinam, explains to me in Tamil that prasadam— which can include tamarind-laced rice and spinach curry, protein-packed pongal and sweets — are cooked with holistic principles in mind. Acidity, digestion and balance are all at play: Each ingredient, each combination of spice and cooling yogurt, protein and leafy vegetable, “is about keeping our minds clear,” he says. In addition to meat, onions and garlic, alcohol and leftovers are verboten.

Very religious South Indian families, including mine, eat like this at home, too. It’s the kind of diet I grew up with. (Though these days, I supplement it with the occasional negroni.)

Subburathinam invites me to learn from Raghavan Srinivasa, the priest who is the temple’s dedicated cook, as he prepares hundreds of orange-hued jangri, intricate floral-shaped tuiles made of lentil batter.

After watching Srinivasa, I try squeezing my own jangri from a cheesecloth packed with the colored batter. It looks like a snaking pile of dung.

I lament that there’s hardly a second to breathe over this bubbling pan of hot ghee. That is the very nature of Indian cooking, Srinivasa tells me as he examines my jangri with a grimace. The preparation involved can seem painstaking, endless. But when it is time to cook, one had better hustle like an Olympic sprinter.

I’m comforted by the notion that even the priest, who has been cooking for 45 years, has been in my position. For the first time, I feel pretty confident about my bad cooking. My dung pile is good enough.

A couple of days later, a few friends gather in my Northwest Washington apartment to taste what I’d been working on for the past few weeks. My roommate’s fiance, Joe, who had once apprenticed in an Indian kitchen, confesses delicately that he wasn’t entirely sure I’d ever manage to get a South Indian dinner on the table. (Admittedly, a week earlier, I didn’t know how to cut a carrot.)

But there it was: lemon and coconut rices, which I’d boiled like pasta and which were so fluffy they garnered compliments. A chutney, made with Poojary’s recipe, perfectly spiced and nutty. My dosas were on the thick side, but they looked exactly like the ones at Woodlands. Was I a chef, a changed woman? Not in the slightest. But South Indian food suddenly felt demystified. Being in the kitchen didn’t make me hyperventilate. With my mother’s assistance, I even finally filled my spice box.

When I was cooking with Sunderam, I had wondered about his own children, and whether their exposure to his cooking had made them more curious about Indian food than I was. Surely his daughter, who is 19 and studying international business, was wise enough to pick up a thing or two from her famous father?

She says she’s going to hire a cook, Sunderam says with a laugh. “Both my children aren’t into cooking. They like to eat. Now that they’ve grown up, they really want to try different cuisines.”

The tone in his voice was familiar. They are not interested.

I laughed to myself, because I know something that Sunderam probably has yet to realize about his Indian American daughter.

She’ll come around.

Sunderam will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at live.washingtonpost.com.


Lemon Rice

  • 2 cups raw basmati rice
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seed
  • 2 teaspoons urad dal (black matpe beans; see headnote)
  • 2 teaspoons chana dal (split chickpeas; see headnote)
  • 20 raw cashew pieces (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground hing (asafetida, see headnote)
  • 15 curry leaves, or as needed
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Place the rice in a fine-mesh strainer. Rinse under cool water twice, to remove excess starch. Drain.

Bring the water to a boil in a deep pot over high heat. Add 2 teaspoons of the salt and 2 tablespoons of the oil, then stir in the rice. Cook uncovered for about 15 minutes or until tender, stirring a few times. Remove from the heat and immediately drain off any excess water in the pot. Transfer to a large bowl.

Heat the remaining 4 tablespoons of oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the mustard seed, which will begin to crackle and pop almost immediately. Add the urad dal and chana dal. Cook undisturbed for a minute or two, until the chana dal turns light brown.

Quickly stir in the cashew pieces, if using, the hing, curry leaves and turmeric, then remove from the heat, continuing to stir until the cashews are lightly browned and the curry leaves begin to dry and curl.

Pour over the cooked rice, taking care to evenly distribute the spices so the rice is colored yellow, then stir in the lemon juice and the remaining teaspoon of salt. Serve warm; or cool, cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Vegetable Poriyal

  • 4 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon plus 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 cup diced carrots
  • 4 ounces green beans, trimmed and diced
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil (may substitute canola or vegetable oil)
  • 2 teaspoons urad dal (black matpe beans; see headnote)
  • 2 teaspoons chana dal (split chickpeas; see headnote)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seed (see headnote)
  • 1 cup chopped red onion or shallots
  • 1/4 teaspoon hing (asafetida; see headnote)
  • 20 fresh/frozen curry leaves (see headnote)
  • 1 tablespoon peeled fresh ginger root, finely chopped
  • 5 green small, whole Thai chili peppers (may substitute serrano chili peppers)
  • 1 cup grated fresh/frozen coconut (do not use dried or sweetened coconut)

Fill a large bowl with water and ice.

Bring the 4 cups of water to a boil in a deep pot over high heat. Add a tablespoon of the salt, 1/2 teaspoon of the ground turmeric and the carrots; once the water returns to a boil, add the green beans. Cook for 7 or 8 minutes, until just crisp-tender.

Drain through a fine-mesh strainer; leave the vegetables in the strainer and immediately place it in the bowl of ice water.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil is liquefied, add the urad dal and chana dal; cook, stirring a few times, until they begin to brown. Stir in the mustard seed and the red onion or shallots; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened but not browned.

Stir in the hing, curry leaves, ginger and Thai chili peppers, then the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of ground turmeric, the remaining teaspoon of salt and the coconut; toss to make sure the coconut is evenly distributed.

Drain the cooked vegetable mixture (in the strainer) and add it to the skillet. Cook, stirring to incorporate and heat through, for 3 or 4 minutes. Serve right away.

VARIATION: To make this recipe with potatoes, boil and skin potatoes before adding, omit the coconut and consider using cilantro, which can be substituted for the curry leaves. For broccoli, omit the onion and add toasted cashews to the mix.



Green Mango Pachadi

  • 1 large, unripe mango, peeled and diced (with the crunch and consistency of a Granny Smith apple; see headnote)
  • 1 cup fresh/frozen grated coconut (do not use dried or sweetened coconut; see headnote)
  • 2 green Thai chili peppers (not seeded), diced (may substitute serrano chili peppers; see headnote)
  • 2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt (may substitute Greek-style yogurt)
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seed
  • 10 curry leaves (see headnote)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon hing (asafetida; see headnote)
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Combine the mango, coconut and green Thai chili peppers in a high-powered blender; pulse to reduce the mixture to very small pieces. Add a little of the water; pulse just long enough to achieve a slightly grainy, batterlike consistency. Transfer to a large bowl; whisk in the yogurt and water until thoroughly incorporated.

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seed and toast briefly; it will crackle and pop almost immediately. Then add the curry leaves and the cumin, turmeric and hing, stirring to keep those ingredients from scorching. Remove from the heat.

Pour the spice mixture into the mango-yogurt mixture in the bowl, then add the salt, whisking to blend. Serve right away, or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

VARIATION: If green mango is unavailable, the pachadi can be made with diced shallots and halved cherry tomatoes, kernels of corn or diced cucumber. Simply omit the mango and coconut, and garnish with a chiffonade of fresh cilantro.


  • 1 cup urad dal (black matpe beans; see headnote)
  • 2 cups raw basmati rice (see headnote)
  • 1 tablespoon methi seed (fenugreek; see headnote)
  • Water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Flour (optional)
  • Vegetable or coconut oil (liquefied)

Rinse the urad dal and rice separately in a fine-mesh strainer to clean and remove any excess starch. Place the rice in one bowl and cover with water. Combine the urad dal and methi seed in a separate bowl and cover with water. Soak each for 6 hours.

Drain, reserving the soaking liquid from the dal.

Combine the dal and a little of the reserved soaking liquid in a high-powered blender; puree until very smooth. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Clean out the blender, then add the rice and some of the reserved soaking liquid; puree until no individual grains or pieces are apparent.

Pour the pureed rice into the pureed dal, stirring until well incorporated. The mixture should be the consistency of pancake batter or slightly thinner. Season with the salt. Cover the bowl with a plate or loose-fitting lid. Let the batter sit at room temperature to ferment for about 8 hours. It will increase in volume and should smell slightly sour when ready. (In warm weather, keep the batter away from sunlight; in cool weather, place the batter in an oven or microwave (turned off) to ferment away from drafts.)

Refrigerate the fully fermented batter if you’re not going to make dosas right away. Otherwise, heat a griddle or 12-inch nonstick skillet on medium-high heat. Once the pan is hot, pour 1/3 to 1/2 cup of batter onto the griddle or pan, and very quickly use the bottom of a ladle or bowl to spread it, in one rapid, clockwise motion, into a thin round that’s 6 or 7 inches across. (If the batter seems too thick, add water to the mixture in the bowl in small increments; if it is too thin, flour can be added to thicken it.)

Use a spoon to sprinkle a small amount of oil on the edges of each dosa for crispness and to ease removal from the cooking surface. When the dosa’s underside is a golden brown, gently roll so that one end is a little wider (a slightly loose cone shape), or fold in half. Transfer to a plate. Repeat with the remaining dosa batter.

Serve right away.

Coconut Chutney

  • 1/4 cup chana dal (split chickpeas; see headnote)
  • 5 tablespoons finely shredded fresh/frozen unsweetened coconut (see headnote)
  • 2 small green Thai chili peppers, stemmed
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh peeled ginger root
  • 10 fresh/frozen curry leaves (see headnote)
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons room-temperature water
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or coconut oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon mustard seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon hing (asafetida; see headnote)

Toast the chana dal in a small, dry skillet over medium heat, stirring, until lightly browned. Let cool.

Combine the coconut, green Thai chilies, ginger, 5 of the curry leaves and the toasted chana dal in a high-powered blender. Run until finely chopped, then, with the motor running, add the water (as needed) and lemon juice; puree briefly to form a spoonable chutney with a slightly grainy texture. It should be pale green. Transfer to a serving bowl.

Heat the oil in a small nonstick skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the mustard seed, which will start to crackle and pop almost immediately. Quickly add the hing and the remaining 5 curry leaves; stir-fry just until the leaves crisp up, then immediately pour the mustard-seed mixture on top of the coconut chutney (like a garnish).

Serve right away.


Lavanya Ramanathan is a professional eater/drinker/thinker for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. University of Texas. Northwestern University. Rap fan.

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