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Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

South Indian Cooking Deserves Far More Attention. Chitra Agrawal Will Teach You How to Make It a Weeknight Favorite.

published Jul 28, 2020
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I’m thrilled to introduce this month’s feature on Kitchn, which celebrates the vibrantly rich and colorful cuisine of South India. But I’m even more excited to introduce Chitra Agrawalthe woman behind every recipe, shopping guide, and explainer you’ll find below. The author of Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Brooklyn to Bangalore and the owner of the award-winning condiment line Brooklyn Delhi, Chitra was the first person who came to my mind when I pitched this feature to my colleagues at Kitchn.

I myself am half South Indian — my father came to this country from Bangalore, where Chitra’s family hails. I grew up searching for my identity as a mixed race individual and I often found it in food. Traditional dishes like dosa, idli, chitranna, and sambar taste of home to me, and yet they are so rarely seen in Indian restaurants in America. I’ve long felt the flavors of South India deserve more attention, and I’m thrilled to have Chitra share several ways to experience them at home. As you’ll read below, her delicious vegetarian recipes are particularly well-suited to home cooks, and I hope you’ll begin to work them into your family’s regular rotation.Sheela Prakash, Kitchn’s Senior Contributing Food Editor

There’s a long-standing myth that Indian food is difficult to make, which may point to why a plethora of “Indian” recipes online and in books are oversimplified, relying heavily on curry powder, a spice blend you will not find in most Indian homes. 

Like any cuisine, Indian recipes range from quick and easy to complex. I usually tackle the first group during the weekday and leave the latter to weekend cooking when I have more time. My style of South Indian cooking is derived from the age-old vegetarian culinary traditions of my family but grounded in my reality as a city dweller, business owner, and mom of two. I stay true to traditional flavors but readily adapt recipes for the ingredients I have on hand and the time I have available. 

Credit: Lauren Justice

My goal with this weeknight South Indian cooking guide is to add the South Indian recipes I make in my home to your cooking repertoire, as I’ve done for many of my cooking students. It will give you an understanding of essential South Indian spices, ingredients, techniques, and cookware and, most importantly, teach you how to put them to use in your kitchen. 

The recipes I’m sharing are some of my go-to dishes inspired by ones I learned from my mother who grew up in the Southern state of Karnataka and in the city of Bangalore. They’re a far cry from the rich, cream-based curries and naan you or I may order at our local Indian restaurant, which, for the most part, mimic North Indian cuisine. (Though in actuality, those dishes rarely appear in the same form in home kitchens.)

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

What Makes South Indian Food So Special?

The recipes I know and cook in my home represent a small sliver of the recipes you will find in Indian homes and even South Indian homes, for that matter. South Indian cuisine is not a monolith by any terms. It encompasses the five South Indian states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Kerala, and each state has its own language, customs, and culinary styles. With that said, you’ll also find similar preparations of dishes across borders that are referred to by different names — such as the spicy lentil and vegetable stew called huli in Karnataka and sambar in Tamil Nadu. Food traditions in the region are vast, shaped by geography, religion, culture, and many other factors, and I’ve found recipes vary even within families, including my own.

The South Indian dishes I grew up eating are light and fresh while having the ability to carry a good amount of heat, making the cuisine rich in complex flavors. Many of the recipes are centered around rice, lentils (dal), and seasonal vegetables, naturally lending themselves to vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free diets. The dishes lean heavily on coconut, lemon, curry leaves, chilis, and a host of different spice blends. All of these flavors — spicy, sweet, sour, fresh vegetables and herbs — come together on a South Indian plate.

The Flavors of South Indian Cooking

Curry leaves are staples of South Indian cooking and have a fresh herb and citrus flavor. Dals are used in a variety of ways: sautéed in oil to add a nutty and crunchy texture to stir-fry and rice dishes, soaked for adding to salads, ground into batters and chutneys, or boiled for stews and soups. There is also a sour component that comes from the use of fermented foods like the batter for dosa and spicy pickles or achaars, in addition to sour fruits like tamarind and lemon. Also, savory yogurt plays an important role, providing a creamy and cooling component to meals.

Typical meals are modular in nature, with a number of different dishes served together. For instance, a super-fast vegetable stir-fry called palya functions as a side dish to rice and dal. I typically round out the meal with plain yogurt and some hot pickle or one of my achaars from Brooklyn Delhi on the side. On the weekend, I may make something more elaborate like a dosa filled with potato curry and coconut chutney. 

Credit: Lauren Justice

More About Me and My Cooking

Though they both worked full-time, my mother and father made it a point to put a home-cooked meal (usually Indian) on the table every night for me and my brother growing up. Looking back, I realize my parents were masters of efficiency, not to mention humble and gifted home cooks. I did not recognize how special the foods I grew up eating were until I moved away for college from my hometown in New Jersey.

In 2009, while living in Brooklyn, I began to document my family’s recipes on a blog called the ABCDs of Cooking, which later turned into my cookbook, Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn. The project began with me learning traditional recipes from my family members. I’d make them my own by using local fruits and vegetables I received in my farm share and collaborate with local chefs to infuse other culinary traditions into the South Indian dishes I was serving at pop-up dinners and markets throughout the city. In 2014, I launched Brooklyn Delhi, an Indian-American food brand to share the recipes I was creating with a wider audience.

I’m honored to share some of my favorite recipes with you. My hope is that I will arm you with the knowledge to bring delicious South Indian home cooking to your table on a regular basis.

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

Chitra Agrawal’s Weeknight South Indian Recipes & Guides

From a beginners’ guide to dosa to tips for stocking a South Indian pantry, here’s Chitra’s collection of recipes and inspiration to make South Indian food part of your own weeknight cooking. 

1 / 5
How to Make Dosa from Scratch
A step-by-step guide to making dosa at home, including a from-scratch dosa batter and instructions for how to cook it.
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2 / 5
Spinach Huli "Sambar"
Huli is a spicy lentil and vegetable stew served daily in Karnataka homes, usually with rice. This is a quick, one-pot version, made with baby spinach and red lentils.
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3 / 5
Potato Palya
This is the special potato palya or potato stir-fry that is filled into masala dosa, though it can also be eaten on its own. The potatoes are spicy and tangy and cooked with a little butter until they are soft enough to melt in your mouth.
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4 / 5
Cilantro Coconut Chutney
Coconut chutney is the quintessential South Indian condiment. It's usually served with idlis, dosas, or fried appetizers, but is equally delicious on a sandwich or just mixed with hot rice.
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5 / 5
Chitra's Chitranna (Shredded Cabbage, Lime & Peanut Rice)
A variation of nimbekai chitranna, made with sautéed shredded red cabbage and carrots tossed with cooked turmeric rice, fried peanuts, lime juice and chopped cilantro.
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