The One-Two Punch in South Indian Cuisine

published Aug 18, 2016
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(Image credit: Color Brush)

“What kind of Indian are you?” my now-husband said to me in college when he learned of my low (read: non-existent) tolerance for spice in my food. His palate preferred piquancy and pungency.

“A bad one?” I answered.

Geography was partly responsible for the discrepancy. Our South Asian-American families hail from opposite ends of the subcontinent: mine from Sindh in present-day Pakistan, via Maharashtra; my husband’s from Kerala, on India’s southwestern coast. It is generally understood that South Indian cuisine is hotter than North Indian cuisine.

Family dynamics (and tastes) also came into play. Because several members of our household — my father, my uncle — didn’t like fiery foods, my mother and grandmother, who did all of the cooking, often eliminated the black pepper or chili pepper from family meals. So I never became accustomed to the heat that is such a hallmark of many South Asian cuisines.

In the dozen years we have been married, my hankering for heat has certainly increased. Eating his family’s foods and traveling (and eating) through southern India has made me appreciate more zing to my meal — and even incorporate some South Indian spice into my own cooking.

South Indian cuisine, of course, is a collection of dozens of sub-cuisines hailing from the country’s five southern states: Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka. But they all use two key ingredients in various ways to light up their dishes: chili peppers and black peppercorns.

Chili Peppers: Coming from America

People often think that chilies are native to India, so integral is the spice to the cuisine, but chilies (Capsicum annuum) are actually native to South America. It was Portuguese traders who carried them to Goa, on India’s west coast, in the 15th century. Chilies quickly spread through the subcontinent, where they became a staple seasoning in India’s various cuisines due to their preservative powers.

While the heat in Asian chili peppers comes from the same chemical (capsaicin) that makes all chili peppers hot, the heat profile isn’t the same across the board. “Asian peppers have a different heat profile compared to some of the more common types, like jalapeños and cayennes,” explains Danise Coon, senior research specialist at NMSU Chile Breeding Program and Chile Pepper Institute. “The Asian types have a very intense, quick heat that dissipates very quickly.”

Red vs. Green Chili Peppers

Indian cuisine uses literally hundreds of varieties of chilies, each varying in taste and intensity. Guntur Sannam, from Andhra Pradesh, can be compared to dried cayenne or arbol peppers in flavor, according to Chitra Agrawal, owner of Brooklyn Delhi, a small-batch Indian condiments company. Mundu chilis, round cherry-shaped chilies grown in southern Tamil Nadu, are also popular, as are the deep-red Byadgi chilis, which have the least heat of these varieties and are widely used in the Udupi cuisine of Karnataka.

But generally speaking, chili peppers can be divided into two main types: red and green. Red chilis are most often used dried or ground, or in combination, as with the spice blends used for sambar (the general term for tamarind-infused lentil and vegetable stews found in South India), and rasam, a tomato soup seasoned with tamarind and black pepper. Green peppers, on the other hand, are typically served fresh or pickled or puréed into chutneys.

They also have different heat qualities: Ground red chili pepper, for example, lends dishes a radiant heat and provides color. “Fresh green chili peppers have more edge to them and a sharper bite, leading to more of a tingling sensation on your tongue,” says Agrawal.

Andhra Pradesh, on India’s southeastern coast, is India’s largest producer of red chilies, and, unsurprisingly, Andhra food is usually regarded as India’s hottest cuisine. In gutti vankaya kura, an Andhra vegetarian curry, for example, eggplants are stuffed with an incendiary red chili- and peanut-based spice paste.

This type of “wet” spice blend is a typical use for dried red chilis, which are also employed to “temper” lentils and curries. In this typical cooking method, whole or ground spices are heated in hot oil and added to a dish, either at the start of the cooking process or at the end as a final seasoning.

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

Black Peppercorns: The Original Indian Spice

Prior to the introduction of chili peppers to the subcontinent, black pepper (Piper nigrum), which is native to South India, gave Indian food its pungency.

Tellicherry peppercorns, grown in Thalassery, a city on the Malabar coast of Kerala, are considered some of the finest peppercorns in the world. They are plump, well-rounded black berries that have a woodsy and earthy quality to them once they are dried for use.

Ayesha Tanya, co-founder of Goya Media and writer at The Malabar Tea Room, who lives in a small city on the Kerala coast, says that Malabar mutton stew — a goat meat and vegetable curry served with flatbreads or rice — showcases this ingredient best. “The pepper plays a really important flavor in this dish,” she says. “[It] gives it a really mellow thrum rather than a fiery kick like a chili would.”

Black pepper is also a distinguishing feature in the cuisine of Chettinad, a region of Tamil Nadu, known for its intricately spiced dishes. The flavors of kozhi melagu, a chicken curry from the region, are deepened and enhanced by the generous inclusion of ground peppercorns.

Ready to give South Indian cuisine a try? Here are a few recipes that make use of chilis, peppercorns — or both.

  • Parippu thalichathu: This split pigeon pea curry from Kerala is
    tempered with red chilies, mustard seeds, and curry leaves.
  • Bisi bele bath: A rice and lentil dish from Karnataka, its
    spice powder differs not only from region to region, but also from
    home to home.
  • Pachai milagai thokku: This green chili pickle from Tamil Nadu is usually served with idli (steamed rice dumplings), curd rice (a one-pot
    yogurt-and-rice porridge tempered with spices), or dosa (fermented
    rice and lentil crepe).
  • Kosambari: This split legume salad from the Udipi region of Karnataka is seasoned with mustard seeds and fresh green chilis.
  • Mirchi ka salan: A chili and peanut curry that traditionally accompanies Hyderabadi biryani.