South India Exploring traditional South Indian dishes

By Alyssa Hui

Many South Indian foods are traditionally served and eaten on a banana leaf, according to senior Chetna Natarajan, with the goal being to eat every single last bite so that the leaf looks unused. However, Natarajan notes that only a few restaurants in the Bay Area serve an authentic South Indian experience: Saravanaa Bhavan and Madras Cafe.

“When you think of Indian restaurants, you mostly think of like North Indian food,” Natajaran said. “There are only one or two places that give the traditional South Indian type meal.”

Natarajan and junior Sravya Kari explain that the main difference between South and North Indian food is that South Indian food is rice-based, whereas North Indian food uses different chili powders and puts an emphasis on dairy products, such as paneer (cottage cheese). South Indian food is also spicier and has a higher water content with thinner sauces to eat over rice.

Senior Sahana Prasanna agrees, noting that she eats rice the most out of all other foods.

“In my house, we have rice with different, we call it dal or sambars, and we usually eat it with vegetables on the side,” Prasanna said. “Another thing we eat with rice is called rasam. And of course curd rice is probably the most traditional South Indian food — curd rice with pickle or something.”

Dal is a type of dried split pea or lentil and the soup that is made from the broken down lentils. Sambar is also a type of lentil and mixed vegetable soup. Curd rice is yogurt mixed with rice. Other rice-based foods that Natarajan describes are idlis, which are similar to spherical rice cakes, and rasam, which is eaten with rice and contains water, tomatoes, onions and lentils.

Below are three South Indian dishes that are favorites of MVHS students.


Dosas are made from a rice-based batter and have an appearance similar to crepes. According to senior Manish Malempati, they are made from urad gota (black lentils) and white rice that are soaked in water and grounded in a food processor until it forms a smooth mixture. They are also cooked with salt and oil.

Malempati especially likes dosas because of the way his mom makes them. He recalls eating seven pizza-sized dosas after playing basketball one day.

“They're crispy, but then they get softer over time,” Malempati said. “So you're eating and then your first bite is not the same as your last. It's crazy. I don't know how she does it.”

Natarajan’s mom likes to make different varieties of dosas, adding different types of lentils, chiles or onions to make them extra flavorful. However, her favorite version is a plain dosa with a spicy sauce.

“It's like something that my mom likes to make from scratch and likes to make different varieties of,” Natajaran said. “It's just something I've had my entire life and I want to keep having it just because I think it's so good.”

Photo courtesy of Paul

chicken biryani

Biryani originated from Persia, with its name derived from the Persian word “birian,” which means “fried before cooking” and “birinj,” which means rice. Chicken biryani is made from marinated chicken, basmati rice, browned onions, cilantro, mint, yogurt, saffron, ghee and other spices. For Kari, although chicken biryani is her favorite dish, it doesn’t have any special significance for her; she just eats it a lot.

“It's just very flavorful and I really like it because it's not just chicken and it’s not just rice, you can mix it up,” Kari said. “Once you get a hint of the smell, you want it.”

curd rice

Curd rice is made of homemade or store-bought curd (yogurt), fresh cooked rice and tempering spices. During pooja, a ceremonial worship, curd rice is offered to the gods. It is also offered to deities in temples in South India and distributed among devotees as prasadam (food consumed after worship).

Prasanna describes her tangle of emotions for South Indian food as “home.” Her favorite South Indian food is curd rice.

“My mom's always cooking only Indian food,” Prasanna said. “We only eat non-Indian food on Saturdays or Sundays or during the weekend. These foods are such a big part of my life. I don't know what I'm going to do in college, like I need my curd rice.”


Created with an image by Andrea Leon - "untitled image"