The crispiness of masala dosa, a savoury mouthful of bisi bele bath, and the refreshing mix of flavours in a Hyderabadi biryani - South Indian cuisine is as well-rounded a cuisine as one can hope for.
You can get your fill of eating a variety of dishes while also being mindful of any diet restrictions or your taste preferences.
Many South Indian foods have become popular across the world. They get praised for how healthy they are and how easily the dishes can be modified to appeal to the palate of foreigners because of how adaptable the recipes are.
South Indian cuisine typically comprises food from 5 states - Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana.
Over time, these cuisines have evolved thanks to the changing times and influences that they’ve come under.
South Indian Food Culture
Rice is a staple in the southern states. If not consumed directly, it is often found in other dishes like dosa and idli where rice is blended with lentils to form a batter.
Across different South Indian dishes, you’ll also find common ingredients like mustard seeds, curry leaves, garlic, black pepper, coconut, and tamarind. These are pretty much the foundation for preparing numerous dishes.
We can’t possibly talk about South Indian food culture and not mention filter kaapi. A strong blend of coffee and chicory, filter kaapi is more than just a beverage. You can learn all about the history of kaapi in India on our blog.
Banana leaves are traditionally used to serve meals. The reason for doing so varies, and gradually, the discussion has evolved to include themes like scientific logic, philosophical thought, as well as mere functionality.
During a time when it wasn’t feasible for most commoners to buy metal utensils, making use of these leaves was considered a natural substitute for plates and bowls.
Today, the banana leaf is a symbol of culture and ancient traditions that keep South Indian people tied to their heritage.
There are many other traditional aspects of South Indian food culture that are still practised even now.
Origin & History
South Indian cuisine can be traced back over 4000 years ago and has its roots in the presence of the Dravidians in the Indian subcontinent.
In the time of the hunter-gatherers, South Indian meals were a simple affair with rice, vegetables and pickles.
Later, the Sangam Era spanned thousands of years and is named after the poets and scholars from the Madurai region of Tamil Nadu. Drawing from the texts of that period, you can find references to steamed rice, buttermilk, and fried vegetables served on banana leaves.
Over the next hundred years, as more and more plants began to grow in South India, their cuisine began to take shape further. Turmeric, Malabar pepper, and cardamom became crucial to some recipes.
With India going through its monarchical eras, some influence on South Indian cuisine was to be expected.
The Mughals introduced Persian flavours to not just South Indian food but North Indian food too! Biryani and kebab became a highlight of Hyderabadi cuisine.
You may have heard of the desserts called imarti or jangiri. These Southern versions of jalebis are said to have originated in Turkey and were brought into India by traders and colonial invaders.
Then the Portuguese and British too had a hand in shaping the evolution of South Indian cuisine.
New ways of cooking such as baking were introduced; new vegetables such as squash, sweet potato & cauliflower were brought in. Nowadays, cauliflower poriyal and gobi 65 are prepared in every nook and corner of India.
More than drastic influences on recipes themselves, modernity impacted South Indian food culture in terms of traditions.
The use of cutlery spread widely, where once South Indians would eat all meals by hand. But the latter began to be considered uncultured and unhygienic, courtesy of foreign imperialism.
With local and international borders opening up even more, fusion food became popular in South India. You’ll find edgy eateries boasting menus full of dishes such as paneer uttapam, cheese dosa, idli fry, etc.
Moreover, fine dining restaurants have become commonplace in India.
These take inspiration from the food culture of the Southern states to cater to an elite faction of society, where the flavours are sometimes (especially in foreign countries) dialled down a notch to seem palatable, and the food is as much a work of art as it’s mouthwatering.