3 Weeks in South India: A Report
I am including this entire post on chowhound even though it is very long. Even though I intended this for chowhound, I am also posting it on my website, so feel free to read it there. The post on the website has direct links to pictures, but other than that, it's the same text that you see here.
This post on my website: http://davidpistrang.no-ip.biz/david/...
My India food pictures: http://davidpistrang.no-ip.biz/david/...
Enjoy! - Dave M.P.
This is going to be a very long post, so here is a table of contents:
1) Introduction and Itinerary
2) Food in South India (in general)
3) Chennai and Madurai
4) Kerala: Varkala and Cochin
5) Coimbatore, Ooty, Mysore and Bangalore
6) Traveling in South India
1) Introduction and Itinerary
I recently returned from a wonderful trip to India and Malaysia. This was my first time in Asia, and I was very excited about trying the food. Overall, I really enjoyed the food everywhere, and South India was a great place to begin my adventure (both culinary and otherwise).
I was in South India for 3 weeks. I flew into Chennai and spent 1 day there. After that I visited a friend who is living in Madurai. After 5 days there, I spent a week in Kerala (Varkala and Cochin), followed by Coimbatore, Ooty, Mysore and Bangalore. Then it was off to North India (although Ill save that for another post).
2) Food in South India (in general)
Overall, food in South India was excellent. I was very fortunate to have a good friend (who has been living in Madurai for over a year) show me what South Indian food was all about. Before this trip, I hadnt had much South Indian food at all; just a few dosa here and there, and a meal or two at a South Indian place in London. A lot of the foods and eating techniques were vaguely familiar to me, but my friend helped me learn quickly once I arrived.
In the United States I eat a fair amount of meat (I probably consume at least one type of meat almost every day), but in South India I found that I rarely ate meat and barely ever missed eating it. Vegetarian options are plentiful everywhere, and are often cheaper and more dependable than meat options. That said, I did eat chicken a few times, and in Kerala I ate some great seafood and fish. I tried to stick to Indian food as much as possible, but in very touristy areas (like Varkala and parts of Cochin), it was often too difficult (or I was too lazy) to look for Indian breakfasts. Instead I opted for eggs, French toast, banana pancakes or porridge.
My favorite part about eating in South India was the vegetarian thali meals that are available for lunch pretty much everywhere. These meals are usually unlimited (all-you-can-eat), contain delicious vegetable dishes and are very cheap. This was perfect for me, since I was traveling on a budget (in South India, I averaged about 5 dollars a day on food, and being a chowhound, you can be sure that I ate quite well). I also really liked the South Indian breakfasts, which as I mentioned were sometimes hard to find in touristy areas. Fresh fruits were great, although not as varied as in South America or Southeast Asia. Mangoes were not in season (the only mango I ate on my trip was in the form of mango pickle), but oranges, apples, pomegranates, guavas, pineapple, coconuts and bananas were all good. It was easy to find fresh squeezed juices, especially pineapple and orange. Bananas cost about 2 rupees each (at the time I traveled, there were 44 rupees to the dollar). In most places it was easy to find people selling fresh young coconuts, and fresh lime sodas (fresh squeezed lime with sugar or salt, served with club soda) were very refreshing.
3) Chennai and Madurai
My friend introduced to me to the tiffen foods upon my arrival in Chennai. We had both dinner and breakfast at the Saravana Bhavan that is pretty close to the Egmore Train Station (on Kennet Lane). Here I was introduced to uttappam (pancake made with rice and dahl flour), idli (boiled rice dumplings), and vada (fried savory lentil donuts). All of these dishes are served with chutneys and sambar, and with them I drank fresh juices and hot milk tea (always served extremely hot in a small metal cup). For lunch in Chennai we ate at a place right next to our hotel (Hotel Tourist Home, directly across from the train station), where I experienced my first thali meal. This place was more traditional than many others in the sense that they placed banana leaves directly on the tables and served the food at the table (as opposed to serving it in the kitchen and bringing everything out on a platter). Food was excellent, I was pretty successful at eating with my hand, and I improved over the course of the trip. I dont remember the name of this restaurant, but it was a respectable looking veg place, and it was literally next to Hotel Tourist Home. Here are the links for Saravana Bhavan and the new Saravanaas Restaurant in New York City. It looks like Saravana Bhavan already has franchises in California, Toronto, London, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, etc.
Before catching the train to Madurai, we walked around in Spencer Plaza (a big mall in Chennai) where we eventually ate at a place called The Noodle House. It was not very good or special, but my friend was excited to see things like tofu on a menu. There isnt too much of that in Madurai.
After an overnight train from Chennai, I arrived in Madurai, where I spent 5 days. We mostly ate at the hotel where my friend eats every day. The hotel is called North Gate Hotel, and the restaurant in the downstairs part of the hotel is called Akshaya Restaurant. They also have a rooftop restaurant. My friend eats there almost every day because it is directly across the street from American College, where he works and lives.
Akshaya had great lunches for 30 rupees thali meals at Akshaya (and all over the south, in general) consisted of three vegetable dishes (varying daily), sambar (dahl), rasam (peppery broth), curd and a dessert, served with white rice and papad. Akshaya also had a menu with North Indian and Chinese dishes, as did the rooftop restaurant (which was only open at night). At first I really liked sambar, but after about 4 days in India I decided I needed a break from it (since it is served with literally every meal), so I enjoyed eating my rice with rasam and curd. Eventually I started eating and enjoying sambar again, particularly once I was in Kerala and Karnataka, where I found that the sambar was spiced slightly differently (and more to my liking). I often opted to eat the curd with a spoon and some added sugar (as a less sweet dessert), since I tried to eat curd as much as possible to stay healthy. I did this mostly when I was too full to eat any more rice and just wanted to eat the curd alone.
In Madurai, I went shopping with my friend in the center of town at a place called Shoppers Shop, which my friend claims is one of the only grocery stores that sells any Western foods. My friend mainly bought milk and juice there (he likes Ceres brand juices, from South Africa). I also went fruit shopping with him, and I took some nice pictures of bananas and pomegranates (see the link to my pictures at the end of this post). Over the course of my five days in Madurai, we had some meals at hotel rooftop restaurants whose names I forget, but nothing was all that memorable .food was consistently good everywhere, and menus everywhere were very similar, so it was just a matter of knowing what you wanted to eat and ordering it. If I was in the mood for a dosa, I could get a great dosa practically anywhere. We often ate North Indian food for dinner (mostly vegetable but sometimes chicken dishes) and opted for naan or roti instead of rice. We had one dinner at a popular veg restaurant on Town Hall Rd. (the main road that connects the train station to Meenakshi Temple). I forget the name of this place, but my friend loves going there for spinach dosas. According to him, they are the only place in Madurai that puts spinach inside the batter, so the spinach masala dosas are quite green on the outside (lots of spinach) and have a delicious potato filling. We went here after spending 2 hrs walking through the Meenakshi Temple, which was a pretty cool place. I definitely recommend both the temple and the spinach dosa.
We took a day trip to Alagarcoil Temple, which is outside of Madurai, and since we knew there wasnt much food there, we took a zip-lock bag filled with three packages of biscuits which we had bought at Shoppers Shop. The trail up to the temple was beautiful and passed through a nice forest full of monkeys, but unfortunately the monkeys were kind of mean! Just as we were about to enjoy our biscuits on a bench, a monkey ran up to us, stole the entire bag and ran up a tree! We later saw a monkey grab a piece of pineapple right out of a 5-year-old boys hands. There were lots of people selling food on the way up to the temple (mostly sliced fruits and vegetables like pineapple, cucumber, guava) but we didnt buy any. I did my best to play it safe and not eat food from the street.
Once exception to this rule was tea, which I did feel comfortable drinking everywhere. All milk drinks (coffee, tea, etc.) are served super hot in India this meant that I could safely drink milk tea on a street corner in Madurai and not worry much about health issues. I probably could have gotten away with eating more street foods, but I really wanted to stay healthy. This was hard at times (sometimes food on the street looked and smelled SO good) but I suppose it was worth the sacrifice. Ill talk more about this in the traveling in South India section. Anyway, there is a picture of my friend pouring his milk between two silver cups to cool it. This is necessary because otherwise it is too hot to drink.
4) Kerala: Varkala and Cochin
From Madurai, I took an evening train to Trivandrum, where I spent one night. The next morning I ate breakfast (a good dosa at a place I cant remember), and then traveled by bus up to Varkala, a small touristy temple town on the beach. Varkala was beautiful but quite touristy, but I didnt mind too much. I did, however, miss the traditional Indian food I had been eating in Madurai. In Varkala I ate twice at a place called Funky Art Café, which was okay but not wonderful. I had banana curry there, which was very good. I went with a guide to the Golden Temple, which is a small temple located on an island in the middle of the backwaters, reachable only by canoe. After this we ate (at my request) in a place in the town of Varkala (not on the beach) that has thali meals. The food was very good and cheap. The rice in Kerala is different than in Tamil Nadu; the grains are larger and slightly purple. The curd in Kerala was also different than anywhere else. It was quite sour and I didnt like it at all. Once I was back in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka I started eating curd again.
After Varkala, I spent 5 nights in Cochin. I had a really good time relaxing in and exploring the city. I stayed in Fort Cochin, which is a quiet but touristy area of the city. It has a very European feel to it, with narrow and quiet streets and a nice walkway along the beach. I spent my first night at Hotel Elite, which I thought was a terrible hotel. However, I had some very tasty shrimp noodles (Chinese) at their restaurant. The next day I switched to a place called Napier House, which was much nicer. I didnt eat much there, since I usually had breakfast elsewhere, but on my final day they prepared some nice eggs and toast for me before I left Cochin.
The food highlight of Cochin (for me, anyway) was the Kashi Art Café, located in Fort Cochin. This place was quite touristy but still amazing. They had a set breakfast and lunch each day, and every thing I had there was excellent (I ate breakfast there 3 times, and went a few more times for tea/snacks). They use fresh ingredients for their meals and the presentation is very nice. I have a great picture of French toast and fruit from Kashi Art Café. Delicious. The menu also included real coffee and tea, including iced tea with lemon! (which is not very common in India). Even better, they made their ice with purified/bottled water, so it was safe to eat/drink. I definitely recommend this place for breakfasts.
Another food highlight in Cochin was calamari at one of the outdoor restaurants near the fishing nets. The first time I went here, I walked through the fish market and chose the calamari and fish (I had a small sole) that I wanted. Then I bought it and brought it to the restaurant, where we agreed on a price for the preparation of the food. The sole was grilled with lemon and was pretty tasty but not too special. The calamari, on the other hand, was cooked perfectly in a Keralan style. It was stir fried with coconut oil, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, onions and peppers and tasted amazing. There was a clear Portuguese influence (which makes sense historically), and the dish reminded me of some seafood dishes Ive had at O Cantinho, a great Portuguese place in Cambridge, MA. I ate my meal in Cochin with some garlic-fried rice. The meal was so good that I came back two days later for more calamari cooked in the same way.
The touristy restaurants in Fort Cochin were fine but nothing special. Still, practically anyone who works in a restaurant can cook some very good vegetable curry dishes, so food was always quite good. Many of the places in Cochin dont have licenses to serve beer, so the solution is to offer customers special tea. This is really just beer served in a teapot. Pretty amusing.
I had one thali meal in Ernakulam, at a random hotel near the train station (across the bay from Fort Cochin). The thali here included one fish dish along with several vegetable dishes. The food was fine and the hotel was definitely off the tourist path. Its pretty easy to find decent set lunches just by locating respectable-looking hotels and heading to their restaurant. I probably could have done this more in Fort Cochin, but I didnt end up eating much outside the touristy areas. I rented a bike for part of my time in Cochin, and I really enjoyed pedaling through the spice markets and random, crowded streets. As I mentioned, Fort Cochin was a bit calmer than other Indian cities so biking wasnt too scary. The spice markets in Mattancherry were cool to ride through, and Ive never seen so many chili peppers. I also bought some great chili flavored cashew nuts from a small nut shop.
I took a backwater tour as a daytrip from Cochin. The trip involved a 1 hr. van ride, followed by several hours on a nice boat in the backwaters. This was beautiful and very relaxing. We stopped at one point for some fresh coconuts, and then later had lunch on an island (traditional meal served on a banana leaf, which for me was nothing new, but for many other people on the boat with me it was the first time theyd eaten with their hands!)
After 5 days in Cochin, I left in the morning on a train to Coimbatore, in northwest Tamil Nadu.
5. Coimbatore, Ooty, Mysore and Bangalore
I spent one night in Coimbatore, and didnt venture any further than the block my hotel was on. I stayed on the street (unpaved) right across from the train station in a less-than-fabulous hotel, but luckily there was a great vegetarian restaurant next door! I had what seemed like the best masala dosa EVER (but I think I was quite hungry) and then later went back for another dosa and some tea. This might have been a local chain as well, but even though I dont have the address, it would be easy to find. Go to the street across from the train station and look for the nice-looking (by nice I mean not dirty or sketchy) vegetarian restaurant.
I met up with my friend again in Coimbatore, and we headed to Ooty on the train that goes up the mountains. The train ride was really nice, although there was hardly any food for sale at the train stations! The only thing we saw were some homemade vegetable samosa at one of the stations. I didnt eat them since I wasnt sure how safe they would be for my stomach, but my friend ate them and very much enjoyed them. Not being able to eat homemade veggie samosa when you are very hungry is really not a pleasant experience, but I somehow managed.
Food in Ooty was okay. Our best meal was our last night there. We found a restaurant by asking a random storeowner where we should go if we wanted to eat at the best non-veg restaurant in Ooty I find that I can usually tell how trustworthy someones advice is based on how quickly they come up with a good answer to that kind of question. In this case, the man immediately replied that we should head to Blue Hills Hotel, which was about 1 km away on the other side of town. We decided to check it out and we had a very nice meal. Blue Hills Hotel (in South India, hotel means restaurant, not necessarily a place of stay) was not fancy at all, and it seemed to be pretty popular with both locals and tourists. We shared an excellent malai kofta and butter boneless chicken (which was a lot like chicken tikka masala). We ate all of this with roti, which at this place was basically just whole-wheat tandoori naan. After dinner, we went to a bakery called Hot Breads (which is a chain in South India that specializes in Western desserts and breads). My friend got a brownie that wasnt very good, but he has lower brownie standards since he has been living in Madurai for so long. He enjoyed it.
We took a day-long trek in Ooty, and in the middle of the day, we stopped for chai at a tiny place in a small town outside of Ooty. I took two pictures of the man there preparing our chai. One picture shows him cooling the tea by pouring it back and forth between two cups. It was very good. The hike was nice too, and we walked through a huge tea plantation.
After two days in Ooty, we took a bus to Mysore. We only spent one night in Mysore and one night in Bangalore before heading north to Delhi. Passing through the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary on the way to Mysore, I looked out for elephants but didnt see any. We did see a bunch of monkeys and at one point our minibus almost collided with a flock of deer running across the road. Luckily we avoided the deer and the dozens of other animals that were on the road to Mysore (goats, cows, sheep, dogs, etc.), and made it in time for a late lunch. My friend had been in Mysore before, and had thoroughly enjoyed his meal at Hotel RRR (the one on Sri Harsha Rd, not the one in Gandhi Square). Another friend of mine who lived in Mysore for several months had also recommended this place, so I was happy to give it a try. Hotel RRR is Andhra style food (which according to many people is the best food in India), and although the veg thali was slightly expensive (more than 1 dollar!) it was well worth it. I was happy to be eating curd again (the curd here tasted good, especially with added sugar) and I was even happier to be back in a warm climate (Ooty was chilly).
After lunch in Mysore, we walked around the Central Market. I took some nice pictures of fruit, vegetables, spices and flowers. It was definitely worth visiting. For dinner we ate at a place called Hotel Rupa, which specialized in dosa. I had a spinach masala dosa followed by half of a garlic/cheese dosa. These tasted great with fresh OJ. This place is at the end of Sri Harsha Rd., just a block away from the Hotel RRR.
In Mysore we stayed at a place called Hotel Goverdhan (we shared a nice, clean room with bucket shower and squat toilet for $1.50 each). We ate breakfast the next day at the restaurant below the hotel (great masala dosa and some crispy veggie vadai), and then headed off on a train to Bangalore. Upon arriving in Bangalore, we got a pre-paid taxi (these were very much appreciated) to the MG Road area, where we randomly chose to stay at a place called Brigade Residency. After settling in, we went and had lunch at a rather posh North Indian place inside the Curzon Court Hotel. Food was fine but nothing special. After this we went to Coffee World inside a small mall. This place was kind of like an Indian version of Starbucks, except not as good. I dont even like Starbucks, so obviously I didnt think much of this place, but it did provide a nice table in air conditioning for playing cards.
We ate dinner at a place recommended by chowhound and also by my friend from college called Nagarjuna. There are apparently several of these, and we ate at the one on Residency Road. This place is also Andhra style food, so it was similar to what we had at Hotel RRR. We both had vegetable thalis, which was the most expensive thali I had in South India (but possibly also the best). One thali cost 70 rupees (almost 2 dollars). Service and food were both great, and we met a very nice family at the table next to us. Overall a good meal, and Id definitely recommend this place.
The next morning we left on an early flight to Delhi. I will save the food adventures up north for another entry (Im on page 6 of this one already!) but I will say that on the airplane to Delhi (Jet Airways), we were served a good meal which included a fruit salad with some of the BEST papaya I had ever tasted! Who would have guessed??? Anyway, we arrived in Delhi safely, and it is here that my South Indian culinary adventure comes to an end.
6. Traveling in South India
Overall, traveling in South India was awesome both food-wise and otherwise. I found almost everybody to be very helpful and nice, and although the language barrier was difficult at times, many people understood English or helped me find someone who did. Most everybody was very happy that I was interested in trying local food specialties, and my love of food often helped me connect to people, even those who spoke little English. Almost everything I ate in South India was really, really good. Cooks (sometimes men, sometimes women, sometimes old, sometimes very young) were generally really good at basic Indian dishes, so it was pretty safe to say that you could find great vegetable, chickpea, potato, okra, paneer, etc. dishes wherever you went. Bread (especially naan) was also excellent almost everywhere, as were the fresh squeezed juices and lassis.
Although loving food made the trip great, it also made it hard at times. I tried very hard to be careful about what and where I ate. This meant I had to miss out on some great-looking foods, but in the end it meant that never got very sick at all. For example, I only ate ice cream once or twice in India, while my friend had it all the time. I often avoided chutneys, since they are often made with tap water, but I never had a problem when I did decide to eat them. I never ate food from the street, or the food that they sold on trains (this was torture sometimes). Luckily, it was usually easy to tell which places looked trustworthy and clean, and even these places were not too expensive (by Western standards, everywhere I ate in South India was incredibly inexpensive). As a budget traveler, I never ate a meal in South India that cost more than 6 dollars, and the average price of a meal was probably between 1 and 2 dollars. Some of the nicest places in South India probably do have better food than what I had on this trip, but its hard to imagine it being all that much better. I really didnt feel like I was missing out at all.
To stay healthy in South India, I did my best to avoid really greasy foods and ate lots of yogurt. Sometimes the yogurt (and the sugar I poured in it) looked really gross, but I knew that it was actually very good for me. I also brought along acidophilus pills from Trader Joes that I took every day, sometimes even twice a day. For minor stomach problems (very minor compared to what Ive experienced in South America), I took a chewable pepto-bismol every once in a while. Also, coconuts and bananas are good for the stomach, so I tried to eat lots of those. Guavas and pomegranates are also good for the stomach I believe. Overall, I was very healthy for the entire trip.
Since this post is focused on food, I wont write too much about other aspects of traveling. I will say that South India was a great place to travel, and with some patience, I think anyone could have a great trip there. Many things are different from the west, and the culture is very different from what I am accustomed to here in Massachusetts, but I really enjoyed learning about and seeing these differences. As my pictures show, I saw many beautiful sights throughout South India and managed to travel around on trains with little difficulty. I barely planned anything in advance, and since it was low tourist season in October, I didnt need to make reservations for anywhere I stayed. For anyone who loves food, it would be nearly impossible to have a bad trip in South India. The food alone could probably keep a food lover happy for weeks.
I hope that this post is helpful for people who are planning to visit South India. I am planning to post this both on chowhound and on my own website, which is: http://davidpistrang.no-ip.biz/david/. My pictures of India (both food and non-food) are on my website as well. I will hopefully muster up the energy to write about North India and Malaysia sometime soon. Until then
David Pistrang aka Dave M.P.