There are few greater thrills for the culinary novelty seeker than discovering a new miracle condiment - I can only imagine a Martian diner's reaction to her/his first taste of sambal belacan or aioli. The great South Indian fare at Woodlands has been reported here several times. However, I have not found mention of the amazing spice paste called milakai podi/molagapodi, and thought I would relay this info - see Woodlands menu rundown below.
I recently found molagapodi (MTR brand) at India Sweets and Spices, it is next to the dosa and idly mixes. Confusingly, it is labelled "Spiced Chutney Powder", even though other offerings from the MTR stable have full transliterated Indian names. Added sesame oil as recommended by my friend Aravind, and it was great on improvised masala and blini (OK, none too authentic). One needs surprisingly little oil to achieve the requisite gritty paste, and in future I may use regular oil or ghee in addition to the sesame oil so the flavour is more subtle. Aravind claims it is very fine on bagels with cream cheese. Happy experimenting!
Low End Theory
How hard must one try to eat Indian food where Indian people are? Furthermore, where is the elusive South Indian fare so different from the diluted Punjabi fare that constitutes "Indian" food in 99% of restaurants? Prayers are answered on Pioneer Blvd in Artesia, where restaurants bear about as much resemblance to your local Star of India as Panda Express does to 888. A quick trip into the nearest sari store for advice, and we headed for Woodlands, a global South Indian chain, with branches in Madras/Chennai, London and Singapore in addition to Artesia (11833 Artesia Blvd, 562 860 6500) and Chatsworth. We had a large crew and feasted on a stunning meal of hard-to-find specialties. The only substantial complaint was that the food could have been spicier, but this is a fine balance because authentic South Indian food would be incapacitating for almost all regular diners. A guided tour of the menu:
Dahi Vada: Vada are lentil flour donuts, dahi is yoghurt. Awesome, though the yoghurt might have been more sour for the absolute Tamil purist.
Kancheepuram Idly: Idly are rice flour cakes served with the ubiquitous sambar (sour and delicious vegetable-stew gravy) and a coconut-based chutney. The kancheepuram variation is a weekends-only option coloured orange with carrots and topped with cashews. These are delicate and fluffier than most, wonderful.
Uthappam: The fat, pale rice-lentil pancake, here it is frisbee-sized with various vegetable options.
Dosa: A giant papery crisp pancake exceeding even the size of Oaxacan clayudas, commonly folded around a variety of fillings; most commonly mild potato masala. Onion masala dosa are superb, as are mysore masala dosa. Perhaps the finest are rava dosa made with wheat and rice, which have a lacier texture. All served with sambar and chutney. Dosa at Woodlands are the crispiest and tastiest I have had.
Pesarat: A very special Andhra dosa sometimes made with 100% aggressive moong dal (lentil) flour. At Woodlands, this is adulterated with rice but the crepe is still terrific. If you've had masala dosa before, try this one for a change, it contains nuts and is great dipped in yoghurt.
Channa Bhatura: At VIK Distributors in Berkeley my ignorant friends and I used to call this one "the giant puff". It's a stupendous gravity-defying deep friend bread, Woodlands' version is too large to stay inflated but the piping hot fried taste and dimpled surface are delightful with the lentil curry/channa.
Milakai Podi: Menu description is "A spicy mix of ingredients", but this South Indian secret weapon is a condiment containing chilli, spices, ground dhal and sesame oil. Goes well with anything on the menu, and is considered a diagnostic test for a true South Indian restaurant by the mavens. I loved Woodlands' version but it could have been more chilli-hot.
I'll certainly be returning to Woodlands, it's family-friendly, dirt-cheap and worth a long long drive. A big shout-out to Aravind and Ravi for expert advice!