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South Asian food in New York City is finally moving beyond tikka masala territory, and this week-long series will help you make the most of these heady times. Not sure of the difference between dosa and roti or how to distinguish good chaat from the rest? We've got you covered. Up today: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Sri Lanka in south Asia's deep south.
In a basement canteen adjoining the ornate façade of the Ganesh Temple, vegetarian dishes from Tamil Nadu on India's southeastern coast are served up fast and cheap on Styrofoam plates.
Tamil dishes draw their flavor from a mild but distinct cadre of spices and seasonings: funky asafoetida (aka hing), peppery curry leaf, tangy tamarind, dried lentils (when fried, they impart a savory, nutty flavor), and mildly sweet coconut. These ingredients are front and center in the canteen's tangy sambar (a tamarind-based lentil soup loaded with vegetables) and spicy-tangy tamarind rice.
Rice and lentils are staple foods in Tamil Nadu; both are used to make the fermented batter for the canteen's famous dosas (savory crepes). Excellent specimens of their kind, the dosas are crisp outside, spongy inside, and distinctly tangy.
The canteen's Butter Paneer dosa is filled with potato and cubes of paneer cooked in rich clarified butter (ghee) with tomato, onion, and cumin—north Indian flavors tucked within a south Indian shell. For spice lovers only: The Hyderabadi Masala Dosa is spread with fiercely spicy chutney that blends ultra-hot green chilies with cilantro, lime juice, and other seasonings.
The canteen also sells two hallmarks of Tamil breakfast: idli, a flying saucer-shaped steamed "cake" made with fermented ground rice and lentils, and medu vada, a savory doughnut made of the same ingredients. Skip the mediocre versions you'll find at the temple for better ones at Thali in Jersey City's Newport Centre Mall or at Saravanaa Bhavan in Murray Hill and on the Upper West Side). This global chain based in Chennai (Tamil Nadu's capital city) serves a limited breakfast menu from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. each day. Go early and enjoy freshly steamed idli and crisp medu vada straight from the fryer.
North Indians love their chai (black tea brewed with milk and spices), but South India runs on filter coffee, a rich beverage made by boiling coffee with ample milk and sugar. Both Saravanaa Bhavan and the Ganesh Temple Canteen make excellent Madras coffee. It's sweet, smooth, and very satisfying at the end of a big meal.
Food from Kerala on India's southwestern coast is noted for its mild flavor, reliance on fresh seafood, and abundant use of coconut and coconut milk. For years, a cluster of restaurants in far eastern Queens was the only option for Malayalee food (so-named for Malayalam, the language spoken in Kerala) in New York.
Among those veteran restaurants, Taste of Kerala Kitchen in Glen Oaks is a good bet for authentic, but rough-hewn, Malayalee cooking. The Kappa (boiled yucca mashed with mild spices, grated coconut, and peppery curry leaf) elevates starchy side dishes to flavorful new heights. The vegetarian Thoran—diced long beans (or green papaya) cooked with coconut, curry leaf, and mild spices—is wonderfully light and flavorful.
(More on Taste of Kerala Kitchen: on the weekend from 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., the restaurant offers an enormous lunch buffet featuring meat and seafood specialties from Kerala, as well as a few vegetable dishes. If you're in the neighborhood, it's worth checking out.)
Earlier this fall, cuisine from Kerala made its debut in Manhattan, when Kokum opened in Murray Hill. The huge menu (which also includes some Tamil dishes) provides an excellent introduction to Malayalee cooking.
The Kerala Chicken Stew combines tender chicken and root vegetables in a rich coconut milk broth seasoned with savory onion and fragrant cinnamon stick and star anise. This traditional dish is usually reserved for breakfast on festive occasions (e.g., Christmas Day, which is celebrated by Kerala's sizeable Christian community).
Pair the stew with Appam (what are known as hoppers in Sri Lanka), dome-shaped, steamed "crepes" made with fermented rice batter that's spiked with a dash of coconut milk. Kokum's are just right: barely sweet, fluffy in the center, and crisp at the edges.
Skip the home-style thorans made with cabbage or jackfruit—they're tasty, but their flavors are oddly smoky and North Indian. The Red Pumpkin Thoran better captures the traditional marriage of sweet coconut and peppery curry leaf that defines this dish. We've also enjoyed the Pulissery, a tangy dairy curry, and some of the Tamil dishes like spicy-tangy Lemon Rice. Look for more on Kokum next week.
Wash it all down with a huge bottle of Taj Mahal premium lager, a light, crisp Indian brew that's ideal for cooling spicy palates or playing second fiddle to boldly seasoned food.
Sri Lanka is small, but diverse, with a sizable Tamil minority and a Sinhala majority that traces its roots to India's northeastern coast. From the early 1980's until 2009 the two fought a violent civil war which scattered Sri Lankan refugees throughout the world and gave rise to a large expatriate community on Staten Island.
The island nation is a short ferry ride away from the southeastern tip of Tamil Nadu, and its food has much in common with its larger neighbor. Like Kerala, Sri Lanka makes heavy use of fresh seafood and coconut. But Sri Lankan cooking is also known for its fiery hot spicing—more like food in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu's Chettinad region (for more on those cuisines, check back tomorrow!).
Sri Lankan cuisine also bears the influences of several waves of colonizers: Portuguese, Dutch, and British (who arrived roughly in that order). Lamprie, a signature dish of the island, was invented by Dutch settlers. At Lak Bojun on Victory Boulevard, the dish combines fragrant rice, cashews, spicy sambol, eggplant, plantain, a deep-fried cutlet, and seasoned meat—all steamed together in a banana leaf, which imparts its own distinct flavors to the dish. Mix everything together and enjoy a spicy, complex meal that's much greater than the sum of its parts.
Next door to Lak Bojun, New Asha serves up some of New York's best Sri Lankan cooking from a modest steam table. The potato (cooked with various greens in creamy coconut milk) and jackfruit (braised with savory onion and mild spices) are always good bets.
When they're fresh, New Asha's fried snacks are also tasty. In Sri Lanka these are called "short eats," since they're often eaten quickly, on the run. Try the dhal vada, a chickpea fritter seasoned with savory cumin and hot red chilies.
Roti Kotthu, Sri Lanka's famous street food, is also available at New Asha. Their version combines shredded flatbread (roti) stir-fried with egg, ground chicken, spicy sambol, and fragrant seasonings. It's a shame this hangover-staunching, belly-filling street food is a distant ferry ride away from (most) of New York's late-night revelers.
For a more formal meal, head to San Rasa on Staten Island, where the seating is plentiful and the dishes are made with care. Order any of the spicy main dishes (the black goat is especially good) and pair them with San Rasa's traditional Sri Lankan carbs: hoppers and pithu.
The tangy Hoppers (called appam in Kerala)—soft and thick in the center, with lacy, crisp edges and a pronounced sour flavor—arrive at the table in orders of five, bolstered with an egg steamed sunny-side-up in the center of one. The mildly sweet Pitthu—shredded coconut and rice steamed together into a fluffy cylinder—comes with sides of creamy coconut milk and spicy sambol, which you can use to intensify the flavors on your plate.
A general rule that applies to all South Asian cuisines is especially true here: Dig in with your hands. The food always seems to taste better that way. For more Staten Island Sri Lankan intel, head this way.
Additional reporting by Max Falkowitz, Malini Sood Horiuchi, Rabia Ahmed, Carolyn Lengel, Sunita Apte, Chichi Wang, Reena Geevarghese, Naomi Baumol, Ken Start, Jared Cohee, Purnima Sahgal, Padmashree Tadepalli, Sarah Khan, and Sara Markel-Gonzalez.
About the author: Anne Noyes Saini edits economics books and covers food culture and immigration in NYC. She has contributed to Narratively, The New York Times, and WNYC-FM, and is features editor of Real Cheap Eats. Follow her on Twitter @CitySpoonful.