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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. The fiery conclusion to our series: Chettinad and Andhra Pradesh, South India's "spice belt."
An inland region within southern Tamil Nadu, Chettinad is famous for excellent food, full-throttle spicing, and bold flavors. Also known for its meatiness, Chettinad cooking has some excellent goat, seafood, and egg dishes.
Southern Spice (New Hyde Park, Queens) introduced Chettinad food to New Yorkers back in 2008. Chicken 65 and crispy Cauliflower 65, perhaps the most famous dishes in the Chettinad repertoire, are still good bets there. Both are deep-fried vehicles for an elaborate spice blend that relies heavily on ground red chilies and black pepper.
Last year a second restaurant specializing in Chettinad cuisine arrived in Murray Hill. Part of a Chennai-based, global restaurant chain, Anjappar offers a huge menu packed with Chettinad specialties, plus a smattering of Tamil and north Indian dishes.
The Crab Roast, an enormous platter of crab legs and claws, is cooked in a flavorful paste made from ample cilantro and red chilies ground together with onion, ginger, garlic, and a hint of sweet coconut. The struggle to dislodge the tender meat within is part of the enjoyment (and challenge) of this dish—dig in with your fingers and don't be afraid to get messy (you'll get a bib). The salty-sweet crab meat and boldly seasoned spice paste are an irresistible combination well worth the effort.
Anjappar's Mutton Sukka Masala is pungent and very spicy, heavy on the ground red chilies. Underneath that full-frontal heat you can detect savory cumin, peppery curry leaf, and mildly smoky undertones imparted by the roasted spices in the dish. Rich, flaky south Indian parotta is ideal for scooping up bites of spicy meat. (South Indian parotta is made with white flour and ample oil, while north Indian parantha uses durum wheat flour and a more moderate amount of oil or ghee.)
The Kathrikkai Kolambu, tender green baby eggplants submerged in intensely tangy gravy, holds its own among the mostly meaty Chettinad specialties on Anjappar's menu. For those with milder palates, this dish offers welcome relief. The spices dance on your tongue, rather than attacking it.
Andhra Pradesh (north of Tamil Nadu, on India's southeastern coast) is India's largest producer of red chilies. So not surprisingly, Andhra food is usually regarded as India's hottest cuisine. Its spicy mango pickles (avakaya) and many of its piquant chutneys—both famous throughout India—make ample use of those dried and ground red chilies.
Andhra Pradesh's Persian and Middle Eastern influences, a legacy of generations of Mughal royalty who lived in Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh's capitol city), are also unique in south India. Rich, heavy dishes and the absence of pork typify the city's Mughal-influenced cooking. Biryani (rice and meat slowly cooked with fragrant spices and herbs), invented centuries ago in the city's Mughal royal court, remains Hyderabad's particular specialty.
Food from Andhra Pradesh is rare in New York. But if you venture across the Hudson River, you'll find several restaurants along Jersey City's Newark Avenue that advertise Hyderabadi cuisine. Sapthagiri isn't one of them, but its name (taken from a famous mountain in southern Andhra Pradesh) hints at an Andhra connection.
Sure enough, many of the dishes on Sapthagiri's menu—even the north Indian Gobi Masala curry—are seasoned Andhra-style with curry leaves, dried red chilies, and spices lightly fried in oil. If you've never tasted sweet, nutty north Indian fenugreek leaves and peppery South Indian curry leaves in one dish, this is your chance for some Andhra-Punjabi fusion.
Sapthagiri is a pure vegetarian restaurant (no meat or eggs), so vegetarians should take this rare opportunity to try a meatless version of Hyderabad's famous biryani. In true Andhra style, Sapthagiri's Vegetable Biryani is intensely spicy. Savory onion, fragrant bay leaf, cardamom (look out for whole pods!), and bright cilantro and mint are also at work in this wonderfully complex dish.
(For some meaty Andhra fare, head down Newark Avnue. to Hyderabad-specialist Deccan Spice. Several dum biryanis are on the menu, along with mirchi ka salan (hot green chilies cooked with ground peanuts, sesame seeds, coconut, tamarind, cumin, and garlic-ginger paste), the gravy dish that traditionally accompanies Hyderabadi biryani.)
If you're really hungry, try Sapthagiri's Pesarattu Upma, Andhra Pradesh's equivalent of the "lumberjack breakfast." It's a thick dosa (pesarattu) filled with savory semolina "porridge" (upma). The latter is eaten for breakfast throughout south India, but pesarattu is unique to Andhra Pradesh. The batter is made from ground whole moong lentils, rather than the fermented ground rice and urad lentils used to make dosa in neighboring Tamil Nadu.
Sapthagiri's pesarattu is dense and soft, with a savory-sweet flavor that almost resembles bran. The smooth, creamy upma tucked inside is mild and savory. Raw onion, cilantro, and fiery green chilies sprinkled on top add extra flavor—as does the potent house-made ginger chutney on the side.
Gutti Vankaya is another classic Andhra dish. (For the Jersey-averse: It's also on the menu at Chettinad-specialist Southern Spice). Baby eggplants are stuffed with ground spices and simmered in mildly tangy gravy. Sapthagiri's version features almost liquefied baby eggplants awash in rich and thick sauce. The dish combines the Andhra preference for seasoning dishes with tangy tamarind and acidic tomato with the kind of rich, smooth gravy favored in Hyderabad's Mughal court.
From the southern coast of India to its northern regions and neighboring countries, we've seen just how much regionally specific food has made headways in New York over the past few years. But there's still more to go. Check back on Monday when we shout out some Desi cooking we'd like to see more of in the city.
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.