Planning a trip to India years ago, I set my sights on the south of the country (Kerala and Tamil Nadhu). Why? To eat. I’d heard that the southern food was really spicy and really good, and most of it lived up to that billing. It’s a land of tamarind, coconuts, mangos (eaten young and sour as well as ripe and sweet), bananas, fresh-caught fish, of local-grown spices (particularly Kerala’s fragrant, seductive cardamom), and of numerous varieties of hot peppers. The food can be simple and bland to the point of asceticism or overwhelmingly rich and complex. Just as the temples of Madras are covered with hundreds of brightly painted sculptures of the Hindu gods while the streets below them teem with crowds of mortals, some of the curries I ate were thronged with innumerable spices and condiments that formed unexpected harmonies.
India is just barely one country cobbled together by the British Empire: It’s more diverse than Europe, with dozens of languages, hundreds of local dialects and regional subcultures, some 2000 ethnic groups, and two main sub-races, the Aryans of the north (descended from Euro-Asian invaders who arrived millennia ago) and the original, darker-skinned Dravidians, whom the Aryan invaders pushed to the south. That’s the reason I’ve bemoaned the state of Indian restaurants in California since my return — we get lots of North Indian food but almost nothing from South India’s distinctive cuisines. In all those cookie-cutter Punjabi menus (apparently modeled on the successful international chain Gaylord’s), only the inevitable vindaloo (from Goa) is the token representative of the vast land mass south of New Delhi.
But now there’s a new option to explore South India. Bombay in Hillcrest was the start of an empire of North Indian restaurants, expanding to Monsoon and Masala in the Gaslamp. Recently, the flagship moved across the street (to the former Corvette Diner space), and in its former digs, the Monsoon Group has opened Banana Leaf South Indian Restaurant. The room is handsome — wood tables and wood waffle-backed chairs, red banquettes, colored glass lanterns and wall-panels, but the lighting during dinner is too dim for full appreciation of the decor (or menu-reading).
Bamboo Leaf’s menu includes the basic staple dishes of the south, plus an abridged selection of curries, each from a different subregion. All the appetizers are purely southern, too (don’t look for samosas or pakora). The two best dishes of our meal were a pair of soups with a strong southern accent. Rasam is a tangy, spicy broth seasoned with tamarind, whole serrano chilis afloat along with diced vegetables, tiny soft lentils, and black mustard seeds. The spicing was a perfect medium-hot (plus there are those serranos to chomp on if you want to ramp it up). Even better was a rich, turmeric-gold Keralese coconut soup with a tenderly grainy texture. Salty, with a pleasant edge of sourness, the broth included bits of onion, scallions, and tomatoes. The flavors were almost complex enough for an entire dinner.
Chilli bhaji are appetizer versions of Indian chiles rellenos — smaller but hotter chilis (probably plump jalapeños) deep-fried in batter and stuffed with mashed potatoes. If you eat the half with the seeds and stem, you’ll be swallowing fire. (When sharing an order, better cut the chilies vertically.) Aloo bonda is likable, with more mashed potatoes, this time fried in a lentil-flour batter and served, if I remember correctly, with “the chef’s special chutney,” a rich, thin brown sauce — basically a sambar (lentil gravy) — with whole raw serranos afloat. (We also ordered a chutney assortment, so forgive the mild confusion about which chutney came with what.)
I didn’t order either variation of the vada, lentil-flour dumplings, because they’re always heavy and I just don’t like them; I did order the idli, rice dumplings in tomato broth (as served here), but the kitchen was out that evening. Idli are sort of breakfast food, anyway. A mango salad was a waste of six bucks — an ordinary small green salad with a few mango slices, BFD.
Dosas (plate-size thin crêpes) and utthappam (thick, lacy, rice-flour pancakes with gooey centers) are southern staples. In South Asia, from Sri Lanka to Nepal, silverware (beyond spoons) is pretty much confined to fancier restaurants with a significant percentage of foreigners among their clientele. Otherwise, the norm is eating with your right hand (this turns out to be pleasant and sensual, once you’ve sat on your left hand long enough to learn not to use it), and most restaurants have sinks right in the dining room for diners to wash up before and after meals. So, these crêpes and pancakes, when served “plain,” often serve the same function as injera does in Ethiopian meals or tortillas in Mexican cuisine — as wraps to scoop up wetter foods. However, they’re also frequently topped or stuffed with simple garnishes, to eat as self-contained vegetarian starters or main dishes. I wonder, next time, if I ignore the silverware and eat with my right hand, whether the staff will see that I’d spent time in India and might be seasoned enough in the cuisine to merit genuinely spicy cooking when I ask for it?
There are a zillion recipes for dosas and utthappam — regional recipes, tribal recipes, your grandma’s, my grandma’s, etc. In Madras (Chennai), dosas often combine rice flour with lentil flour for a more nutritive but heavier rendition. At Banana Leaf, the chef goes for the most refined version, with rice flour only. Foolish Yankee carnivore, I succumbed to the lure of a weighty minced-chicken stuffing. It would be fine in another context but was ruinous to the delicacy of the crêpe. Similarly, with the utthappam, I chose the “chef’s special” with a heavy, sweet topping of raisins, cashews, and minced veggies.
My mistake — shun the fancy dosas, go for the plainer ones! Next time, I’ll choose the masala dosa (potatoes and sambar lentil gravy) or the Mysore dosa (with shredded beets and spinach, plus onion chutney) and for utthappam, the masala version (onions, tomatoes, peppers) or the jalapeño-and-onion version, if the topping is cooked, not raw. Or like a real Keralan, I might just get a plain utthappam and use it to sop up a curry.