Pulusu, Avial, Kadla curry, Sambhar, Bhatkal biryani are some of the flavourful dishes in Southern India, yet, each one has a distinct flavour owing to the use of specific spices.
Picture this: A bowl of aromatic Fish Pulusu and the air is redolent with the fragrant spices. Cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, bay leaf and cloves, lend a distinct flavour and aroma to this popular dish. Spices play an important role in Indian cuisine and the food of Southern India is no exception.
Executive Chef Sujan Mukherjee, Taj Coromandel, Chennai, concurs, “Spices are an essential ingredient in Indian cuisine. South India has a mixed variety of spices ranging from mild, strong, pungent and rustic. These spices are used in various forms – blended, whole, sauteed, ground, roasted or fried.” Cumin seeds, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, black pepper, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, cardamom, are common to kitchens across India, but some spices are used extensively in Southern cuisines, albeit in varying proportions.
Used in different forms
Most spices release an aroma and flavour when added to oil or even dry roasted. Spices must be used sparingly, as excess can overpower and drown other flavours in a dish.
While several spices are used in a ground form, in non-vegetarian dishes, spices like mustard, cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, are often used for tempering apart from the basic masala, in which these are included. Again, in vegetables like pulusu or poriyal and sambhar or pachadi, spices are used for tempering the dish to enhance flavours.
Ghee or sesame oil are commonly used for tempering in the South. Maratti moggu is usually fried in oil before use to release its full flavour, which is similar to that of a combination of mustard and black pepper.
Chef Nimisha Sarah Verghese, Sous Chef, The Oberoi Bengaluru explains, “In the south, we dry roast spices and grind them on a sil batta with a bit of water to make a paste. It really depends on what dish you are making.” She adds, “From Kerala beef pepper fry to Coorgi pandi curry and from Mangalore gassi to Mamsam korma and even Jackfruit halwa, spices are used in southern cooking.”
“South Indian spices are generally much stronger than those used in other parts of the country. Even the chilies here are comparatively hotter than the ones found in rest of India. The people here consume spicier food, as compared to other parts of India.
Most spices are unique to certain South Indian states and it is from here that most spices migrated to other parts of India. For example, black pepper, green cardamom, kodampuli are native to Kerala; Marrati maggu, kalpasi, round chilies from Tamil Nadu; and the Byadgi chilies from Karnataka,” reveals Chef Sujan Mukherjee.
Although spices are common to Southern India, some spices find favour in a certain Southern State more than the other, owing to the nature of the cuisine. Chef Mahesh of Westin Mindspace Hyderabad, clarifies, “Spices are generally matched according to the dish and there is nothing such as a specific spice for vegetarian and non-vegetarian dish.” He adds, “There are few common spices which are mostly used in South Indian cuisine, such as Marratti moggu – used in Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu and Cinnamon – used in Hyderabadi cuisine for biryani preparations. Black pepper and white pepper are used in all the South Indian states. Along the coastal region, spices like coriander seeds, red chillies, fennel and tamarind are generally used.” However, Chef Sujan feels, “Cardamom, Madras chilies and coriander seeds, are a few spices used in vegetarian dishes whereas bay leaf, kapok buds, Guntur chilies are for fiery non-vegetarian dishes.
Tamil Nadu Chettinad cuisine is the most popular cuisine of Tamil Nadu and it makes use of a variety of spices. Dominated by nonvegetarian dishes, especially chicken, lamb and prawns, these are marinated using spices which are ground by hand.
A lot of sombu (saunf), black stone flower and pepper, is used and generally, masalas are ground fresh, for the dishes. This imparts a unique texture to the dishes like paniyaram and kola urandai.
The Tambrahm cuisine on the other hand makes use of fenugreek seeds or vendhaiyam. In the Nanji Nadu cuisine, which resembles the food of Kerala, dhaniya, pepper and chillies are predominant.
Ulunthanchoru, a rice and urad dal preparation is replete with spices like mustard seeds, curry leaves, dry ginger. The Nanji fish curry is made using cumin, fenugreek, mustard seeds, coriander and other dry spices. The refreshing Panakam here uses cardamom and dry ginger in abundance.
Andhra Pradesh The cuisine of Andhra Pradesh is mostly vegetarian but the coastal areas have a vast repertoire of seafood preparations. This cuisine uses a melange of Guntur chillies and other spices, such as curry leaves, mustard seeds, pepper and chillies, in curries, chutneys and pickles alike. Spices are used in dishes ranging from a koora to avakya or urgai mamsam to pulihora, to embellish the taste. Equally popular and laced with spices is the cuisine of Hyderabad. Dalcha, pathar ka gosht and biryani, legendary dishes of this region get their flavour from the local spices. Karnataka Northern Karnataka tends to make use of more spices than the rest of Karnataka. Nutmeg, asafoetida, curry leaves and Each Indian spice boasts a unique flavour profile and completes a dish. turmeric are used abundantly in gojju, thovve, huli and bisi bele. Traditionally, a spice mixture called trijataka which comprised powders of saffron, bark and leaves of cloves, and cardamom was used in certain preparations. The seafood dishes in Malnad and Mangalore are replete with flavourful spices. The mean intensive Kodagu cuisine is even spicier.
Words: Mini Ribeiro