When we go out for Indian food in New York, it’s usually to a South Indian restaurant. The food is native to Tamil Hindus, who have a wide variety of vegetarian dishes made from pulses, rice and various vegetable curries. These dishes are harder to replicate at home, so South Indian spots end up being the go-to dining choice for many Indians. Our restaurant of choice is Saravana Bhavan, on Lexington Avenue’s Murray Hill, also affectionately known as Curry Hill due to the aromas wafting from the area’s many Indian establishments. The New York eatery claims to be the child of the original Saravana Bhavan Hotel Restaurant in Chennai. We had a three hour layover recently in Chennai and decided to seize the opportunity to determine whether this is true.
Our doubts were put to rest when the place mat proudly claimed to have locations all around the world, one of which is on Lexington Avenue.
We ordered a dosa and thali, similar fare as we would in New York. We’re delighted to report that the food was remarkably similar to the New York outpost. All you New Yorkers who want a taste of true South Indian food – head to Lexington Avenue and 26th Street.
Here’s a short guide to eating at a South Indian restaurant. These pictures were taken at Anand, possibly the longest running South Indian restaurant in Kottayam, Kerala. In India you’ll likely have a choice of the AC (air-conditioned) section or regular dining. The food is the same, but the AC section a price premium. First, wash your hands as you are expected to eat with them. Only your right hand though, the left one is considered unclean. This is always a challenge for left-handed Sandeep. A true South Indian restaurant will have a hand washing station (yes, Saravana Bhavan in New York has one too).
Getting through the menu may be a challenge, particularly when faced with odd items such as “Raw Rice” and vaguery like “Special Meals”.
The most traditional fare are dosas (roasted flat lentil pancakes), vadas (fried lentil donuts), and idlis (steamed rice and lentil patties). All are served with sides of sambar (spiced lentil gravy) and various chutneys, including coconut and tomato. Thalis, AKA Special Meals or Set Meals, are a pre-selected assortment of various side dishes and rice. For the wow factor, order a paper masala dosa, a gravity defying thin pancake rolled around a mound of spiced potatoes.
A traditional South Indian meal is not complete without frothy coffee, brewed with milk and plenty of sugar. It’s served in a stainless steel cup nestled into a stainless steel bowl. Pour the coffee into the bowl and measure out smaller amounts to drink from the cup. This maneuver cools the coffee.
We don’t deny bribing our children. To get them through dinner we promise them dessert. They heartily ate their dosas and were rewarded with round ladoos – semolina roasted in clarified butter, boiled with sugar and rolled into a ball.
That ensured that they were just as excited we to return for another South Indian meal.