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Something special is happening with South Indian restaurants

It is possible that I am overstating the case a bit, but I think that South Indian food is having a moment.

In Goa, the excellent Hosa is very much the restaurant of the moment. In New York, Semma has a Michelin star, has wowed the critics, and is packed out so solidly that it is a big deal to score a table.


In Kolkata, the most difficult reservation is Avartana, the second avatar of the modern South Indian restaurant from Chennai. A third Avartana will open shortly in Mumbai. On the West Coast of the US, Srijith Gopinathan, who walked away from his Michelin stars at Campton Place, is the hottest Indian chef and continues to open restaurants that celebrate his unique Malayali-California cooking.


   In Singapore, Mano Thevar has two Michelin stars at his eponymous restaurant which serves the food of Malaysia’s Tamil community. And back home in India, Regi Mathew who runs Kerala restaurants in Chennai and Bangalore was recently crowned India’s number one chef.


   All of this is far more surprising than we may realise. Yes, there have always been restaurants in South India that serve the local food. But the cuisine of the South only moved north when restaurateurs from Udupi in Karnataka began opening establishments in Mumbai in the late 1950s. The original intention was to feed the South Indian diaspora but over time the restaurateurs realised that such snacks as dosas, idlis, and vadas appealed to people from all communities. The Masala Dosa, which became the symbol of this avatar of South Indian food was a restaurant creation that found all-India fame in the late 1970s.


   That was the first phase of the spread of South Indian food to the rest of the country. It was not without its drawbacks. People began to think of South-Indian food as beginning and ending with idlis and dosas. They did not recognise that there was no one South Indian cuisine. The region consisted of four major states each with its own distinctive food.


   The second phase took many forms. Regional South Indian cuisine began to travel. Such restaurants as Nagarjuna, RR and Amaravathi took Andhra food to other states; though unfortunately, the expansion ignored most of North India. In Mumbai, the children of the Udupi restaurateurs who had led the original boom became more adventurous and created a craze for sea-food dishes from the South West coast. Such restaurants as Trishna, Gajalee and Apurva were part of this trend. Once again, it passed much of the North by; perhaps because it was difficult to get fresh sea food far away from the coasts.


   The third phase was when South Indian food finally went upmarket. The credit for this must go mainly to the Taj group which opened The Raintree in Chennai, focusing on the food of the Chettiar community and then Karavali in Bangalore which served home-style food from all over the South. When ITC responded by opening Dakshin in Chennai, the Taj opened its own version: Southern Spice.


"In San Francisco, Srijith Gopinathan put caviar on an appam and took the cuisine further upmarket."

   All this took time to travel North. An early pioneer was Jayaram Banan whose Sagar and Sagar Ratna chains introduced Punjabis to masala dosas. As the Sagar restaurants spread over North India, Banan opened Swagath, serving the sort of food that had made Trishna and Gajalee so popular in Mumbai: this time around, he introduced Punjabis to Masala Crab.


   But a cuisine can only be said to have really taken off when chefs take its fundamentals and try and do something different with them. Over the last few years that has finally begun to happen with South Indian cuisine.


   In London, Sriram Aylur who was chef at Karavali opened Quilon for the Taj, won a Michelin star and began to play around with the food. At the lower end of the market, the most influential South Indian restaurants in the UK may be the Hoppers mini-chain. While the label is ‘Sri Lankan food’ there are enough Malayalis in the kitchen to ensure that the restaurants turn out such outstanding dishes as Bone Marrow Veruval, a dish that is largely unknown in Sri Lanka.


   Now, South Indian chefs have found the confidence needed to take the cuisine forward. In San Francisco, Srijith Gopinathan put caviar on an appam and took the cuisine further upmarket.


   Mario Thevar’s food is hard to characterise: he celebrates the Tamil dishes he grew up eating in Malaysia. His cuisine is South Indian diaspora food but it is also different from anything you will find anywhere else.


   There have been more recent breakthroughs. Many South Indians found the Dakshin-Southern Spice style of food and presentation too brahminical. At Semma in New York, Chef Vijaya Kumar who grew up poor in a small village in Tamilnadu found inspiration in the food they ate in his village. They had very little money so expensive ingredients were out of the question. They foraged for snails and wild vegetables and used heavy doses of masala to give their food a kick.


   This is the food Vijaya Kumar serves at Semma and it has turned the restaurant into a rage.


   In Chennai, Regi Mathew tired of the usual Kerala dishes every restaurant served, went into the villages of the Kerala heartland and persuaded mothers to part with their recipes. The food at his two Kappa Chakka Kandharis in Chennai and Bangalore is dedicated to Indian mothers because, Regi says, it is the food that not-so-prosperous Malayalis eat every day at home. Mathew's food is so good that he was rated as the finest chef in India despite working for an inexpensive standalone and having no huge PR machine behind him.


   Hosa is an experiment that has worked spectacularly well. The idea is Rohit Khattar’s. Because Khattar started Indian Accent, it is tempting to see this as the ‘South Indian Accent” (though the original Indian Accent had many South Indian flavours anyway). But, as elegant as Hosa is, it appeals to a less well-heeled clientele. You can eat very well for Rs. 1500, a sum that would not get you very far at Indian Accent.


   The chef at Hosa is Suresh DC who has worked all over the world but only at Hosa has he been allowed to give free rein to his creativity and create modern South Indian food that springs from his imagination. There will be more Hosas soon; the next one is slated to open in Hyderabad in the next few months.


   The hotel chains are taking note of the transition to the next phase of the South Indian boom. Some years ago, Ajit Bangera, who was then the Executive Chef at the ITC Grand Chola created a modern South Indian menu for a new restaurant called Avartana. It became the hipper son of ITC’s Dakshin and when ITC finally took it out of Chennai, I wondered if it would succeed. But Kolkata has been a hit and it augurs well for Mumbai.


   So yes, something different and special is happening with South Indian restaurants. And frankly, it is about time!



Posted On: 29 Sep 2023 02:00 PM
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