The predominant cuisine in Chennai is vegetarian snacks – idlis, vadas, dosas and variations of these. While these are made in most South Indian households in Chennai, they are also in great demand in the snack centres. If you walk into any of the outlets specializing in South Indian snacks, you will find a very long list of items on offer in the menu card or on large boards above the bill counter. The array of South Indian snacks, or tiffin as they are popularly called, is mainly variations of the basics - for simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick to Idlis, Dosas and Vadas.
These snacks are usually consumed as breakfast, but they are equally, evening light-eats.
An Idli is, simply put, steamed rice cake. Raw Rice and Black gram are soaked overnight in a specific ratio that differs between households. The water is drained in the morning and the soaked grains ground, in a batter grinder or, if a small quantity, in a food processor. The resulting thick batter is stored at room temperature overnight to ferment. Salt is added to the soured batter, and it is then poured into idli platters to steam for an average of 7 minutes. A variation of the idli is the rava idli where yoghurt and a mustard seasoning are added to Rava (semolina). This becomes the batter, which is then steamed just like an idli.
To make a dosa, the same grains as the idli are used, but the ratio differs. A few seeds of fenugreek are sometimes soaked along with the grains. Sometimes, too-sour idli batter is used to make dosas or uttapams. Dosas are made by spreading the batter on a hot oiled girdle. Once the underside is roasted, the dosa is flipped over and browned on the other side as well. In eateries, only one side is done as the dosa thin enough for the other side to be cooked through. There are many varieties of dosas depending on either the ingredients used or the accompaniments. Sada Dosa is a plain dosa with no fillings or extras. Masala Dosa is served with a spiced potato filling. The Rava Dosa batter is made with semolina, hence the crispness of the dosa. Paper dosa is a fairly large dosa made paper-thin and crisp. For the ghee dosa, instead of using oil to line the girdle, ghee is used. Podi dosa, has spicy lentil powder (milagai podi) spread on it. The lentil powder is otherwise an accompaniment (see the section on accompaniments).
The uthappam is a thicker version of dosa, like a sour pancake. Again, variations abound. The onion uthappam has chopped onions on the dosa and the tomato uthappam has chopped firm red tomatoes.
An Adai is a predominantly lentil batter and rich with proteins. It is made exactly like dosa, although the batter is coarser. It is served with either sweetened coconut milk or with Avial (a vegetable-coconut stew).
Vada or Vadai:
Medhu Vada or Medhu Vadai, is a doughnut-shaped snack, except that it’s not sweet. Under the crisp exterior, lies the soft flesh of the vada. A Medhu Vada is made with smooth and thick black gram batter to which salt, chopped ginger, green chilli and sometimes whole black peppers and fennel seeds are added. In some eateries, one comes across Special Vada which is made from pretty much the same batter, but has strips of onion in it. On deep frying, the onions acquire a roasted flavour which puts the ‘special’ in the Special Vada. The Medhu vada is also served in three other common variations. It is served as Sambar Vada where it is soaked in Sambar (lentil stew). A Sambar Vada is different from Vada Sambar, where, the Medhu Vada is simply served with Sambar on the side. In Thayir Vada or Dahi Vada, the Vada is soaked in yoghurt. In Mor Kuzhambu Vada, it is soaked in a spiced yoghurt-coconut gravy.
A Masala Vada is very different from a medhu vada. A masala Vada is commonly served with tea or coffee in small tea-shops. It is much smaller than a medhu vada and without the hole in the middle. Although the method of making both is common, the masala vada is made from soaked Bengal Gram Lentil and ground coarsely along with onion, green chilli and sometimes garlic. The coarseness of the batter adds the texture and the hearty lentil-taste to the masala vada. It is served only with coconut chutney or sometimes, by itself.
Once done, the idlis, dosas, uthappams and the medhu vada are served with any or the entire array of accompaniments. These include Sambar, Coconut chutney, onion chutney, coriander-coconut chutney and milagai podi.
Sambar is a lentil stew cooked with tamarind, onions and vegetables. It is a staple in most households in Chennai and is also called Kuzhambu by some. Most chutneys that are made for the above snacks are coconut-based. Milagai Podi is a powder made from dry-roasted lentils and dry red chilli. It is usually served with a dash of oil (mostly gingelly oil) to perhaps balance the fieriness of the chillies.
Other food on offer in a South Indian snack eatery include pongal (a rice dish), bondas (ball-shaped vadas), bajjis and pakodas (fritters made of chickpea flour coated on specific vegetables like onions, raw banana, potato, and sometimes, even cottage cheese) as well as North Indian food like Chapathis and Pooris.
(An edited version was published in the January 2008 issue of 'At A Glance')