It’s me Dapwell, former backup dancer for the rap group Das Racist and current semi-itinerant pseudo-journalist. I’m currently hanging out in South India in a town called Tenali (population: 100,000 people), my mother’s hometown in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. I’ve come to visit with my grandmother, so I’m staying at her house and eating tons—possibly too much—food, but hey, what else am I supposed to do as I’m hanging out with a 78-year-old woman? I'm also convinced that she's one of the best cooks in the world.
My grandmother came to live with us in New York in the early 90s when we lived in a small house in Queens. She got to know some of the white—predominantly Jewish—neighbors and would often give them some of the food that she or my mother had cooked up that day. Who knows if they actually ate it, but they gave the tupperware back, so it’s no big deal either way. She went back to her house in Tenali in 1994. It was built 40 years ago, when it supplanted the former thatched palm hut where my mother was born. Since my grandmother is edging towards 80, I make it a point to visit as often as I can, which usually involves sitting around aimlessly in said house, watching television, talking shit about other people, and of course, eating.
But from the minute I arrived, my grandmother started in on how I was “way too skinny,” and how “I must not be eating in America.” I gained like five pounds on this trip. Not that I weigh myself, but I checked the day before I left while I was weighing my suitcases. 71.8 kilograms, people. Not cool.
In between cooking, laying around, and talking about shit around here, I tend to partake in frequent breaks to watch the dubbed over North Indian melodramas on the local television stations like MAA or ETV. My grandmother’s favorite show, Eee Tharam Illalu (which translates to “This Generation’s Housewife”), is about an educated women trying to bring an old-fashioned household into modern times through her clashes with a dictatorial matron. Of course.
As proof that I’ve left the US and am not just secretly hanging out in my mother’s house in Queens for the weekend, I present to you with the following evidence as proof that I’m in India, eating all of the things.
South Indian food is a highly flavorful, complex cuisine that reflects its fertile climate with the great number and variety of ingredients that are involved in the cooking process. These often have to be procured separately, making planning ahead an essential part of Indian cooking, especially in locations where one-stop convenience shopping doesn’t exist. The foods of Andhra Pradesh include staples like rice and lentil patties known as idli, a spicy vegetable stew called sambar, a variety of pachadis (chutneys), and of course, lots of locally grown white rice (the region is known for its rice paddies.) It definitely helps when eating chutneys to use your hands like South Indians do to help evenly distribute the flavor throughout the “rice ball” before putting it in your mouth.
Vada is typically served as a breakfast item, especially during religious festivals like Pongal (a multi-day harvest festival that takes place on January 26th), Diwali (a festival of lights), and Vinayka Chathurthi (a Ganesh festival). It’s made from a type of lentil called black gram and eaten with chutneys like coconut, peanut, or ginger. It’s also dipped or immersed in sambar, that spicy vegetable stew I was mentioning earlier. I like these when they’re fresh and a little crispy, but less so when they’re soggy with oil. They were often referred to as “Indian donuts” by relatives when I was growing up, presumably to make them more palatable to my chubby American ass.
Upma is a breakfast item made of cream of wheat or rice. The consistency of the wheat varies from paste-like to quite coarse, depending on the wheat used. It is most often made with senaga pappu podi, a powder made from ground horse gram, dried chili pepper, coriander, mustard seeds, and dried coconut. Children sometimes eat it with sugar. I, myself, am not a fan of upma, although the coarser varieties are more tolerable. I find the porridge-like consistency totally unappetizing and the flavor weak. I guarantee the average American would like upma more than any of other foods on this list, if you know what I mean. Upma is most definitely my least favorite of the South Indian breakfast food staples and options that are out there.
Uttapam is a thick, spongy crepe-like breakfast food made of black gram and rice batter that has been left to ferment overnight. Carrots, red onion, and coriander (a.k.a. cilantro leaves) are often embedded into the mixture as it’s being griddled on a tawa, a flat pan most often made from cast iron. They’re usually eaten with a peanut chutney made of ground peanut, green hot peppers, coriander seeds, curry leaves, coconut, and mustard and cumin seeds.
These are fantastic, especially since I rarely eat them back in the States. The texture and taste can be somewhat similar to Ethiopian injera bread, which is also awesome.
Rasam is a soup made of tomato, tamarind paste, hing (a spice also known as asafoetida), a blend of curry leaves, dried red peppers, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, a mixture of whole and powdered lentils, and whole peppercorns. It’s usually served at the end of a meal with plain white rice, but it’s also served as a soup. And a hot, brothy soup like this is always the ticket when you want to feel some vitality. I’ll drink this out of a small bowl with a little bit of rice at the end of a meal, shortly before yogurt (the sign of the end of the meal) is served.
Gongura is a leafy vegetable that’s strongly associated with the state of Andhra Pradesh. You will always find it pickled or prepared as a curry or a chutney. The chutney can be made by boiling the leaves, draining them, and adding fried green onion or coriander seeds before pounding it into a paste-like consistency, either manually with a mortar and pestle (rolu-rokali) or a blender. I hated gongura when I was younger because of its very strong, bitter flavor, but over the years I’ve grown to love it. One variant of the plant’s leaves that we grow in Queens looks just like weed. But it won’t make you high.
I hated this stuff when I was younger, but we’ve grown to love each other. Kakarakaya, or bitter gourds, are often fried with onions and a bit of jaggery (a dark unrefined sugar) and are incredible with rice or eaten all by their lonesome. If you eat these gourds, they’ve got serious medicinal, anti-bacterial properties. The leaves are used for treating rabies wounds and the vegetable is useful in lowering blood glucose levels for diabetics. If you get your hands on a set of these, they taste much better boiled over a low flame with buttermilk, salt, and turmeric until they’re tender, which helps reduce the bitterness of the flavor.
Jalebi is a common Indian dessert food made of fermented rice batter that’s fried in pretzel-like shapes and dipped in a warm jaggery sauce immediately after they’ve been pulled—piping hot—out of the fryer. After the jalebi has absorbed this sauce, it becomes very sticky and sweet, and it’s often served with vanilla ice cream. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of most Indian sweets— they’re too rich and sweet for me—but jalebi is pretty good if it’s lip-burning hot.
Even though I’ve been here countless times before, the food in South India is full of surprises. There are some crazy tropical fruits like grilled palm root, sapota, and local Tenali oranges that are like huge tangerines with incredibly easy-to-peel, loosely hanging skin. I have never seen them before. The best part of this trip has been eating under the flourescent lighting in my grandmother’s living room with three women over the age of 60, watching soap operas under a blown-up portrait of my grandfather that was made shortly after his death more than thirty years ago.