Tastes of India, from North and South


The Indian subcontinent is rich with different flavours, and Malaysians are happily accustomed to a wide range of them.

Northern and southern Indian cuisines are celebrated for their distinctive cooking styles and skilful blend of spices. In northern India, most food varieties are heavily influenced by Persian and Mughlai cooking techniques, and as wheat is the primary crop of the region, breads such as naan, prata, roti and capati are typically feasted on, served alongside curries that are thick and creamy owing to the use of heavy creams and yogurts.1

Chicken tandoori at Kashmir.

In the south, coconut and rice are ubiquitous: the former is used to make various kinds of chutneys and curries, while the latter makes popular breakfast and tea dishes like dosa (paper-thin pancake) and idli (steamed rice pancake). Seafood is also a familiar feature in the cuisine thanks to the region’s long coastline.

At the turn of the twentieth century, with the emigration of Indian nationals – who were mostly southerners – to Malaya, the recipes that they brought along with them were adapted to suit the local palate, resulting in a long and irresistible gastronomical love affair.

A Taste of the North

Rich in flavour but mild in taste, northern Indian fare is much tamer than its southern cousins. Chicken tandoori (chicken marinated with yogurt and spice and traditionally roasted in the tandoor) is one of the region’s more popular dishes. Eaten either as an entree or a main course served with naan, the dish has inspired many derivatives including chicken tikka and chicken tikka masala, which can be found in restaurants worldwide.

“The secret is to marinate the meat for a good 24 hours. Garam masala, a blend of ground spices, is key to giving the chicken its wonderful depth of flavour. These spices need to be rubbed into the meat before it is charcoal-roasted in the tandoor. Garam masala also helps in elevating body temperature, according to Ayurvedic medicine,” says Mohan Anandani, owner of the long-standing restaurant, Kashmir, along Jalan Penang.

The owner of Kashmir Restaurant, Mohan Anandani.

Mohan credits his experienced palate to his thriving business, and indeed Kashmir is one of the oldest northern Indian restaurants on the island, established in 1984. “Although my chefs are from New Delhi and Mumbai, I’ve made sure to tweak the recipes according to Penangites’ preference. It is important to me that the food served in Kashmir emulates the style of home-cooking; our curries are made with less heavy cream so they’re not as rich and indulgent as the ones typically found in restaurants. We do fusion cooking here as well: we offer a selection of mutton, fish and chicken pizzas, using naan as the pizza base.”

As for desserts, Mohan says only popular northern Indian treats are offered at Kashmir, like gulab jamun (a milk-solid-based sweet), kheer (rice pudding) and kulfi (a popular frozen dairy dessert). “Interestingly, though some northern and southern desserts share the same name, their method of preparation and taste are often quite different.”

Who Needs a Plate When You Have Banana Leaf?

Popular throughout Malaysia, banana leaf rice is a customary practice of serving southern Indian rice dishes. Traditionally a vegetarian meal, it is commonly served in mass meals at Hindu temples following a religious ceremony, where hundreds of devotees would sit cross-legged on the floor, partaking in a gratis meal of either white or parboiled rice served with an assortment of vegetable dishes such as morro, rassam, dhall curry and poppadum on a cleaned sheet of banana leaf.2

Banana leaf rice.

At Passions of Kerala, a restaurant dedicated to serving banana leaf meals, owner Datuk Gary Vasudevan Nair offers both vegetarian and non-vegetarian banana leaf variations with a choice of either white or tomato rice. To enhance their banana leaf experience diners may order an array of side dishes, from chicken and crab masala to mutton varuval and deep-fried pomfret. “Authentic Keralite cooking generally calls for coconut oil to be used, but I use vegetable oil at my restaurants instead as most of my customers are Chinese and are unaccustomed to its pungent odour.”

Coconut trees are ubiquitous in Kerala. As such, coconut kernels (sliced or grated), coconut cream and milk are widely used as thickening and flavouring agents in curries and chutneys. But Keralite cooking, and in the broader context southern Indian gastronomy, is often a subject of fervent health debate, frequently pitted against their northern counterpart to assess their respective health benefits. While many concede the former to be the healthier alternative (coconut oil improves immunity and aids digestion, but is notorious for spiking up cholesterol levels), Nair firmly believes the opinion is a subjective one. “If a vegetarian suffering from ill health still chooses to cook with coconut oil, do you think that person is living a healthier lifestyle than the non-vegetarian?” he asks.

Spice-wise, Nair says he avoids omitting certain spices from his dishes as they give the food their spicy, aromatic flavours. “Indian food is naturally meant to be spicy; it will be impossible to cook the dishes without them. Besides, my customers rather like the heat,” he says.

From the Chettiar Kitchen

Chettinad cuisine in Penang emerged from the kittangi, or business houses, along Lebuh Penang, where the Nattukottai Chettiar community once thrived on money-lending business. A mercantile society from Chettinad, a dry, arid region in southern Tamil Nadu, the Chettiars ventured to Burma, Sri Lanka, Indochina and Malaysia to expand their businesses. The cuisine is the result of the Chettiars’ interaction with different cultures during their travels.3

Datuk Gary Nair in front of his restaurant, Passions of Kerala, located at New World Park.

Datuk Ramanathan Nachiappan (right) with his food and beverage manager V. Lakshman.

A complete Chettinadan meal requires a balance of sweetness, sourness and spiciness, and spices like aniseed, coriander, turmeric, cumin, pepper, fenugreek, cinnamon, asafoetida powder and kalpasi are regularly used in Chettinad cooking.4

The cuisine is known for their dry curries like the mutton chukka varuval (dry spicy lamb curry), while other Chettinadan delights include uppukandam (sun-dried marinated mutton) and chicken milagu varuval (crunchy chicken pieces cooked with black pepper and curry leaves). Desserts made from milk, wheat or rice/rice flour, such as pal paniyaram (rice and lentil dumpling in sweetened milk) and karunarasi halwa (red rice halwa), are also often in demand.5

Karaikudi's Chicken Briyani.

Karaikudi Restaurant, located along Lebuh Pasar, is one of the few eateries in Penang that serves genuine Chettinadan fare. Its owner, Datuk Ramanathan Nachiappan, a Chettiar himself, observes that though the cuisine is much sought-after, it has been fused with other southern Indian gastronomies in Malaysia, resulting in the loss of the cuisine’s authenticity. “Penang’s Chettiar community is very small. There are only about 70 of us here, and perhaps very few are involved in the local F&B industry today – which may also be the reason why Chettinad food is popular among locals,” says Ramanathan, who is also the president of the Nattukottai Nagarathar Heritage Society.

“From a business standpoint, I understand why other restaurateurs are keen to promote Chettinad cuisine – it’s lucrative for business. It’s the same for me. When I first opened Karaikudi, I was only selling Chettinad food. The Westerners that patronised the restaurant told me, ‘We like your spicy dishes. But we want the bread as well.’ Bread does not belong in southern Indian cuisine, but business-wise, I knew it presented an opportunity to broaden our clientele. Besides, north Indian food – like mutton sheek kabab and fish tikka – is more profitable since the demand is there, especially among tourists.”

But be it north or south Indian cuisine, Penangites are a lucky lot to have the best of both worlds – sometimes all on one plate!

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton. She has a mania for alliteration and Oscar Wilde.

1 www.differencebtw.com/difference-betweennorth- indian-food-and-south-indian-food.
2 Keat Gin, Ooi. Historical Dictionary of Malaysia. Scarecrow Press, 2009, p.32.
3 Murugappan, Meyyammai, and Ramaswamy, Visalakshi. The Chettinad Cookbook. Meyyammai Murugappan & Visalakshi Ramaswamy, 2014.
4 www.thestar.com.my/lifestyle/archive/2005/08/20/ chettinad-cuisine.
5 www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Food/ spice-and-all-things-nice/article2053912.ece.

Related Articles

Jan 2015

The bookman who embraced Penang

From urban crime to science fiction, local independent publisher Fixi is bringing sexy back in books.

Aug 2013

Gun killing on the rise

What has caused this year’s surge in gun-related deaths in Malaysia?

Mar 2016

Transgenders Continue to Fight for Acceptance

Tolerance and respect – that's all they want.