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Mar 4, 2008 03:18 AM

South India Trip Report - Tamil Nadu and Kerala

I'm making my way through South India with friend and fellow CH'er Cicely - this portion of the trip has been mostly about temple-hopping, with less of an emphasis on scouting out great food, but we've had a number of surprisingly good meals in hotel restaurants (as well as a number of frustrating meals, in part because it's taken us a while to adapt to the rhythm of South Indian meals), so I thought it would be worth it to record them for other travellers. Cicely will have her take, along with pictures, on her blog, after we return to the States in a few weeks.

Our itinerary:
Chidamburam, Gongakondacholapuram
Allepey (backwater tour)

One problem I've had that as I love dosa, I've been greedily ordering them (along with vadai and iddly) at breakfast... but then I won't want them for a second meal, at dinner. I thought I would see a lot of South Indian-style vegetables (dry, with mustard seeds, curry leaves, chilis) on dinner menus, to have with rice and curd and rasam, but almost every restaurant we've been to has predominantly North Indian-style vegetables, with lots of gravy, and those just haven't been very good. I've finally settled into a better rhythm - pongal or iddly for breakfast, vegetable thali for lunch (I wish these were available for dinner, too!), dosa and vadai for dinner. I always scan menus for special items not seen on other menus and try to order those, too.

I'll do a separate post for each city.

Also, can anyone tell me what it means when a dish has the number "65" in it? Gobi 65, chicken 65, etc etc.

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    Unfortunately, I was there to early to take advantage of oniontears' excellent post:

    However, as I was only here for a day, I suppose I wouldn't have done things much differently even had I read it... but I will definitely send a link to that post to my friends living in Chennai.

    Saravan Bhavan - I've been to the outpost in Mountain View, CA, and definitely liked it the best out of all the South Indian restaurants I've been to in the US, so I was looking forward to going to one of the Chennai branches. It did not disappoint - gorgeous, buttery dosas with perfectly spiced potatoes in the masala dosa, excellent sambar and chutney. The texture of the iddly was the best I've had so far - fluffy, tender crumb that soaked up the sambar beautifuly, and the vadai were greaseless, with a full, nutty, spicy flavor.

    Grand Sweets and Snacks: prior to visiting this shop, I thought I didn't like Indian sweets. GSS changed my mind. I went mostly because a friend told me to buy a few bags of their om pudi (delicious asofoetida flavored fried noodle snacks), and since we were there, we also bought some samosas (excellent flaky pastry, perfectly seasoned filling), badhusha (sweet flaky pastry, like a thick, tender pie crust, lightly sweetened), and the best jamun I've had to date. They were light and fluffy in texture, redolent of cardomom and rosewater, with whole strands of saffron within. The perfume lingered long after the pastry was gone - I think it was a solid half hour after we had finished the jamun when Cicely and I turned to each other in the car and simultaneously commented on how great they were.

    9 Replies
    1. re: daveena

      Pictures (Saravana Bhavan)
      1) Rasam vada
      2) Curd vada
      3) Rava dosa
      4) Masala dosa

      1. re: daveena

        Amazing! They look just like the dishes served by Saravana Bhavan in NY!!! Thanks for the wonderful postings...I look forward to using the info on my next trip to India.

      2. re: daveena

        5) 7-flavor uttapam (top) - oh, I forgot about this one - this one was skippable. The better flavors were all the standard chutneys that came with the other dishes, and the others were forgettable. One tasted like ketchup.
        Iddly (bottom)

        1. re: daveena

          I love Tamil food, and those items looked so good, Daveena! Thankfully, I'm able to satisfy all my craving right here in Singapore's Little India.

          1. re: klyeoh

            One thing that amazed me is that I really didn't get tired of the food in Tamil Nadu and Kerala - except maybe sambar, but I never got tired of rasam, or any of the veg poriyal - I didn't even have any cravings for other foods when I came back to the States... there was always so much variation between thalis in Tamil Nadu, and then the food in Kerala was so vastly different. We can get Tamil-style food in Oakland, but Keralan is nearly impossible to find (I think there are one or two restaurants that rotate specialties from different regions of India that make Keralan specialties every once in a while.) Anyway, this trip definitely inspired me to cook more, since I can't just find these dishes in restaurants. I need to find a coconut grater first though.

            1. re: daveena

              You must let me know the addresses of good Tamil eateries in Oakland, Daveena. I'll need that for my next business trip there. So far, it's always been "Breads of India" for me (10 minutes' walk from our Oakland office), and they are "Northern Indian' & not very good at all. And let me know if you can't find a coconut grater - I can lug one from Singapore for you on my next visit.

              1. re: klyeoh

                I should have been more precise... that is, I can *drive* to decent Tamil places from Oakland, LOL. There are some South Indian places in Berkeley, which I haven't been to, although I've been to their sister branches in Sunnyvale. The rundown in this thread on East Bay Indian wasn't very optimistic, but it sounded like Udupi Palace has a good veg thali (and I did like their branch in Sunnyvale):

                Unfortunately, I think most of the better places are in the South Bay. Worth it for me to drive there to eat, but not worth it for you, given your close proximity to India.

                Thanks for the offer on the coconut grater... can you imagine trying to get one of things through security?

                1. re: daveena

                  No problem - just have it in my check-in luggage. It's one of those stuff that looked like a little wooden horse which you straddle & the "head" is a flat, round saw-tooth grater, right?

                  BTW, during the last trip - you could have tried to visit the famous Krishna Matha in Udupi, Karnataka, whose kitchens inspired the thousands of Udupi vegetarian restaurants around the world. I tried Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR) in Bangalore, whose chefs trained in Udupi - their cuisine was to-die for.

        2. re: daveena

          I would seriously consider going back to Chennai just for that jamun. It smashed our prejudices against Indian sweets, and we never had anything as good in the other sweets shops we tried.

          More photos on my blog:

          Grand Sweets:

          Saravana Bhavan:


          Mahalla Beach Resort Restaurant: the biggest surprise of the trip by far. The "resort" is fairly bare bones, but the food being served at its outdoor restaurant is excellent, with one of the most interesting menus we've seen so far. We had excellent spicy okra (dry and South Indian-style, the kind I thought I'd be seeing everywhere), Mahab's Meen Kuzhambu (an excellent spicy fish stew, really complex - identifiable elements were curry leaf, mustard seeds, urad dal, coconut, tamarind, tomato), Malabar fish curry (this had a toastier flavor than the Meen Kuzhambu - maybe more curry leaf? - it was also tomato based, with curry leaves and mustard seeds, but did not have the coconut or tamarind elements of the other fish curry.) The breakfast buffet was excellent, with large, mild iddly; excellent, small, crisp vada; decent upma; and made to order dosas (flavorful, if a little soft). Toast, omelettes and pancakes were also available.

          1 Reply
          1. re: daveena

            from Mahalla Beach Resort:
            1) Mahab's Meen Kuzhambou
            2) Spicy Okra

          2. Chicken 65 is essentially deep-fried chicken pieces which had been marinated in yoghurt & spices (red chilli powder, turmeric, ginger & garlic paste), served with lemon wedges.

            BTW, the widely held view of the origins of the name was that the now widely-known dish originated from a popular restaurant at Buhari Hotel, Mount Road, Chennai. It's the 65th item on the restaurant's menu. You should've checked it out when you were in Chennai!

            Keep your posts coming in - you're making me hungry (am currently in Oakland again)!

            1. PONDICHERRY:

              Pondicherry has been our least successful city, food-wise, so far. The description of the restaurant Lonely Planet declared to be the best in Pondicherry was really unappealing - I don't have my guide book with me right now, but it was some combination of French, Indian, pizza, and pasta. We opted to eat at the restaurant at Hotel de L'Orient where we were staying, in hopes that we could experience some of this "French-Indian" fusion we kept reading about. In retrospect, it might have been a better strategy to order French dishes, as Indian influence in a French dish would probably be easier to identify than French influence in an Indian dish ("I think that just means they take out all the spices," said Cicely). We tried a number of dishes - a green banana curry, a shrimp curry, mutton vindali (supposedly "the chef's grandmother's recipe") - all were uninspired. The chapathi had been reheated - after several days of having freshly cooked chapathi, this was a big disappointment.

              The western-style breakfast was quite good, if expensive (around Rs150 pp), with one of the best baguettes I've had anywhere (maybe the flavor was a little underdeveloped, but the texture of the crust was fantastic), eggs cooked to order, fresh yogurt, etc.

              5 Replies
              1. re: daveena

                Simply love your posts, Daveena. I never trusted Lonely Planet's recommendations - they cater to backpacking American travellers who look for burgers & pizzas wherever they go.

                Case in point was when I went to Bangladesh & looked for good Bengali food using Lonely Planet - it was next to useless in this department, and the locals who pointed me to the really good restaurants.

                1. re: daveena

                  From Hotel L'Orient:
                  Shrimp curry (top)
                  Curry leaf rice (middle)
                  Banana curry (bottom)

                  1. re: daveena

                    The restaurant mentioned in LP is called Satsanga, and it is truly vile. Inept service, creepy vibe, and bland, flavorless food.

                    1. re: whs

                      I had to go to my guidebook to see which one I'd been thinking about - the one I referred to was actually Rendezvous. But Satsanga also received a pretty glowing review.

                    2. re: daveena

                      I think this could spawn a discussion post about When Fusion Is a Bad Idea.

                      The food was crap, but the setting was gorgeous:

                    3. KUMBAKONAM:

                      We had lunch at our hotel restaurant (Hotel Raya). We've been seeing Indo-Chinese items on just about every menu out here, so I decided to try the Gobi Manchurian - it had a fairly appealing texture, tender and almost spongy, and the flavor was weirdly familiar, as if all the packets of orange duck sauce I've ever discarded in my life somehow ended up in India, on my plate, at that moment. I didn't hate it, but I didn't like it enough to brave any other Indo-Chinese dishes since then. I also tried the paneer dopiaza, a yellow-brown, very oniony curry, and ghee rice. They were fine, not great, and I think that was the last time we ordered anything besides a veg thali for lunch - we've been much more successful with thalis, particularly in hotel restaurants.

                      There's a small restaurant right next door to the Hotel Raya annex, right across the street from the main hotel Raya - we were directed there for breakfast the next day. The restaurant is dark and dingy, the light fluorescent, and the proprietor morose (we considered it a major triumph when we got him to crack a smile our last day there), but boy was the food good. The iddly were light and fluffy, the vadai room temperature but greaseless and flavorfull, and the dosa crisp and delicious. My favorite part, though, was the complex sambar, probably the best I've had so far. With coffee, iddly, dosa, and vadai came out to 35 Rs pp.

                      Breakfast was so good that we returned for lunch - the veg thali was more limited than most (which was kind of a blessing - I keep overeating at lunch and passing out in the afteroon) - but everything was really good. There was a corn coconut curry, a poriyal of a vegetable I couldn't identify, achar, curd, sambar, rice, and more of that excellent spicy rasam. This was 27 Rs pp.

                      Dinner was at Meenakshi Bhavan - we had the veettu dosa (basically a smaller dosa, otherwise not significantly different), onion uttapam (ok, but I preferred the plain one I had at the Madurai branch a few days later), milk periyada (a slightly sweet ball of black gram bean flour - this had an intriguing, mild cheeselike flavor), idiyappam with coconut milk (basically what I know as a hopper, but served with coconut milk, which I've never seen before). I was also had my first pomegranate milkshake - the juice is from white pomegranates and less tart than that of red - shaken with milk, it was frothy and refreshing. The chutneys and sambars were good, not great (to compare with another chain, I think Saravana Bhavan's were much better).