Catherine Fellows ﬂies to Southern India for an authentic taste of curry.
Madras is full of restaurants and tea stalls, but not one of them serves Curry Madras. In fact, the only places which serve anything like the northern, Punjabi food— the vindaloos, kormas and dopiazas we find on menus here — are the few upmarket ‘non-veg’ restaurants with darkened windows and air conditioning, which cater for the city’s prosperous businessmen, their families, and their desire for Westernised eating. Here the waiters are full-grown, in uniform and over-attentive - quite unlike the skinny barefoot boys in baggy shorts in the traditional refectory-type eating houses who dash from one formica table to the next scooping dirty metal dishes and discarded banana leaves into the washing-up
bowls propped against their hips. The whole ethos is different in these functional, open-to-the-street dining rooms. The menu is chalked up on a board and consists of a bewildering number of variations on
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a theme of idli and dosa. Most of the diners are men, they sit down; their orders arrive in minutes — piles of little rice cakes or a crisp brown dosa pancake rolled into a cylinder a foot long or folded into a triangle; the boys come round with little pots of coconut Chutneys and ladle out soupy sambars from metal buckets; these are mopped up dextrously with the finger tips of the right hand, shovelled in, and in a flash the diners are out.
I was a complete curiosity, sitting for hours, questioning everything, and then asking to be taken to the kitchen. The chefs are fascinating to watch, justiﬁably proud of their art as they conjure one perfect batch of pure white idlies after another from the gloom of a room thick with smoke from the solid fuel fires. Both idlies and dosas are made from a batter of fermented ground rice and urad dhal (a form of lentil). The idlies are cooked in a special steamer with little rounded dishes something like an egg poacher. With a couple of
Mysore fruit and vegetable market. The ma
lortty of southern Indians are vegetarian
sweeps of an expert spoon, the dosa batter is spread into a paper-thin, perfect circle, left to brown for seconds and then folded into something spectacular - one chef amused himself and everyone else in the restaurant by serving me a huge upstanding cone shape.
A south Indian classic is the masala dosa — dosa folded around a dollop of very hot potato and onion spiked with green chillies. Uttapam is another popular dish made from a similar batter, but this time spread thickly on the tawa or girdle; a handful of chopped onion or a mixture of grated coconut, chillies and tomatoes sprinkled on as it cooks.
Southern ‘curries‘ — runny sambars and rasams — are very much condiments, eaten in small quantities mixed into rice or rice-based staples, and as such are often very hot and intensely flavoured, many of them not much more than onion, a lot of fresh chilli, spices and grated coconut - coconuts
55 The List 10- 23 April 1992
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