The quest for real South Indian food

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      Newly arrived in Vancouver, the search began. I had come from Toronto for a weekend to look for an apartment, having just been hired as the host of the afternoon drive-home show On the Coast, on CBC Radio One. But all I really wanted to find was a good dosa.

      It had to be paper-thin and plain. No potato masala in the middle for me—just fresh coconut chutney and sambar (lentil-vegetable curry) on the side. I'm like a junkie in need of a South Indian fix, whether it's dosas, idlis (steamed lentil-and-rice cakes), dhai vadai (lentil doughnuts soaked in homemade yogurt with butter, chili, mustard seeds, and crispy curry leaves), or a good, steaming fish curry. I thought I could simply show up at any of the Lower Mainland's many Indian restaurants and leave satisfied.

      Not so. The Indo-Canadian community here is predominantly Punjabi, so it's easy to get butter chicken, tandoori, and naan. All are wonderful, but they're not South Indian. And so began my personal quest to find the best dosa; indeed, the best South Indian food.

      The dosas I've found are the real deal. They are instant reminders of time spent in Kerala as a child. I remember taking the train, and at each stop hawkers would thrust their offerings through the window, dosas wrapped in newspaper with chutney layered in the centre.

      The fish curries take me back to my cousin's home in Calicut. Dinner was served on the floor, as is the custom. We'd sit, bent over the banana leaf that was our plate, mixing rice with tender chunks of fresh fish caught that morning, our hands our only utensil.

      Rajakumar Joseph Muttavanchery has captured those authentic flavours at Vancouver's House of Dosas (1391 Kingsway, 604-875-1283). His family hails from Kerala, and he came to Canada from Chennai six years ago. For the past year, he's been running the restaurant with his wife and brothers.

      "My motto is the first time [you come to the restaurant] you are a stranger”¦but when you walk out, you walk out as family," Muttavanchery says. His South Indian home cooking comes from the heart. From dosas that are an amazing 60 centimetres long to uttapams (a thick, spongy dosa) to prawn and fish curries, they serve it all. They even have chicken biryani—more a South Asian delicacy than strictly South Indian—but only on Mondays, because it's very labour-intensive.

      "You go to any restaurant and you can get biryani, right? The way they make it, it's not biryani, it's a fake biryani—it's chicken curry and rice, mixed," says Muttavanchery. "We don't do like this. First we make the sauce, the chicken, then the rice, then slowly we layer it all, and then slowly we cook it in dum—steam—so heat comes from all sides, evenly, so the spice goes into every single grain of rice."

      House of Dosas was jammed the last Monday I visited. As soon as one plate of biryani made its way out of the kitchen, hands started going up around the restaurant. People knew a good thing when they saw it: tender chicken, perfectly formed basmati rice, beautiful in fragrance and taste.

      Such beauty is also found at Chutney Villa (147 East Broadway, 604-872-2228). Chindi Varadarajulu was raised the "South Indian way" in Singapore. She arrived in Vancouver in 1996, when it wasn't so easy to find South Indian ingredients. "Ten years ago I couldn't even get curry leaves," she says. "But after a few years, with the influx of Sri Lankan Tamils, whose cuisine is really close to South Indian food, they started bringing it [these spices] in."

      Spices needed for South Indian cooking differ greatly from those for northern Punjabi flavours. The complex range includes star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, and mustard seeds, using whole spices as well as ground. "There's just more of everything," Varadarajulu explains. "More ginger, more garlic, more tomato, more tamarind”¦it's spicier, hotter, and lighter."

      Sample the flavours with Chutney Villa's uppma (dry-roasted semolina), masala dosa, idli sambar, or lamb poriyal (dry curry). Your best bet is to order a thali, which has six or seven vegetable and meat dishes with rice. In India you would eat off a banana leaf; here it's stainless steel.

      "Ten years ago, people didn't know what a dosa is," Varadarajulu says. "Now people come in and they know it, they know idlis, they know rasam [a peppery tamarind-and-tomato-based soup]."

      These days, you can find dosas at many Lower Mainland restaurants, so hold out for authentic ones. A dosa done right is thin, crispy, and golden brown. It's light in taste and touch. For the real thing, I also suggest Quilon (6030 No. 3 Road, Richmond, 604-303-0011) and Dosa House (9253 120th Street, Delta, 604-588-3672).

      Or make them yourself using Gits brand dosa mix, found at the Punjabi Market. After mixing the batter, add a tablespoon of rice flour (a tip from my father). Ladle it as you would a crepe onto a hot griddle or dosa pan, which you can also buy at the Punjabi Market. Enjoy with coconut chutney.

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