Matt and I discovered the goodness of the South Indian breakfast. It all started in Bangalore. (Which isn’t actually in Kerala.) We arrived early in the morning and, much to our chagrin, every restaurant we came across was closed until 9 or 10am. It was 7:30. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait too much longer to eat because while the next hotel we inquired at didn’t have a vacancy, at least it had a restaurant that was open for business. We set our bags down on the floor and sat down to order.
Rule #1: No menus
There was no menu, so we asked our barefoot waiter what the restaurant was serving for breakfast. The good places, the ones where there are just locals, don’t have menus. Or if they do, it’s a sign posted on the wall in loopy script that is indecipherable to our western eyes. This makes it necessary to ask what’s for breakfast. The waiter will list off a few options, or maybe just one if it’s a small restaurant. “Dosas, idly, uppom” our waiter said. We each ordered a masala dosa—a big, crepe-like pancake (a little crispier) rolled around warm potatoes and onions with a small bowls of masala and coconut chutney on the side. The masala is not a thick sauce, though it does have small chunks of tomatoes and onion in it. I like to open up the dosa and pour the sauce over the potatoes. The masala seeps into the potatoes and dosa, making it more pliable and easier to eat.
Rule #2: Eat with your hand
We were sitting in the upstairs AC section of a restaurant when I learned how to really eat with my hands. Looking through the tableside window into the downstairs section of the restaurant, I observed locals pouring saucy curries and veggies over platefuls of rice, then eating with their right hand. So how does one eat rice and curry without getting sauce all over your hand? The secret is: you don’t. Of course it gets messy. Meal time isn’t for daintily picking up a few grains of rice with the sauce strategically placed away from your finger tips, nor is it a time to artfully wrap a small piece of chapatti around a chunk of potato. Meal time is more about just going for it. The sauce and your fingers will meet. There’s no need to go for a napkin in between bites because the next will just coat your skin with curry all over again. (Just be sure to wash your hands before and after you eat—that’s what the wash basin in the corner of every restaurant is for.) Once I really learned how to eat without a utensil, it made eating those masala dosas easier and more enjoyable.
Rule #3: Know your breads
It is generally a good thing to know what types of food are offered where you will be traveling. This knowledge serves as a starting framework for a new cuisine, and makes ordering so much easier. In India, and many other places I’m sure, I’ve found it difficult to get a clear idea of what new dishes are from the waiter’s description. “ Saucy, with Indian spices,” is the usual response I get when inquiring about a dish. So anyways, if you should happen to go to one of those hole-in-the-wall, no-menu type places the next time you are in Kerala (soon, right?), it is a good thing to know your breads.
Dosa—made from chickpea flour. This one is a masala dosa.
Porota—our favorite discovery. This bread has several flaky layers but is slightly chewy in texture and always delicious.
Idly—made from fermented rice (I think…). These ones are part of a packaged meal we bought on the train.
If you’re like us, you may not be able to catch all the other options—masala, channa, veg curry, etc. but at least you can say: “Dosa” or “Porota” with confidence, and the waiter will just bring an accompanying dish to go with the bread. And in the restaurants where they only make one dish each day, the bread is the only choice you’ll have to make. That, and black tea, or chai?
Rule #4: Follow the locals
For a good breakfast, or any meal for that matter, it is good to look for the crowds. Where are all the other people eating? A busy restaurant generally means two things: the food is tasty, and (hopefully) the food should be fresher because its being eaten before it has time to go bad. The other important thing to look for is: where are all the Indians eating? Matt and I asked ourselves this question one day in Kovalam as we were sitting at a restaurant along the beach front. There were a few other people in the restaurant, but like the other places we’d passed along the way, none of the patrons were Indians. But we had seen dozens of Indian tourists on the beach. So where did they all eat? Finally we discovered the location of all the good food, up a hill by the local bus stand. We were relieved to have solved the mystery of where the Indians ate, now we could feast on our beloved porotas again (they weren’t even offered at the places we’d been eating). In addition to the availability of the porota, a local joint (often called “hotel” rather than restaurant) generally means there will be cheap food—at least cheaper than the tourist-oriented restaurants that line the main strip of each of the beaches we visited. It goes without saying that cheap is a good thing when you’re on a budget, but compared to the mid-range* restaurants frequented almost exclusively by foreign tourists, we liked the taste of the food at the cheaper* ones better (*no expensive restaurants were included in this study). Case in point: on our last day in Kerala before heading to the airport, Matt and I went to one of the hotel up the hill for a quick breakfast. As we crested the top of the hill the road we were walking on merged with another. We came upon a group of twenty local blokes sporting their button-up dress shirts and longhis. Wondering where they we headed, we quickened our pace as we realized they were headed the same place as us: where the locals eat.