Although regional categorizations are rarely helpful, it is safe to say that food in India tastes differently from one place to another, and that’s particularly true when comparing food from the north and south.
We call southern Indian cuisine sub-regional specialties from Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Telangana, amongst others, the southern states in Peninsular India. And although the food here is undoubtedly vibrant, it is not nearly as well represented in international markets as its northern counterpart. Why are Southern Indian flavors not well represented in America? Here are our thoughts.
The Difference Between Northern and Southern Indian Cuisines
There is no easy way of listing the differences between two immense regions, each with sub-regional cuisines. However, some distinctions are worth mentioning, and they might be behind the difference in representation between them in the international market.
Wheat is Northern India’s staple grain, as the grain thrives in lower temperatures and higher altitudes. Prevalent wheat means that bread is more common. On the other hand, Southern India relies on rice as a staple, complemented by a rich plant-based protein source: lentils.
Tropical ingredients, such as curry leaves, coconut, tomatoes, tamarind and mangoes, are common in Southern India. At the same time, Northern India relies more on creams and butter, along with higher meat consumption. Seafood is also more prevalent in the South.
However, northern and southern Indian cuisines are not all that different. Both rely on assorted spices to give the food its personality. However, north Indian food is often seasoned with mild garam masala, contrasting with the spicy sambar powder that offers a fiery personality to southern meals.
Despite these differences, Indian food has a national quality that binds it. So, why don’t you see as much Southern food in Indian restaurants in America?
The First Indian Restaurants in the West
The first Indian restaurants in the UK were established by northern Indians, Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants, people from regions that share cuisines. Of course, they had no difficulty finding wheat, Northern India’s staple. Rice, however, was scarcer.
The British palate wasn’t accustomed to spices, so the first representations of Indian food in the West were mild. Of course, southern India’s spicier dishes had no place at the British table.
Something similar occurred in the United States. The first South Asian immigrants arrived in America in the early 1900s, and experts believe the first formal Indian restaurant opened its doors in New York City in 1918. However, the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 stopped South Asian Immigration. After that, Indian flavors arrived in the USA from Europe, and these renditions had long lost authenticity.
Chicken tikka masala, butter chicken, tandoori chicken, tikka and rogan josh became synonyms with Indian food in America, even if they’re primarily associated with Northern Indian cooking.
Conquering America One Dosa at a Time
In 2022, Chef Vijay Kumar, head of Semma, in New York City, gained the only Michelin Star for Indian restaurants in America. It’s take on Indian cuisine is heavily inspired by southern flavors. The South Indian Chef recently said in an interview for Vogue that he cooks what his family cooked at home, in the city of Madurai,Tamil Nadu. The chef says that “the entire menu is reflective of my childhood.”
Southern Indian flavors are still underrepresented, but people are getting to know them, and thanks to a new generation of Indian chefs, they are falling in love with their vibrancy.