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Song of the South : Vegetarian Meals of Southern India Make Meat Moot

November 02, 1995|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If I were a vegetarian, I'd move to South India. Cooks there do such amazing things with lentils, rice and vegetables that meat seems dull and clod-like in comparison. After a few days in the South, I lose all taste for it.

Devout Hindus, who avoid meat for religious reasons, may incorporate worship into their meals, during religious festivals, if not on a daily basis. Heavenly indeed was the lunch I shared in Madras with a family that offered food first to their deity. Seated on the floor, we ate dish after imaginative dish ladled onto banana leaves instead of plates.

The modest hotel where I stayed served only vegetarian food, and its restaurant was so popular that you had to arrive ahead of peak dining hours to get a seat. Another hotel had not one, but two vegetarian restaurants. And a five-star hotel that had to please meat-loving foreigners devoted one dining room to South Indian food. The vegetarian cooking there was exquisite.

In Los Angeles, it is a different story. North Indian grilled meats and sumptuous Moghul curries predominate. They're wonderful too, but I do miss the spicy lentil sambars , fresh coconut chutneys, the intriguing vegetable combinations, rice concoctions and many other dishes that are as easy to get in South India as hamburgers and doughnuts are here.

The occasional restaurant serves some of this food, but it's not likely that your neighborhood Indian cafe offers rasam, kosumbari , kuttu , avial , moru kolumbu, pachadi , payasam and other dishes from the South.

The most likely place to find these vegetarian dishes is in an Indian home, like that of Nirmala Kripanarayanan in Brentwood. Born in Madras, Kripanarayanan makes terrific dosas , the thin rice and lentil crepes that one eats with coconut chutney and sambar , which is a lentil "sauce." She does a great Hyderabadi eggplant curry and turns out delicious avial , a coconut-seasoned vegetable and plantain dish from Kerala, which borders Tamil Nadu state, where Madras is located.

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No one outside Kripanarayanan's circle would have tasted this food if her family had not decided to enter the restaurant business. Last year, Kripanarayanan, her husband Koladi and son Raj took over India's Tandoori in West Los Angeles. As franchisees--there are four India's Tandoori restaurants in the Los Angeles area--they were obliged to serve a set menu of north Indian food, including tandoor-grilled meats. But they could also introduce their own dishes.

Kripanarayanan took the opportunity to step into the kitchen herself. It wasn't easy, but for six months she combined restaurant cooking with a banking job. At that time, she cooked southern Indian dishes for weekend dinners only. Now one or two are incorporated into the daily lunch buffet; a chef has been trained to make them. They include avial , green beans thoran , dal (lentils), dosas with sambar and chutney, moru kolumbu (a potato curry made with coconut milk), uppuma (a farina dish that includes chiles, vegetables and nuts) and the eggplant curry from Hyderabad.

The dishes are popular with the restaurant's customers. One reason: They're light. "We don't use so much oil," Kripanarayanan says. "Most of the time the food is steamed." A little grated coconut or coconut milk may add richness instead of oil.

Coconut in some form appears in many southern dishes because the coconut palm grows profusely in the region. A seasoning unique to the South is the curry leaf. Its flavor is strong, somewhat peppery, but nothing like curry powder, despite the name. Once impossible to obtain here, fresh curry leaves are now stocked by most Indian groceries, and some even sell the plants.

Dried chiles and mustard seeds top off many dishes, but the South's reputation for violently hot food is exaggerated, says Kripanarayanan. Still, she tones seasoning down for customers not accustomed to hot chiles.

Indian dishes often require a full cupboard of ingredients and long cooking times--but not always. Kripanarayanan's beans thoran cooks in only five to seven minutes because the beans are cut in fine slices. Avial is more complex because the dish combines several vegetables and a variety of seasonings, but the rich taste makes the effort worthwhile.

AVIAL

1 tablespoon oil

1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

2 onions, sliced

4 jalapeno chiles, chopped fine

2 stalks curry leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric

4 small whole dry red chiles

1/2 teaspoon ground red chile

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1 carrot, cut into thin sticks

6 green beans, cut crosswise in thin slices

2 baking potatoes, peeled and cut into thin sticks

2 green bell peppers, cut into thin sticks

1/2 head cauliflower, cut into small pieces

1/2 green plantain, cut into thin sticks

Salt

1 cup plain yogurt

1/2 coconut, grated

2 pinches asafetida

Chopped cilantro

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