It seems odd that south Indian food has made so little headway in Southern California, where northern tandoori cooking and Mogul curries predominate. True, a few restaurants serve dosais, idlis, vadais and such, but the broad range of southern cooking, with its exciting coconut-infused curries and brilliant vegetarian dishes, is largely unknown.
Aside from traveling in south India, or having south Indian friends, the only way to access this food is through cookbooks. The latest of the few that have trickled onto the market is "Healthy South Indian Cooking" by Alamelu Vairavan and Patricia Marquardt (Hippocrene Books, $24.95).
Vairavan was born in Chettinad, south of Chennai (Madras), and has included recipes from that little-known area in the book. She now lives in Milwaukee. Marquardt heads the classical languages program at Marquette University and became Vairavan's collaborator because the two are neighbors and friends. Adding to the book's informal charm are photographs of recipes and ingredients by Vairavan's husband.
The word "healthy" in the title is not used lightly. Vairavan is a health information management supervisor at a long-term care facility in Milwaukee and has taught cooking at hospitals there. Nutritional analyses accompany the recipes. Most are vegetarian. Just a handful involve meat, seafood or eggs.
The recipes will intrigue anyone fond of vegetables for they offer a new approach to seasoning. Glossaries explain spices, dals (legumes) and other essentials, as well as south Indian food terms such as poriyal, kootu and kulambu.
You can't generalize about south Indian "cuisine," because it comes from such a large area--the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh--and even within those states it varies from place to place and among different communities. What could be complex becomes relatively simple in Vairavan's approach, which concentrates on common vegetables and seasonings that are readily available, as long as you're willing to visit an Indian market.