South Indian Cuisine
In terms of geographical locations and number of states, South India is one of the smaller regions of the country with just four states falling under its jurisdiction. However, despite the smaller numbers, it occupies about 19.3% of the overall surface area of the country and South Indian Cuisine is the second-most popular cuisine in the country. South Indian food is all about contradictions - you can find everything from spicy beef fry to sober Avial within a few miles of each other.
Although a large part of Southern India is dominated by vegetarian cuisine, there is enough variety in meat-based items to represent an entire country. In fact, the proximity to the sea-shore as well as a thriving spice-production industry has led to the creation of some of the most exciting meat- and fish-based dishes the world has ever seen. Dishes like Hyderabadi Biryani and Curry Meen Pollichathu are considered to be perennial favourites right alongside vegetarian dishes like Pongal and Sambar.
Influences on South Indian Cuisine
People in the southern states of India, also known as Dravidians, are one of the oldest cultures known to mankind. As one of the earliest human settlements on the planet, their influences came from local produce. The interesting thing about South Indian Cuisine is that the region was never really under the rule of the invaders from the north. The largest empires in India stayed in the northern and central parts of the country, rarely making the long journey down south. As a result, remnants of Mughlai cuisine can be seen in parts of South India, especially until Andhra Pradesh, which makes dishes like Biryani quite "North Indian".
However, the farther south you go, the more you see food that is quite distinct from most other parts of the country, especially when it comes to rice pancakes or Dosa and rice dumplings or Idli. Rice is consumed almost all across India but it is only in the southern part of the country that rice has been consumed in so many ground- or paste-forms along with the traditional steam-cooked version.
Rice tends to be a major part of the meal as compared to most other parts of India where Indian breads like Chapatti or Parantha (or various forms of each) are more common. This has also meant that most dishes in South Indian Cuisine are gravy-based, but the gravies are thinner, more water-based, as compared to the cream-based North Indian variety. The food, in general, is lighter, which is helpful considering the higher day-temperatures of the region as compared to the north. As a result, a lot of South Indian Cuisine has to do with the local environment and produce, as well as the way people have adapted to life in those parts of the India.
The Popular Side of South Indian Cuisine
There are a few elements that form the essence of most South Indian Cuisine and the use of certain spices, coconut and rice are some of those elements. The state of Andhra Pradesh is like the border between North and South Indian Cuisine, which means that a lot of elements overlap. The use of red chillies is prominent as Andhra Pradesh is the country's largest producer of red chillies. Most dishes from this state tend to be extremely hot and spicy, while meat is also a common part of the cuisine in this region.
As you head down further, you come across the state of Karnataka which has very little variation on the meat-front, but the moment you start heading further down to the coastal states, sea food makes its way back into the cuisine. In Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the four southern-most states of India, the basic vegetarian fares are quite similar in terms of their names - what varies is the kind of vegetables that go into it. For example, Sambar is a lentil-based soup of sorts that has chunks of vegetables in it - almost like a spicy-lentil stew. However, in parts of Karnataka, there is a hint of sweetness to this dish, while parts of Tamil Nadu might make it tangy and some parts of Kerala might make it extremely hot and spicy.
Every village, in fact, has its own distinct style and you could travel the length and breadth of each of these states without really tasting the same kind of Sambar twice! Andhra Pradesh, too, has its own form of Sambar and the predominant taste is - you guessed it - red chillies!
In general, people from around the world prefer North Indian food mainly because South Indian food hasn't been exported as much as the food from the north. However, the cooking techniques and sober spice-content of South Indian Cuisine is closer to what people are generally accustomed to in Europe, the Americas and Australia, which is quickly making this form of cooking more popular.
Whatever your taste in Indian food might have been, the one thing you cannot ignore is the variety and brilliance of vegetarian and non-vegetarian South Indian Cuisine.