Meals Ready

Typical south Indian breakfasts and lunches are served on a banana leaf – placed either directly on the table or on a large round stainless steel plate.

For breakfast we can choose one or more of several standard menu offerings: masala dosa is a large thin, crispy crepe-like pancacke made from rice and lentil flour and filled with a spicy mixture of potato and onion; pongal is a porriage-like concoction made from rice boiled in milk and flavored with cashew nuts, curry leaves, peppers and ghee (clarified butter); idli is steamed bread made of a batter of special rice and lentil flours, fermented overnight like sour dough, and served with sambar, a spicy lentil and vegetable soup for dipping; vada is bread made from lentil flour and masala spices, deep fried in either a doughnut or doughnut hole shape; poori is puffy, deep fried circle-shaped bread, like American Indian fry bread but unsweatened; paratha is fried bread made from dough rich in ghee, may include egg or potato.

Filter coffee is strong, dark, sweet and mixed with frothy boiling hot milk. Both coffee and tea are generally served sweet, but I always request 'no sugar'. Coffee is served in a small, stainless cup set inside a small stainless bowl. The drill is to pour the coffee back and forth between the two vessels until cool enough to drink. Upscale restaurants serve milk coffee in a regular cup and saucer. It is usually Nes (short for Nescafe coffee powder), which costs more than the delicious filter coffee.

A thali meal is a fast food lunch, generally vegetarian, the south Indian equivalent of the American burger and fries. Restaurants specializing in lunch thali advertise 'Meals Ready'. First a waiter places a banana leaf in front of each diner. Then another waiter arrives carrying a bucket-like vessel with three compartments containing various masala-seasoned vegetable stews and scoops a portion from each onto the banana leaf. Next another server ladles out various Indian pickle condiments. Rice comes next. A waiter carrying a large pot of steamed rice scoops out a giant heap onto the center of the banana leaf. Another waiter follows close behind ladeling dhal, a thin, spicy lentil soup, onto the rice. Thali lunch may also include small stainless bowls of yogurt and a sweet, pudding-like dessert.

All the locals, no matter what age, gender, or social class, dig in with gusto using only the right hand. I tried eating with my hand but after a couple of awkward meals gave up and used fork and spoon.

Everywhere, from upscale restaurants to open-front food stalls to push-cart street vendors, fresh fruit juice is available: orange, sweet lime, pineapple, grape, apple and sugarcane. Fresh lime juice with soda and sugar is a favorite all over south India. It's a favorite of mine too, but unsweetened so I can add just a touch.

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