When most people think of Indian food, they think of curry. While curry is undoubtedly an important component of many Indian meals, it fails to represent the varied, diverse cuisine that is Indian food.

Let’s begin with a quick history lesson about the country of India. A massive region, both by population and land mass, India was slowly occupied over more than 20,000 years by various isolated tribes emigrating from Africa. Fast forward 80,000 years, this unparalleled genetic diversity is representative of more than 780 languages spread out over 28 states and 9 union territories, each with a unique culture. The food is as diverse as the dialect and is further influenced by geography and socioeconomic status.

The Indian foods most commonly known in the US are dishes distinctive of the Punjab region in northern India. These include rich, buttery foods like samosas, butter chicken, naan, and mango lassi. Dishes commonly eaten in southern India, on the other hand, are lighter and generally steamed or fried with minimal amounts of oil, making this regional cuisine one of the healthiest in the country.

That’s not to indicate a lack of flavor; most of the world’s spices are produced in this region and are, therefore, generously used in all meals. In fact, some of the spiciest food in India is found in Andhra Pradesh, the largest producer of red and green chilies

Since southern India makes up a significant portion of the Indian peninsula, the abundance of coastal region has a significant impact on their local culture. The fishing industry employs 14 million people, so seafood dishes are commonly found here. The dishes I’ll be primarily talking about, however, refer to a subset of food known as “tiffins” which are primarily vegan.

1. Idli

Soft, fluffy, and a popular breakfast item, idlis are made from a fermented lentil and rice batter that is steamed in circular molds. It is generally served with sambar (spicy lentil soup) and mint or coconut chutney (savory condiment), though young children have been known to enjoy it with some granulated sugar sprinkled on top. This is a great dish to make if you’re sick or have a sensitive stomach.

2. Dosa

A dosa is a paper thin, savory crepe also made from a fermented rice and lentil batter—my favorite dish on this list. Eaten fresh off the griddle, this dish is crispy, tangy, and highly customizable. The most popular type of dosa is a Masala dosa, which involves stuffing the crepe with a spicy potato filling. However, I enjoy many variations like kara dosa, a freshly fried dosa with a garlic chili paste spread. Similar to idlis, dosas are also usually served with sambar and chutney.

3. Vada

Vadas are best described as savory donuts. Best eaten hot and crispy, this thick batter is prepared from ground lentils, onion, curry leaves, cumin seeds, and whole black peppercorns. One great way to serve vada is to make dahi vada which simply involves soaking the freshly fried donuts in slightly watered down yogurt. After a few hours, you have a healthy, high protein, filling snack that lasts multiple days in the fridge. 

4. Biryani

Biryani is a mixed rice dish that can be found all across the Indian subcontinent. It makes this list because of a very special type of biryani, known as Hyderabadi Dum Biryani, which originates from Hyderabad—the second largest city in Southern India. Depending on the variation, this dish can range from vegetarian to heavily meat based.

This variation is special because of its method of cooking, Dum pukht. This method involves sealing layers of par cooked rice, yogurt, marinated meats and vegetables, and spices in a clay pot and cooking over a low flame for many hours. By gently releasing flavor over a long cooking period in a sealed container, this dish has a complexity of flavors and aromas that can’t be found anywhere else.

5. Payasam

India is home to thousands of sweets, from every region in the country. Payasam is a very popular milk-based pudding seen often during festivals. Made from vermicelli noodles toasted in ghee, milk, cardamom, sugar, and usually garnished with toasted raisins and cashews, this is a quick dish that can come together in 20 minutes in your own kitchen. Since it is milk based, this dish is traditionally not vegan, but substituting almond milk is a delicious variation.

There are of course hundreds of delicious dishes that come from southern India that didn’t make this list. These are just what I consider to be dishes that everyone needs to try. I know that south Indian food is often hard to find or make, so here are a few places in Berkeley that have a few or all of these items: Namaste Madras Cuisine, Udupi Palace, and a special mention, dosa by DOSA in Oakland. Give one of these restaurants a try and I'm sure you will be going back for more.