Rice is the staple food in South India – while in many parts of the North it’s wheat. South Indian food is also essentially vegetarian. I would love to show a menu from a South Indian restaurant to every person who has ever assaulted me with: “You're vegetarian?! What do you eat?!”, as if the only options available are carrot sticks or iceberg lettuce. I would gleefully show them all the delicious possibilities a herbivore has in South India. The selection would make their heads spin. Of course, rice dominates the menu: there’s tomato rice, lemon rice, curd rice, coconut rice as well as a variety of bhaths which are also rice-based: tomato bhath, bisebele bhath, vangi bhath… to name a few. Then there’s the typical South Indian snacks like idli, dosa, uttapam and vada which are made with a mixture of ground rice and lentils which is made into a batter and then fermented. These delicacies are usually only served at breakfast and in the late afternoons and evenings.
Lunch is the most important meal in South India and not surprisingly most of it consists of a lot of rich. This is eaten with a variety of vegetable dishes and condiments served in little bowls placed in a large tray-like dish or on a banana leaf. This assortment of dishes eaten together is often called thali in North India after the dish it’s served on. But ask for a thali in South India and all you’ll get is a blank look or maybe a stainless steel dish. A thali meal translated in South Indian food logic is simply ‘meals’. Signs outside restaurants all over South India tell you ‘Meals Ready’ (see pic above). One hungry lunchtime in Rameswaram when I was just dying for a dosa, a waiter apologetically informed me: “We only have meals.”
Though ‘meals’ is often the only thing on the menu at lunchtime, there are different kinds of ‘meals’. You can have ‘unlimited meals’, ‘limited meals’, or ‘mini meals’ depending on your hunger level. ‘Unlimited’ is the super-size version: a waiter will come by your table regularly with a large pot of rice and keep refilling your dish until you beg him to stop. A limited meal means a limited portion of rice for a moderate hunger level. A mini-meal is a modest collection of different rice and vegetable dishes without the mega portion of rice.
Perhaps following the same logic as ‘meals’, South Indian restaurants are called ‘hotels’ (though there are no beds), and dessert is actually considered an appetizer eaten at the beginning of the meal!