Nor me until we arrived in South India where rice is king but not always in traditional plain rice format. Far from it: that would be boring.
Eating here is an experience and a bit of an adventure especially in the “udupi” canteens which are effectively no nonsense fast food places serving simple but tasty fare.
Sometimes there is a menu (even one in English) but that seems to be largely irrelevant since normally not everything on the printed menu is available anyway or at all times of the day. What is more common is when you sit down, a waiter proceeds to list verbally (and very quickly) the available dishes and expects you to order on the spot. Alternatively at lunch time you may be asked if you want the “meal” or “thali” which is a selection of curries etc either served on a banana leaf or on a stainless steel tray either with little pots or compartments. If offered that, you have to be brave to try and order something else: often that’s the only option and going off-piste may not be possible and/or feels like it would be deeply frowned upon.
Thali/Meal: once finished you fold your banana leaf over to indicate “no more”
Trying to seek clarity of what some of the items are sounds like a good idea in practice but some of the explanations are a little circular, for example when we we pointed to a menu and asked what exactly a tomato ootthappam and an onion ootthappam were, the reply came back it was an ootthappam with tomato or onion as appropriate, thus missing the underlying issue of what on earth an ootthappam was. But the best way to find out is to order and so order we do and then we try and fathom out what on earth we are eating!
So it turns out that an “idlli” is a spongy, round steamed rice cake served with coconut chutney or sambar (a lentil curry but far more gravy-like than dall), an “iddyyapam” is a more stringy steamed rice noodle cake (also I think it’s the same as the “hopper” in Sri Lanka that we’ve come across before) and an “ootthappam” (or “uttapam”) is a thicker rice pancake (which looks a bit like a pizza and then either has a topping on it or the additional ingredients are mixed into it before cooking). To be honest, we are not so keen on iddlis (they are a bit tasteless) although they seem to pop up everywhere – including in breakfast buffets.
(1) Iddli seller; (2) Iddyyapam and (3) Ootthappam
Our favourite are “dosas” which are rice batter pancakes which usually come with sambar again and also raita (yoghurt with onion or cucumber). These can be plain of filled, e.g. a masala dosa is filled with spiced potato. Delicious.
(1) Dosa; (2) Vegetable puffs
Once you’ve managed to order, the next challenge is eating because traditionally everyone eats with their right hand only without cutlery and the “plates” quite often are just banana leaves. However, as some of the curries come with serving spoons, I’ll admit that we’ve taken to cheating and generally have been using these spoons to eat which seems to be just about accepted although we do get a few odd looks in the process.
As you near finishing your meal, you’re asked if you’ve finished and within 5 seconds maximum of confirming that you don’t want to order anything more (or have any refills), the bill arrives with the expectation that you settle up on the spot even if you haven’t actually finished eating. The waiter literally hovers until payment is handed over and so it seems better just to do it and then finish up afterwards, at which point there seems no actual pressure to vacate the premises. That is of course until we went to a very busy place in Madurai and had to pay as we sat down and then had to leave as soon as we had finished: it was that popular!
In addition, the great street food is widely available – we’ve eaten our fill of samosas and various other pattie-like snacks including pakoras (vegetable fritters) and bhajis, some of which are chick pea based while others comprise of …. actually to be honest I have no idea. It’s fair to say some are better than others – also there can be a few surprise chillis lurking inside them too just to add a little element of surprise … but most are pretty tasty. There’s also lots of vegetable “puff pastry” treats available: move over ‘Delice de France’ at Waterloo station (one of my guilty pleasures especially after a couple of beers).
Have no fears, we are dining like Kings. No dieting going on here!