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A traditional Onam Sadhya can have up to 26 items per meal |
A traditional Onam Sadhya can have up to 26 items per meal |

Traditional South Indian Dishes You Need to Try

Picture of Arun Venkatraman
Updated: 5 December 2017

A huge part of what makes South India such a great destination to travel is its rich and varied cuisine. While South Indians are not afraid to experiment with their food, it is their old traditions and recipes that make South Indian cuisine such a unique experience. From the vegetarian varieties of Udipi and the festive fare of Tamil Nadu to the beef and seafood delicacies of Kerala and Konkan Karnataka, there’s something for every kind of food addict in South India! If you’re heading down south, here are some of the best and most popular traditional dishes that you cannot miss.

Pongal and Sweet Pongal

In Tamil Nadu, foods are often associated with particular festivals. One of the oldest and most important Tamil festivals is Pongal, which is celebrated by cooking the traditional dish of sweet Pongal together as a family. While this delicacy has great ritualistic significance, it is also one of Tamil Nadu’s most popular sweets. Traditionally made with jaggery, rice, lentils, and ghee, Pongal is a festival of sweetness!

Sarkarai_Pongal

Sakkarai Pongal or Sweet Pongal served in a traditional cup | ©BabithaJCosta/Wiki Commons

Koottukari

Served usually as part of the elaborate Onam Sadhya meal, the Koottukari is a traditional Keralite curry that is distinct in both flavor and preparation from North Indian curries. It’s made with a few vegetables (with one usually being banana), coconut and is usually served with rice.

Traditional Koottu Curry of Kerala

Traditional Koottu Curry of Kerala | ©NairDeepa/Wiki Commons

Kuzhi Paniyaaram

The Kuzhi Paniyaaram is one of the few dishes that is prepared across South India, and is also one of the simplest dishes of South Indian cuisine. Made from regular idli/dosa batter with added sweet or spice, the Kuzhi Paniyaaram is called Paddu in Kannada and Gunta Ponganalu in Telugu. In Tamil, the name Kuzhi is a reference to the unique hollow mold in which it is prepared. Whether consumed as a spicy starter or a sweet dish, the Paniyaaram is a must-try dish.

Kuzhi paniyaram

Kuzhi Paniyaaram gets its name from the hollow molds they are made with |© Mojosaurus/Flickr

Bisi Bele Bhaat

When it comes to flavor, Bisi Bele Bhaat is as unique as it gets. Its preparation is quite similar to Khichidi, in which rice and dal are cooked together with various vegetables. However, the real magic of Bisi Bele Bhaat is in its masala and the generous helpings of ghee. If you are in Karnataka, don’t miss Bisi Bele Bhaat.

Bisi_Bele_Bath_(Bisibelebath)

Bisi Bele Bhat is one of Karnataka’s most popular dishes| ©FoodAndRemedy/Wiki Commons

Vazhaipoo Meen Kuzhambu

The literal translation of this dish’s name is banana flower fish curry. However, the interesting part about this dish is that it’s completely vegetarian and doesn’t use any fish. Now, if you’re wondering why it’s called fish curry when it doesn’t have fish, the answer is that separated banana flower petals resemble anchovies, or ayira meen, which are a common salt water forage fish. The dish itself is known for its rather unique taste, and since the banana flower is not a commonly used vegetable elsewhere in the country, this dish is something of a specialty in the region.

Meen Kozhambu

Seafood is just as much a staple in coastal Tamil Nadu as idli and dosa are in the central regions of the state. Meen Kozhambu is basically regular old fish curry, but with a Tamil twist. It is made with tamarind paste and generous amounts of chili, giving it a tangy and spicy flavor. Meen Kozhambu is one of Tamil cuisine‘s most popular non-vegetarian dishes, and is a must-try for any seafood lover.

Hyderabadi Biryani

No-one does either tradition or food quite like Hyderabad does. While biryani is popular around India and the world, Hyderabadi Biryani is another thing altogether. Hyderabadi biryani recipes have been passed down since the Nawabs ruled these lands. This biryani is traditionally prepared with basmati rice, meat chunks, and spices, but is identified by the unique and discreet sweetness. The dish is Hyderabad’s most popular cultural export.

1280px-Hyderabadi_Chicken_Biryani

Hyderabadi Biryani is prepared using the long-grain Basmati rice variety | ©GarrettZeigler/Wiki Commons

Puttu

This easily-prepared Keralite dish is a staple in several parts of South India, and even some parts of Sri Lanka. Prepared with ground rice and coconut mixed with spices unique to each region, a large part of what makes Puttu unique is not just its taste or ingredients but its presentation. Serving a Puttu (usually just a loosely packed tower made of ground rice and coconut) on a plate without breaking it is something that is nearly impossible, but is an everyday feat for Keralites. Since the spices added differ across regions, eating a Puttu in Kerala could taste vastly different from one in Sri Lanka. Nonetheless, going hunting for the best Puttu in South India is a quest well worth undertaking!