"Dakshin: Vegetarian Cuisine from South India," Chandra Padmanabhan

Pros: Easy; healthy; unusual flavors
Cons: Hard-to-find ingredients; very unusual flavors
Rating: 3 out of 5

First posted 8/29/2000

Right now we keep our healthiest cookbooks on our easiest-to-reach shelves. It makes it more likely that we’ll actually use them. Dakshin, a South Indian vegetarian cookbook, stays right on this shelf. Don’t get me wrong – we aren’t vegetarian. But vegetarian dishes are often healthy, and that’s why we got this cookbook.

This cookbook is perhaps more authentically Indian than many I’ve seen. That is to say, it doesn’t “dumb down” the recipes for an American audience. As a result, even we found that some of these recipes were a bit on the spicy side, or had flavors that seemed odd to an American palate. You’ll also want to live near an Indian food and spice store, or at least be able to order from one on-line; there are some ingredients in here you’ll have trouble finding. Luckily, some of them can simply be omitted if necessary or substituted for and the food will still taste quite good.

Many of the recipes clearly evidence a style of cuisine that’s very foreign to most Americans. A dish might just be a thin but very flavorful sauce that’s served over rice. Dishes tend to be fairly small, so you’ll want several or you’ll want to multiply them. This also isn’t the Indian cuisine I’ve found in most Indian restaurants, so it might surprise you if that’s what you’re expecting.

I wouldn’t recommend this as your introduction to foreign cooking. I also wouldn’t recommend it to people who prefer bland food, or have trouble mucking with recipes when necessary. But if you don’t fall into any of these categories, it’s quite a good book.

South Indian Cuisine

The introduction gives a wonderful look at South Indian cuisine. For instance, it is very unusual for those in South India to eat with cutlery. You usually eat with your right hand, picking up your glass of water with your left. Rice appears everywhere. Lentils (called dals) may also be found in most recipes.

You’ll learn how the typical courses are served and eaten. You’ll find out about snacks (tiffins), desserts, chutneys, and seasonings. It’s a short passage, yet rich.

The Recipes

The recipes are so unusual to an American palate that at first you may be uncertain what to do with this book. There’s Pepper Sambar, a delicious and very unusual thin sauce that goes over rice. There’s Sweet Pepper Poriyal (poriyals are also known as dry curries), or Yam Poriyal. The Mixed Vegetable Curd Salad is quite delicious, as is the Mango Curd Salad. Tamarind Rice, Mango Rice, and Tomato Rice provide marvelous flavorful accompaniment. The Yam Chips make a fabulous sweet-salty snack. Desserts range from Almond Payasam to Creamy Milk Pudding to Sesame Toffee.

These flavors are definitely not for everyone and I would have liked to have seen a bit more explanation of what the various sorts of recipes were and how they were meant to be eaten. But if you like unusual, strong, healthy flavors, give Dakshin a try; we’ve certainly enjoyed it.

Once again I find it difficult to rate a book. While for us it rated a 4, I feel I should give it a 3 overall. While the food is very good, this book won’t be widely useful to many people. A little more effort should have been put in to suggest alternatives for hard-to-find ingredients, or at least to explain how various dishes are meant to be eaten. While a glossary of ingredients is provided, it does little beyond explaining the very basics of what an ingredient is.

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