• guide to south indian food

Guide to South Indian Food | Fresher & Healthier

I really like South Indian food… having said that, a month of it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, was pushing it a bit.

Things I noted in comparison with North Indian:

  • In the South it was noticeably more vegetarian than with meat.
  • The veg wasn’t cooked down so much. Instead of mashed up curry sides, we would have steamed veg occasionally or a fresher veg side.
  • Less cream and butter. I always thought North Indian food wasn’t so healthy with all the cream and butter, but especially because the veg curries were cooked down so much a lot of nutrients are lost. In the South, I found the curries healthier and actually I lost weight and felt more fit eating South Indian food (minus the greasy breakfasts).

guide to south indian food healthy ayurvedic foodAyurvedic food at Indus Valley in Mysore

  • One of the biggest differences is the RICE. Rice with every meal… roti’s made from rice… I missed bread so much!
  • Spicy! South Indian food is some of the spiciest in India… but I loved it! After eating South Indian, I came back and had a Goan sausage dish and didn’t find it spicy at all. On the other hand, peopl from Karnataka find Goan dishes like xacuti and sorpotel very spicy.

guide to south indian foodloved this masala egg dish

guide to south indian food

Who eats South Indian food? Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh.


guide to south indian food sambaar

With most meals you’re going to get a big heaping plate of rice with a little bowl on the side of sambaar. It’s a spicy liquid that can be drank as a soup. It’s a lentil dish with lots of chilies (think spicy dal). I would go all American and plop my papads in like a cracker. This soup is spicy, but not too much so and was usually my favorite part of a meal.


guide to south indian food rassam raasam

The other staple that comes with the rice and sambaar. This one was a bit more bland and I didn’t like it as much. It was a less spicy lentil dish. Instead of drinking it like a soup, this was usually added to the rice on the plate.

Eating Rice with your Fingers on a Banana Leaf

guide to south indian food eating with fingers in india

temple food

Of course this is the way to eat! Each dish has rice in many forms: papad, roti, puffed… and it’s all finger food. You should use all your fingers on your right hand and make a little pile by pinching. Pick it up, then use your thumb to push the food to the very tips of your fingers and into your mouth with a flick/push. Your right hand is bound to get messy. Don’t wash your hands in the kitchen sink, use either a specified sink, or dump water on your hand right over your plate (in a dhabba) as the locals do. You’ll notice girls don’t have long nails on their right hands! PS this isn’t only South India, it’s all of India.

guide to south indian food banana leaf india mysore

guide to south indian food

Banana leafs are the traditional plate. I’ve seen some people “wash” theirs before the food is served (serving is family style). I have also seen in small towns people sewing together leaves to make a proper plate rather than just a leaf.

Dosa w/ Coconut Chutney & Sambaar

guide to south indian food

guide to south indian food

This is my favorite South Indian breakfast food! It must be my readers too, because I put up a few Instagram pictures and people were drooling. You can’t get dosas all over India. The chutney is sometimes watered down in the highway restaurants and hotels = not as good, you might get sick. If you see a very watery chutney, don’t eat it. In the homestays, the chutneys were thick and full of taste. You rip the dosa with only your right hand, dip in both bowls, and devour.

Papads (or) Poppadums

guide to south indian food papad

These are tasty little snacks served with a meal, similar to a tortilla chip. I am a little picky on these. I like original fried ones like I get in Goa, but in the South, sometimes they were made with rice, lentil, or even jackfruit which I wasn’t crazy about. You can get these fried or toasted.

Rice Roti

guide to south indian food making rice roti in mandalpatti india

Apparently, a girl is not marriage material unless she can make a simple rice roti! I learned how, but am not a fan so wouldn’t go about making these myself. Like a flour roti, it’s toasted over the flames of the stove… only the base is (like everything in South India) rice. In Karntaka it’s called a Akki roti, but specifically in Coorg it’s called Otti and is a little different.


idli karnataka food

guide to south indian food idlipictured to the far right

Idli with every meal! it’s like a steamed rice patty? Instead of just rice on a plate puffed up, you might get it like this. I was not a fan. It was either Idli or dosa for breakfast and I always chose dosa. Apparently, this isn’t as popular in Kerala.

Mirchi Bajji

guide to south indian food mirchi bajji

Technically, this is maybe North India, because mirchi is “pepper” in Hindi, which is north Indian language- but I never saw these until I was in the south, so wanted to mention. I LOVE these little snacks which are served with a bit of ketchup. They are tempura battered and deep-fried peppers. The seeds are usually taken out so they aren’t too spicy, but sometimes the seeds will be inside in which case they are hot!

Upma or Uppittu

This is a breakfast porridge of sorts. They really like it in Karnataka, but I am not one for porridge at all, or curd for that matter. Upma is the North Indian word for it. You can also try the sweet variation of the porridge, Kesari Bath.

guide to south indian foodhomestyle cooking somewhere near Dandeli, Karnataka

Rice and Curd

curd fingers india

I could vomit thinking of the rice and curd! After every meal, there was a pile of rice of each plate with curd running all over it, to be eaten with your hands of course. I just hate curd and would watch everyone eat their “dessert” and say no over and over when the mothers of the homestays would try to make me try it. You can’t go to South India, especially Karnataka without seeing rice and curd. They LOVE it! Well, I think everyone in India loves it.

Vada (or) Wada

guide to south indian foodthis patty is something similar to vadda… I couldn’t find a photo, I guess I ate them too fast!

It looks like a donut, but it’s not. It’s lentil cake shaped like a donut but is a little sweet. It’s a breakfast food, at least as I saw it or a day time snack, rather than a dinner dish. You can also have it as a lentil patty rather than donut, but I do think that has another name. It’s very tasty though and not as sweet. You’re likely to get this on the train with your coffee. Speaking of which,

Filter Coffee

guide to south indian food filter coffee india

South Indians love it and are proud that it comes from the South. Especially in Karnataka, tons of the homestays I stayed at were actual coffee plantations. The women served coffee all day long! It was very strong and very delicious. The most well-known place for filter coffee is Coorg. I was surprised to hear that Tamil Nadu was known for coffee first!

Pandi Curry

pandi puri karnataka foodThis ISN’T pandi curry, this is pandi pani another yummy dish!

Can’t say Coorg in this post without talking about Pandi Curry (pork curry) a favorite from the Coorgi warrior meat-eaters. Coorgi people are hunters, and not as veg-obsessed as their other southern friends. Pandi curry is famous all over India and everyone knows the mothers in Coorg make it the best. I was lucky to try some and IT WAS SPICY! My goodness… I couldn’t hardly eat it, but the flavors were wonderful. Worth noting when you do get a meat dish in India, it will have bones unless you ask for boneless.

guide to south indian food

guide to south indian food

Seafood & Coconut

Of course the coastal regions of the South have a variety of seafood similar to what I get living in Goa and also from what I had cooked similar (like a rava fry): kingfish, snapper, and ladyfish being very common. Coconut dishes might be more Goan, but there is a big amount of coconut oil used and coconut milk in even Keralan dishes.

guide to south indian food

guide to south indian food

Pickles, Powders & Sides

guide to south indian food pickles sides powder indian food

guide to south indian food

With your meal, other bits and pieces will be put on your plate: salt, lime wedge, chutney powder, and pickles. The powder is actually North Indian. The pickle is sometimes raw mango or a spicy tamarind. There was usually a dill and lentil combination that I LOVED. You’ll get veg sides (not curried) of cabbage, maybe some carrot but that’s more rare and used in sweet dishes, eggplant, or maybe some bitter gourd. You’ll get some type of fresh salad, like lentil or cabbage.

Buttermilk, Almond Milk, Jaggery, and SWEETS

guide to south indian food indian sweets

guide to south indian food jam

guide to south indian food jaggery mysore

guide to south indian foodSadly, I’m just not much into sweets except packaged American ones. Sorry! But I did try the milks. I wasn’t a fan of the buttermilk and found the almond milk too sweet. The jaggery with peanuts was very good!

And all other sweets I wasn’t so fond of, as they are just so sugary. Jaggery is used as a white sugar substitute. I feel like every one I tried, I would ask what was in it and be told “butter and sugar”. While in the North you have gulab jamon (balls of fried dough in a sugar syrup), in the South you’ll see specifics like Mysore Pak which might be the one I actually sort of liked.

So, there we have it… my guide to South Indian food. I’m sure I’ve made a mistake in spelling here or there because some I just knew by asking, What is this? and trying to remember the name. Hope this didn’t make you too hungry!




About the Author:

Rachel Jones left a career in nursing and lived on the beaches of Goa, India for the five years. Now she lives in Mexico where she gives advice on the 40+ countries she’s visited in the last 10 years. She’s the author of two India travel e-books: Guide to India and Insider’s Guide to Goa. Her blog, Hippie in Heels, like its name, is a contradiction combining off-beat adventurous places with glamorous and bespoke travel. Hippie in Heels has been featured in ELLE, Marie Claire, Grazia, and Cosmopolitan magazines. She’s a writer for Bravo TV.


  1. Rachel May 18, 2015 at 3:41 pm - Reply

    Oh my goodness! I almost didn’t want to read this post, I know I’m going to spend the whole day dreaming of masala dosa now! Hahaha!

    Oh, now vada too! So delicious!

    I’m completely addicted to southern Indian food, yet I’ve never actually been to the south. I fell head over heels for it in the Little Indias in South East Asia, I know the best places for dosa in Bangkok, Penang, KL, Singapore… ;)

    I wish it was easier to get hold of in UK, to satisfy my dosa cravings. I do have a problem though, occasionally I get to eat in London, for instance, but instinct makes me eat it with my hands, and that’s not really the done-thing over here. People look at you funny! It’s not right eating dosa with a fork!

    • Rachel Jones May 28, 2015 at 11:55 am - Reply

      haha you love dosa huh!? ;) and yes i eat with my hand ALL the time now and in hawaii found myself doing it at a luau and realized people were looking at me like i was an animal! i was like oh shit!

  2. Joella // Paper Crane Stories May 18, 2015 at 5:28 pm - Reply

    Oh my gosh- so yummy! Southern Indian food sounds good- spicy and more vegetarian? Sounds delicious to me.

    • Rachel Jones May 28, 2015 at 11:54 am - Reply

      i’ve become so used to spice now that other food seems bland!

  3. Megan May 18, 2015 at 6:50 pm - Reply

    i must admit im a huge fan of south indian food and dont care quite as much for the north’s… so this guide made me very happy :) (still better than the crap i am served here in western europe). great guide!

    • Rachel Jones May 28, 2015 at 11:54 am - Reply

      the grass is always greener lol I would love to be eating in western europe right now!

  4. Pritam May 18, 2015 at 7:05 pm - Reply

    So much yummy food. Masala Dosa and Vada are really great. Staple Breakfast outside home…. Not Just in South but in Northern Parts as well.
    The best Kerala Food is during Onam. Though I am not a big fan, lot of ppl really like it. More so ‘coz they use Cocunut oil for cooking everything :(
    The South Indian food is definitely more healthier North India.. Though after one month of stay in Kerala, I was like ugh !! Need North Indian Food …….

    • Rachel Jones May 28, 2015 at 11:53 am - Reply

      Yes the south is very health.. i think its nice to have a mixture of north and south!

  5. Bernie May 18, 2015 at 7:13 pm - Reply

    Loved this guide – and great pics too. My mouth is watering in anticipation for all the Keralan cuisine!

  6. Rachel May 18, 2015 at 9:49 pm - Reply

    Wow, there are so many types of food in this post! Props to you for learning the names of everything and what you like and don’t like. I laughed out loud reading about rice and curd. I’m not even big on the word “curd” and that description doesn’t sound too appetizing either! I do love spicy food though. And good tip on not eating watered-down chutneys – I wouldn’t have thought about that, but it makes so much sense.

  7. Tenzin May 18, 2015 at 9:51 pm - Reply

    Loved reading every word here. I am a big fan of South Indian food and i keep looking for new place to eat South Indian food in Delhi :). You haven’t mentioned tomato rice though it mayn’t be everyone’s favourite.

    Looking forward to your next !

    • Rachel Jones May 28, 2015 at 11:52 am - Reply

      i dont think i’ve heard of tomato rice, sounds interesting

  8. Emma | banquets and backpacks May 19, 2015 at 4:07 am - Reply


  9. Amélie @ mostlyamelie.com May 19, 2015 at 8:23 am - Reply

    OMG, jesus. yum. nom. drool. That said, I’m in Malaysia right now and eating more Indian food that I ever did in India. But still. Slurp.

  10. Shashank Rao May 19, 2015 at 11:05 am - Reply

    Liked it that you said “Curd” instead of “Yoghurt”. You are now officially a DESI. :D

  11. Justine May 19, 2015 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    Reading this post was pure torture Rachel! Everything looks so good. I actually didn’t know that it was South Indian food that is more vegetarian friendly. I suppose that’s part of why I love it so much. I had my first dosa a couple of years ago in Malaysia and they are now my favorite things EVER! India just has the best food. When I do get the chance to travel there someday I’m pretty sure I will never stop eating!

    • Rachel Jones May 28, 2015 at 11:50 am - Reply

      hahaha! do you get curries in jarkata? some of what i had in badung had an india style, but i found it all too bland honestly since india uses SO much in each dish

  12. Ivana May 19, 2015 at 6:52 pm - Reply

    This might be my favorite hih post EVER!!! Can’t wait to go there myself and try errrthang. Thank you Rachel!

  13. Shobha May 21, 2015 at 3:28 am - Reply

    Yummy. you’ve got me hungry now. I don’t know some of the dishes – my parents are from Kerala so I don’t remember the rice and curd or rice roti. We had regular roti which my dad used to make for whatever reason. My mother made everything else but roti was his thing.

  14. De'Jav May 21, 2015 at 4:28 am - Reply

    Spicier with more veges that sounds like my style of cooking. India is definitely on my list of places to make it too.

  15. Siva May 21, 2015 at 3:26 pm - Reply

    Mouth watering !! You’ve probably tried more southindian food than me ( a southindian in the north) I’ve never had an idli roti. Would love to have one ! Seems like you spent most time in Karnataka , the paper roast dosa in Coimbatore , Tamil Nadu would certainly entice you.

  16. Tim UrbanDuniya May 21, 2015 at 6:58 pm - Reply

    Yum yum yum!! Love it all!! Especially love the south Indian filter coffee, and anything with seafood and coconut. Kerala’s cuisine is probably my favourite in the south, followed closely by Tamil Nadu <3

    • Rachel Jones May 28, 2015 at 11:41 am - Reply

      I haven’t really had tamil yet, but plan to go there in oct or nov

  17. Tim | UrbanDuniya May 28, 2015 at 12:13 pm - Reply

    Cool! Let me know if I can help out at all – I used to live in Chennai, and I know I pretty well

  18. Dilip June 24, 2015 at 4:09 am - Reply

    As a south Indian, who is accustomed to reading blogs about south east asia and europe, this one feels new, as it is about the life which i experience on a day to day basis. The food section looks amazing and informative. I would like to add that the non vegetarian part of south India is something which is under rated. For example the Hyderabadi Biryani is called the best dish in India. It would also make for some pretty yummy pics.

  19. Sachin August 17, 2015 at 2:57 am - Reply

    Hey, came across this nice blog of south indian food intro.. heres a tip w.r.t Dosa for those living in US/Canada… you can make your own genuine dosa with ‘chennai dosa batter’ : a wet mix readily available in many stores, ready to pour and spread over a hot non-stick pan. wish I could upload a pic here.

    • Rachel Jones August 17, 2015 at 3:06 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the tip

      • Sachin August 18, 2015 at 8:01 am - Reply

        you’re welcome, nice attempt to discover things outside the ordinary/usual. I can suggest a whole bunch of things in Bengalur/Mysore/Karnataka, if visiting again.

  20. Cate September 29, 2015 at 9:01 am - Reply

    What a mouth-watering post! During my visit to South India in Hyderabad I had many of the foods you mentioned — yummy!! I liked everything that was given to me and nothing disagreed with me. I was amazed! One of my favorites is chicken biryani. Fortunately I found an Indian restaurant stateside that makes great biryani, so I can treat myself on occasion. I make chapatis at home, and on occasion am brave enough to make some paneer curry, which I also like a lot. Really fantastic cuisine! I need to learn how to cook authentic Indian food at home. I miss it very much!

    • Rachel Jones September 29, 2015 at 3:40 pm - Reply

      awesome that you’re making this stuff at home! So impressive! enjoy & thanks for commenting :) :)

  21. Geeta April 9, 2016 at 11:45 am - Reply

    This a great article, I love south Indian dishes very much, especially the dishes from Udupi like near dosa, Udupi Rasam are my favorite.

  22. Saran May 15, 2016 at 5:34 am - Reply

    Interesting observations about South India food scene.

  23. V K May 29, 2016 at 7:19 pm - Reply

    You missed Hyderabadi Biryani and Haleem; have you been there yet?

  24. Hiranmay Ghosh March 4, 2017 at 8:14 pm - Reply

    Enjoyed reading your blog. You have provided a good coverage to South Indian Food. A small correction …

    The word “Pandi” or “Pandhi” means pork. The picture of “Pandi pani” shows a dish that is purely vegetarian and have nothing to do with pork. The correct name is “Paani Poori” (Paani = Water, Poori = deep fried bread with hollow inside). Moreover, it is of North Indian origin — most of the fellows who sell Paani Poori on Mysore / Bangalore pavements are from the states of UP or Bihar. In most part of Eastern India (e.g. Kolkata), it is known as “Phuchka”.

    Also, you cannot ignore different flavors of Biryani (meat or fish cooked with rice) in South India.

    • Rachel Jones March 6, 2017 at 1:23 pm - Reply

      Yes, it says right below that photo “This ISN’T pandi curry, this is pandi pani another yummy dish!”

  25. […] you’re going to South India, check out my article about how food down there is different. You can also read up on my post for how to eat street food […]

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