Everything You Need to Know about South Indian Food in Georgetown, Penang
One of the most fascinating aspects with Georgetown, Penang is the bustling and colorful Little India. It covers the area of about 4 X 4 streets and is packed full of shops selling beautiful sarees, Bollywood movies, Indian pastries and jewelry. It is also home to quite a few very authentic Indian restaurants. Thanks to Penang's influence from Southern India and in particular Tamil Nadu most of these restaurants are Pure Vegetarian, which in other words means that this Little India is a vegan paradise!
South Indian food differs quite a lot from the northern Indian cuisine in part because less meat and dairy products are used (hence the vegan friendliness). Also, the curries are in general lighter and not as thick as a typical northern Indian curry and they have a few special dishes that you rarely find in the northern parts of South Asia (see below).
We are huge fans of all types of South Asian food and especially the food that's eaten in the southern parts of the subcontinent. Throughout our many years of travel, we have eaten South Indian food in both India and Sri Lanka and we have to admit that the food in Georgetown is on par with the pure veg restaurants in Colombo and Kochi. Since the menus can be quite overwhelming and the items can seem alien to anyone who's not familiar to them, we've dedicated this guide to covering some must-try South Indian dishes.
Dosas, and especially Masala Dosa, is our undisputed favorite when it comes to South Indian food. It can best be described as a huge Indian pancake or crepe that’s folded or rolled and served on a metal tray or banana leaf with *sambal, *dhal, and pickles. The dosa itself is made from fermented rice and black lentils and seasoned with classical Indian spices like fenugreek, turmeric, mustard seeds and cumin. Dosas can be stuffed with different fillings such as onions, veggies, and curries. Our favorite and one of the most popular versions of the dosa is the masala dosa which is stuffed with a savory potato curry.
Dosas are mainly served as a breakfast item but can often be ordered at night as well. You will in general not be able to order dosas for lunch.
*Dhal - The classic lentil curry that's served with pretty much any Indian meal or dish.
*Sambal - Side dips that differ from region to region. In South Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine these are normally coconut based and all vegan.
This pancake like dish is served similar to a dosa but the batter is slightly different and it is cooked much thicker and not as crispy as a dosa. Uttapam is one of our biggest Indian food obsessions that we fell in love with two years ago in Kochi, India. There is just something about this thick bundle of goodness. It is never ordered plain and always comes with the toppings cooked into the batter itself. Popular toppings include tomatoes, peppers, chili, onion and cabbage.
Poori is every glutton's dream. It's a big piece of deep-fried flat bread typically served under the name "Poori Bhaji" with a side of potato curry. It is probably the unhealthiest item on the list but nevertheless one of our absolute favorites.
Idli is a classic and super popular breakfast item all over South India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. The batter is once again very similar to dosas and uttapams and consists of fermented rice and lentils. However, there are some things that make idlis quite unique. First off, they have a spongy texture, they are steamed instead of fried, and they're usually not seasoned but rather served plain with a subtle lentil flavor. Idlis are always accompanied with different curries and sambals based on personal taste.
Medu Vada (Vada, Vadai) is an extremely popular South Indian and Sri Lankan snack that is also served in abundance in Penang. It can be made from any kind of legume (the recipes differ depending on the cooks origin) and it is almost always served in a crispy dount shape with a soft filling. Vadas are never eaten as a meal on its own but instead as a side dish or a snack together with a cup of chai. Restaurants normally prepare a certain amount in the mornings and then serve them until they run out. You might be able to find a few remaining vadas later in the day but we recommend that you try them for breakfast when they are fresh and hot.
Roti Canai is not a pure a Indian dish but rather a Malaysian/Indian fusion that’s served at both Malaysian and Indian restaurants all over Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and to some extent by the Muslim community in southern Thailand. Some restaurants refer to it as (roti) paratha. A handful of roti with a side of dhal (lentil curry) is extremely satisfying and perfect as a snack or part of a bigger meal.
Anyone who has been to India or to an Indian restaurant knows that a thali is the Indian version of a set meal. It normally consists of several curries served with rice, pickles, chapati, papadams, naan or other Indian type breads. A thali is typically served for lunch and dinner and can been ordered as a pre-made set or after your own liking in a canteen styled manner.
Few other cuisines excite us as much as the South Asian cuisine. South Asians have a relationship with their food that many others lack. To them it's a matter of pride and respect for the history of the food as well as honoring generations of recipes and traditions. Going to an authentic restaurant is about more than just eating, it's a complete experience with everything from the smell of spices and incense in the air, to the sounds of the kitchen and the shrines on the walls. Georgetown is a great place to indulge in all of these local delights and get the whole experience. The biggest bonus is that we always know we are in for a feast, ordering dish after dish after dish...