The sour divide between North and South

Hindustan Times | By
Oct 07, 2018 12:13 AM IST

Do you like sour flavours? It may have something to do with which part of India you come from

Foreigners are always asking me what the difference between North Indian and South Indian food is. I usually give the same answer. It is difficult to generalise, I say, because the distinction is much more complex than just North and South. It is a mistake to talk of India – in cuisine terms – as a single country with two different cuisines. In fact, India is a continent – in cuisine terms again – so the parallel is not with say, France or Italy, where you can make some North-South divisions.

Many dishes in Kerala get their sourness from tamarind and a variety of other ingredients, including raw mango(iStock)
Many dishes in Kerala get their sourness from tamarind and a variety of other ingredients, including raw mango(iStock)

The parallel is with Europe where there are many different cuisines, some of which are only distantly related to each other.

This is entirely accurate. But I have always had the nagging feeling that, no matter how reasonable my characterisation of Indian cuisine sounds, there are some basic differences that separate North from South.

Some of these differences seem to matter less and less. We used to say that the North is wheat country while the South is all about rice. There is something to that distinction but it is not as true as it used to be. It is hard, for example, to tell somebody who is enjoying a Lucknowi biryani that UP is basically a wheat-eating region. And in Kerala, where they love Malabar parottas, it makes little sense to describe Malayalis as people who eat only rice.

Nevertheless, I think I have isolated one important taste differentiator between Punjabi cuisine (and therefore the food served at most North Indian restaurants) and the food of the rest of India.

Solkadhi, a tangy Goan drink made of kokum (iStockphoto)
Solkadhi, a tangy Goan drink made of kokum (iStockphoto)

It is sourness.

In the South and on the West coast (and to some extent in the East), sour flavours are prized in the cuisines. Even in Gujarat, the cuisine includes many dishes that balance sweet and sour flavours. It has become a cliché to talk about the sweet tuvair dal of Gujarat but the truth is that if a Gujarati dal is sweet, then it has been badly made. Such dishes as dal and Gujarati kadhi are delicately poised in the middle ground between sweet and sour. It is the balance of these flavours that gives the cuisine its sophistication.

In the West of India, they prize kokum, a fruit that is noted for its sourness. It turns up in Goan, Gujarati and Maharashtrian cooking and is sometimes (confusingly) called the Malabar tamarind.

In Goa, they love the flavour of kokum so much that it is turned into a drink called solkadhi, which is noted for its spicy tang.

In Kerala, they have many uses for tamarind and their cuisines get their sourness from a variety of ingredients including raw mango. A meal where there is nothing sour would be regarded as incomplete in much of South India.

In Kerala, they have many uses for tamarind (Shutterstock)
In Kerala, they have many uses for tamarind (Shutterstock)

Contrast this with Punjabi cooking, where the flavour range is much narrower. A Punjabi cook’s idea of a souring agent is tomato. Punjabis say that they add tomatoes to dal and curries to add sourness. But that’s not entirely right. A tomato is not sour in the way that say, tamarind is. And what it really adds to the dishes is not sourness but umami. (I wrote about Indians and umami a couple of months ago.) 

But even if we were to accept that Punjabis use tomatoes for their sourness, we are still left with the fact the tomatoes are a recent addition to Punjabi cooking. The black dal of Punjabi tradition had no tomatoes at all. They were added by restaurants a few decades ago and the tomato gravies of Punjabi cuisine (Butter Chicken, for instance) were only invented in the second half of the 20th century.

Even sweetness used to be considered an anathema in Punjabi food till recently when chefs took it upon themselves to add honey or sugar to Butter Chicken. The original recipe calls for no sweetness, and that is how I believe the dish should still be made, though modern restaurateurs have made the gravy sweeter.

Moti Mahal had access to local tomatoes for its butter chicken
Moti Mahal had access to local tomatoes for its butter chicken

In some ways though, the addition of honey to Butter Chicken bears out my no-sourness theory. In the old days, when Butter Chicken was invented, it was easy enough for Moti Mahal and the few restaurants that served it to get access to good-quality, locally grown tomatoes. Now, tomatoes in Indian markets often have no flavour at all, only a sour aftertaste. The sugar and/or honey are added to counter that sour taste.

The cuisine of Lucknow is too sophisticated for easy generalisations of the sort we make about Punjabi cooking but in my limited experience, most Avadhi dishes have very little sourness too. And when the chefs need something that is mildly sour, they fall back on the same ingredients as other North Indians: tomatoes and dahi, for instance.

One simple way to work out how much difference sour flavours can make to a cuisine is to compare the food of Lucknow and the food of Hyderabad. They have the same origins and many of the dishes are similar because Hyderabadi cuisine was developed by cooks who accompanied the Nizam-ul-Mulk when he was dispatched by the Mughal emperors to administer their Southern empire.

But over time, the Mogul cooks incorporated the flavours and spices of South India into their cuisines which is why Hyderabadi cuisine has many sour elements that are entirely missing from Avadhi food. (Aroma is more important to Lucknowi cooks; in Hyderabad they like a little tang in their food.)

None of this is to say that North Indians don’t like sweet and sour flavours. The whole basis of the chaat tradition, for instance, is the mix of sweet and sour ingredients. The essential taste of a golgappa puri is sour. And Punjabis like imli chutneys and will often spray lemon on to their food. They use aamchur for chaat-like dishes like channa. So why then, do they avoid these flavours in their cooking? Why are they treated as add-ons?

Punjabis like imli chutneys, they use aamchur for channa. Then why do they treat these flavours as add-ons?

That is something I have never been able to work out.

There are consequences for the fate of international cuisines in India in this North-South khattash divide. Take the example of Thai food. When the first Thai restaurants opened in India in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, many people predicted that Thai food would soon replace Chinese as India’s favourite foreign cuisine.

Tomato to Punjabi gravies was a late 20th century-addition (Shutterstock)
Tomato to Punjabi gravies was a late 20th century-addition (Shutterstock)

After all, at the level at which it was pitched in India, Thai food was a teekha curry and rice cuisine. Why wouldn’t it work in India?

As we know, it hasn’t worked out that way. There are a few good Thai restaurants in Delhi (I think) but North India has remained largely immune to the flavours of Thailand.

North India has remained immune to the flavours of Thai, which is about balance and prizes sourness (iStockphoto)
North India has remained immune to the flavours of Thai, which is about balance and prizes sourness (iStockphoto)

I reckon that this is because Thai food is about balance. Each mouthful should have something salty, something hot, something sweet and something sour. North Indians have no patience with this notion of balance, are irritated by the way in which the Thais prize sourness (imli is as important an ingredient in their cuisine as it is in South India), and are shocked when they are told that in Thailand, sugar will be among the condiments on the table. Many Thai dishes depend on sugar because the Thais (like the Gujaratis) reckon that a little sweetness helps bring out the sour flavours in the food. It’s yin and yang.

Indian Chinese food, on the other hand, depends on the holy trinity of soya sauce-chilli sauce-tomato ketchup and there is no need to balance competing flavours and nothing sweet or khatta about it. (The one Cantonese dish that needed some sweetness – sweet and sour pork – is becoming less and less popular as bogus Sichuan, Sino-Ludhianvi food takes over.) 

Unlike the West, Indians have very few sweets that merge with lemon or other sour flavours of sweetness (Shutterstock)
Unlike the West, Indians have very few sweets that merge with lemon or other sour flavours of sweetness (Shutterstock)

So yes, there is an important difference in the flavour profile of the sort of North Indian food (mostly Punjabi) that you find at restaurants and the food of Western and Southern India. That difference centres around sourness.

But then, at some level, all Indians treat sourness differently from the way in which the rest of the world regards it. All over the West you will find desserts that use nimbu: from French pancakes to American key lime pie.

India is the exception. We have very few sweets that merge lemon or other sour flavours with sweetness. All chefs will tell you that whenever they put a lemony dessert on the menu, nobody orders it.

Don’t ask me why this should be so. I am as puzzled as you are.

But the Indian attitude to sourness is fascinating and I hope some food scientist tries to get to the bottom of it.

From HT Brunch, October 7 , 2018

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