The Meaning of (Indian) Food

I’m originally from Northern Virginia and in my opinion it’s fairly diverse. There are tons of Indian restaurants and a significant number of Indian people. Every time I walk into my Lotte International grocery store I see Indian women in their saris and Indian children running around without a care in the world. Although I have been surrounded by Indian culture and Indian friends, I have never tasted authentic South Indian food. It was not accessible and even if it was, I was afraid of how and what to order. Being in Tamil Nadu for the past month has completely changed my perspective on Indian food.



Lunch cooked by the SITA (South India Term Abroad study abroad program) staff. Pictured is rice, gravy, vegetable side dishes, chapati, papaya, and curd to eat with the white rice.


South Indian food is rice-based and there is a ton of variety. There’s so much variety that I could eat something different every single day for at least 3 weeks. If I had to list everything I have eaten so far I would have to dedicate a separate paragraph. Idli, a steamed rice bun, is frequently eaten for both breakfast and dinner. Dosa, a thin crepe made from rice-batter, is another entree eaten at breakfast and dinner. Both idli and dosa are eaten with chutneys. My favorite meal is dosa with coconut chutney. It’s very simple but SO delicious! The secret to South Indian food being delicious is making it fresh and using a ton of spices. For example, the coconut chutney is prepared and made right before dinner. My host mother breaks open a coconut, grinds the coconut meat in the food processor, adds some water to the chutney, and then adds a pinch of different spices. While idli and dosa are commonly eaten for breakfast, lunch is always white rice with various side dishes. South Indians usually eat a heavy lunch because dinner is not until 8 or 9 in the evening.



White Idli with coconut chutney (white) and peanut chutney (orange) eaten for dinner.


Another variety of idli served with freshly made peanut chutney.


In my host family, dinner is always eaten together with my host grandparents who conveniently live 3 feet away from our house. It’s nice to have a family meal every night because it’s time dedicated to talking about our respective days and catching up with one another. Oftentimes my host parents and host grandparents try to overfeed me. Even though I ate 6 idlis, they still insist upon me eating another idli. I’ve realized the act of overfeeding is common throughout Southern India. It’s the South Indian hospitality and generosity. Gaining weight and being “fat” is considered to be good and very much encouraged. A fat person embodies wealth and can physically show society that they can afford to eat. While American culture and media define healthy as being fit and exercising regularly, the South Indian definition of being fit is being chubby and maybe a little overweight. It’s been interesting and somewhat challenging to navigate the attitude towards food in South India because of this difference in expectation. Other American students here in India have told me that their host mother’s goal is to fatten them up before they return to the United States. I’ve interacted with my host father’s nephew who expressed his dislike of attending family functions because they never fail to mention how thin he is and advise he “fattens up.” The difference in food culture has made me appreciate the freedom I have had in the United States to reject food when I wanted to or eat a simple yogurt parfait for breakfast. It’s definitely a privilege I was not aware of until I came to South India.



A Thali meal which consists of a variety of side dishes. A thin wafer and a chapati is offered first. Once those have been eaten, white rice is served.

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Filed under Michelle in India, South & Central Asia

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