It's hard to define the difference between SouthWestern, TexMex and Cuban cuisine, but you know which is which. So, too, with Southern Indian cuisine.
It can be a bit spicier than, say Northern flavors. But that really depends on the dish - and the cook. It's mostly vegetarian ingredients, but then, many Indian cultures shun meat or dairy products - especially Hindus. They hold cows sacred. And then there are the fishing communities, where the livelihoods of many depend on those natural resources.
"It's just different. It's hard to explain but it tastes different," says Gurpreet Sarpal, 20, whose family runs Shreeji Indian Restaurant on the White Horse Pike in Galloway Township.
Sarpal's parents, Sarabjit Kaur and Manjeet Singh, had a restaurant by the same name on New Jersey Avenue in Absecon for many years before the opportunity to move to the larger venue in the Days Inn was presented.
With Singh as chef, they mostly served food from their native region of New Delhi, in the north, but people kept coming in asking for things such as masala dosa, which is more typical in the south. Sarpal looked into it and discovered the nearest restaurants serving such items were at least an hour's drive from the shore, near Cherry Hill or Trenton. So he enlisted Shreeji's other chef, Kalaiselvan Ramalingam, to introduce some classic southern Indian dishes.
"We wanted another side, a special touch," Sarpal says. "It's something different that everyone likes."
Just as pizza and pasta often spring to mind when that broad term "Italian food" is voiced, one can pinpoint the staples of Southern Indian food, says Ramalingam, 32. He should know, he not only grew up in the Tamil Nadu region, he went to culinary school there before working in several prestigious hotels in Chennai, southern India.
Masala dosa, a starchy finger food that can be made more or less spicy to taste, is about as common as a hoagie in New Jersey, Ramalingam says. Dosa, a crispy crepe with a hint of cumin flavoring, can be eaten with any meal. It's the stuffing that makes the meal. Masala is a potato-based cake that packs the real punch in this common dish.
The first time they tried it, the response was lukewarm. But Sarpal and Ramalingam were undeterred and this year the added offerings have given them an edge with tourists, whom Sarpal believes appreciate the variety.
"It's like Italian food with pasta; when you go out, you want to try something different that you can't make at home. That's dosa," Sarpal says. "The southern Indian food, it's one of the things that gives us an advantage (with tourists.) A lot of families come in summer and they want variety."
The trick to making the crispy crepe is a steady hand, Ramalingam says. The batter is poured smoothly onto a griddle and spread thin using circular motions with a ladle until the griddle is almost visible beneath the thin crepe. Then a wide, thin spatula is used to gingerly, but smoothly, scrape the dosa up in one piece and wrap it around the masala cake. Sambar, a spicy lentil soup, can be used as a dip for dosa, or poured on top of the masala cake.
Of course, Northern Indian staples such as tandoori chicken always will be available at Shreeji, but Ramalingam may not be around much longer to make the masala dosa. He's heading home in the fall to court a wife and Sarpal is not sure his replacement will know the delicate art of crafting dosa. So now is the time to cross eating authentic masala dosa off your bucket list.
Contact Felicia Compian:
•1 cup dried lentils
•2 cups dried rice
•Pinch of salt
•Cumin and seasonings, to taste
•1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Soak rice and lentils separately in water overnight, then wash and drain. Grind with water in a machine or with mortar and pestal until texture is like a wet powder. Add cumin and salt to taste and let set overnight at room temperature to give it a sour taste. Add water to one part lentils and two parts rice until it reaches a batter-like consistency and let set two nights.
Heat the griddle to 400 degrees and slowly pour a small ladle of batter on the middle. Using the bottom of the ladle, slowly smooth out batter in widening circles until the griddle is almost visible beneath the thin layer of batter and the crepe is mostly cooked through. Drizzle with vegetable oil and add butter or seasonings, to taste. Use a wide, flat spatula from a hardware store to scrape the crepe off the griddle and serve immediately, either alone for dipping, or with a masala cake in the middle. The whole thing should resemble a crispy wrap with long, untucked ends.
•1 pound potatoes
•4 or 5 green chilies, such as jalapenos
•1 tablespoon mustard seed
•Handful cashew nuts
•Pinch of turmeric powder (for color)*
Chop and boil potatoes until fork-tender. Dice onions and chilies and saute with oil and spices, about 10 minutes. Mash together in a cake and press into center of dosa right before scraping the dosa off the griddle so one side wraps over the cake, then roll the whole thing over, so two ends of the dosa are tucked underneath the cake and two extend like the open ends of a wrap, forming a long cylinder. Dip in spicy sambar (lentil soup) or a coconut-based curry sauce, or drizzle with sweet and spicy chutney.
*Be very careful with the turmeric powder, warns Sarpal, it stains something fierce.