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October 21, 1990

Travelers to the Indian south are in for a glorious treat. They will not be eating tandoori chicken, lamb curry, nan or other standard fare, but exotic foods spiced with cinnamon, tamarind and pepper, or fragrant with coconut and curry leaves. Travelers to the Indian south are in for a glorious treat. They will not be eating tandoori chicken, lamb curry, nan or other standard fare, but exotic foods spiced with cinnamon, tamarind and pepper, or fragrant with coconut and curry leaves. South Indian cuisine still retains many elements of the ancient Dravidian culture that flourished 4,500 years ago: steamed dumplings with coconut, jaggery (raw sugar) and cardamom in a rice wrapper; food served in banana leaves, or the ubiquitous spice blend kari podi, or curry powder, are all indigenous to this region. The geographic and cultural seclusion of the South Indian peninsula, separated from the north by the high Vindhyas, has left southern cuisine very ''Indian,'' unaffected by outside influences. It is represented by four distinct regional styles: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Intriguing and diverse, these regional cuisines reflect the natural resources of each area, as well as the rich ethnic mixture of its people - Syrian Christians, Arab or Mogul Muslims, Jains or Sephardic Jews. There are, however, a few unifying elements of southern cooking, like the use of rice as a staple, as well as certain varieties of squashes and greens, coconut, jaggery, peanuts and sesame seeds. Herbs and spices are a potent underpinning, including curry leaves (balmy herb), tamarind (sour pod), sour lime and spices such as mustard, ginger, turmeric, coriander, fenugreek, black pepper and the incendiary red Guntur chilies. India's wealth of regional cuisines has acquired new prominence in the last four or five years. Local cooking styles and specialties, once dismissed as ordinary, have come into favor, and native cooks, once considered unrefined, have become celebrities. As a result, there is a far greater variety of regional foods available to travelers in South India than was the case just a few years ago. Vegetarian dishes, which originated in the Tanjore courts of Dravidian kings, are collectively known as South Indian vegetarian, or Tamil food. Throughout the south, dishes like sambar, kotto and koyamboo (spicy vegetable and lentil stews), kari or thovaran (warm vegetable salads), rasam (soup) and pachadi (yogurt salad) are popular. The best eating places throughout India are hotel dining rooms, many of which offer authentic regional foods, often in grand settings reminiscent of a bygone age. The dining room at Lalitha Palace Hotel in Mysore, once a palace of the Maharajah of Mysore, serves a delicious vegetarian feast, a dozen dishes on a single platter. The food is mild and slightly sweet, in accord with the preferences of the people of Karnataka. ''We add more tomatoes, rather then spices, to enhance and accentuate the flavor of our local sweet tamarind,'' said B. S. K. Rao, the hotel's food and beverage manager. South Indian vegetarian cooking also includes preparations like idli (steamed dumplings), dosa (lacy crepes), pesaruttu (mung bean pancakes) and vada (bean fritters), all made with sourdough batter of rice and/or bean. These light vegetarian protein foods, called tiffin, are popular snacks served with a chutney and a lentil sauce. Tiffin is served at any time of day - including breakfast - at snack bars. Although tiffin are found throughout India, they originated here. A good spot for tiffin, under the palm and mango trees, is the open-air Woodlands Drive-In, on Cathedral Road in Madras. Other choices in Madras are Palimar in Menaka, and the Hotel Palmgrove. Although all South Indians enjoy vegetarian delicacies, South India, contrary to the general belief, is not predominantly vegetarian. In fact, less than 15 percent of the South is Hindu Brahmin, of whom only 8 percent are strict vegetarians. An extraordinary nonvegetarian cuisine, the Chettinadu cooking of Chettiyars (the prosperous business caste of Tamil Nadu), has only recently come into the limelight, having traditionally been served in obscure eateries called muniandi villa. Its distinguishing features are the use of black pepper and the preparation of savory meats with marinades and broths. ''Chettinadu food is mild because we use no red chilies, only black pepper and some very fragrant spices, such as saffron, mace, cashew nuts and rose petals,'' explained G. Ramesh, manager of Kaaraikudi, a Chettinadu restaurant in Madras with splendid interiors brought in segments from Chettiyars' 18th-century villas. Rain Tree Taj Connemara is another restaurant with a sumptuous period decor, this one recalling the vast dining room of a local villa, with carved wooden beams and colorful tiles. Chicken or crab Chettinad are among the favorites here. Turkey, rabbit, venison and organ meats like brain, kidney and liver are all used in this cuisine. One outstanding soup made with lamb shins, mutton paya, is generally enjoyed as a light supper accompanied by delicate rice noodles. Two particularly delicious specialties at Kaaraikudi are kozhi varuval (spicy fried chicken) and kola urundai (meat balls). At Rain Tree, try the kozhi melagu (chicken rubbed with black pepper and tamarind) or karu vepellai yera (grilled jumbo prawns flavored with curry leaves). South India is a coastal culture. Naturally, seafood plays an important role, unlike the inland north where lamb and chicken are common fare. Throughout the Kerala region, shrimp, ranging from tiny thumbnail size to jumbo tiger prawns, and fish, such as pomfret, shark, skate, catfish and salmon, are served lightly braised in herb-flavored sauces. Karimeen varathathu (fish fried with spices), meen patichthu (fish braised with spices) and konju chameen (spicy pan-roasted tiny shrimp) are exceptional creations. In Cochin, the spice port of the west coast, two restaurants offer outstanding fish specialties. At the Rice Boats restaurant of the Malabar Hotel, the karimeen pulichadu (fish in sour kokum fruit sauce) with Kerala red rice is visually stunning - ivory fish contrasting with brilliant red sauce studded with coconut chunks. And at the Taravadi restaurant in the Casino Hotel, freshly caught tiger prawns, smothered with roasted spices and grilled, are addictive. Appam, a cross between a pancake and a crepe made with rice flour and palm sap, called toddy, is a Kerala specialty. It's eaten for breakfast and is also traditional with fish. ''To experience Kerala you must eat our appam,'' declared K. C. Joseph at Rice Boats, who must have swirled some hundred thousand appam in the pan in his 35 years as a chef. ''The secret is not in the cooking but in the batter - the toddy that controls it,'' explained Mr. Joseph. A traditional Kerala breakfast, available everywhere in the region, includes appam and tamarind fish stew, meen pulichathu, or a coconut vegetable stew called avial. When it comes to spicy food, Andhra Pradesh produces a type of chili that is the hottest in the world, Guntur chili. The Andhra region includes the city of Hyderabad, with its Mogul influences, as well as the Hindu vegetarian community. And the small town of Amaravati has its own very spicy and nonvegetarian cuisine. ''The food is spicy hot, but not tongue-scorching like Andhra vegetarian food,'' explained Ravi Gopalakrishnan, general manager at the Amaravati restaurant in Madras. Its superb chicken Amaravati is chicken braised in red chilies, fenugreek, garlic and ginger, then pan roasted with curry leaves until crisp and crackling, and doused with lemon juice. To try southern cooking in all its variations, Dakshin restaurant in the Park Sheraton in Madras offers a unique opportunity to try many of the dishes mentioned above, as its large menu includes foods of all the southern regions. The interior of the expansive restaurant resembles the residence of the Raja Guru (the royal high priest), lavish with ornate carved wooden beams, temple bells and glass and gold-leaf paintings. Mouthwatering delicacies are offered on platters lined with banana leaves, the serving dishes that are replicas of 13th-century patterns called urli and adduku. Paramasivam Iyer, a celebrated chef of regal disposition, prepares specialties such as banana crepes or scallion dumplings in the dining room. Of the resurgence of regional food, Mr. Iyer said, ''This is the most wonderful thing that has happened to us Indians since independence.'' Most southern sweets are rice based and candylike, delicately flavored with saffron and cardamom. In Madras, anyone with a sweet tooth must visit the store called Grand Sweets and Snacks on Main Road downtown. About a dozen women in traditional costumes wait on customers and prepare sweets under the shady tamarind trees of the open-air shop. Try their badaam halwa (ground almonds and saffron), adirasam (a jaggery and cardamom-scented fried-rice dumpling) or mysorpak (chickpea-flour fudge) or jangery (saffron-flavored pretzels ). One day this past summer, I stood in the intense heat of the courtyard, where shady trees fanned the stillness, heavy with the spices of these traditional sweets. Watching the women wrapped in lustrous saris prepare and serve these centuries-old delicacies, I was struck by the innocent insularity of South India, seemingly unaffected by the passage of time. A GUIDE TO REGIONAL RESTAURANTS IN MADRAS AND SOUTH INDIA Hours and Customs South Indians generally prefer eating their meals - preferably seated - as soon as they are cooked. As a result, most restaurants stay open for relatively shorter periods than those in the north: 11 A.M. or noon to 3 P.M. for lunch; 6 or 7 P.M. to 9 or 10 P.M. for dinner. However, restaurants in hotels stay open longer, usually until 11 P.M. And snack bars are generally open from 6 A.M. to 9 P.M. In addition to restaurants, such as those listed below, meals can be enjoyed in a typical South Indian home setting. Reservations can be made through travel agencies specializing in cuisine-related tours, such as Himalayan Wonderlands, 121 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016, 212-564-5164.