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If an alien from the planet Persephone landed in Bordentown, New Jersey, and found herself hungry after her light-years'-long journey, she might wander into Mastori's Diner for a little something to take the edge off. But she might not have the faintest idea what to order or how to eat any of it. There would be 77 sandwiches alone, for one thing. For another, being an alien, she'd be forgiven for guessing that the creamed spinach was supposed to be stirred into her onion soup; or her jelly donut dunked in mustard and slathered with hot sauce; or that a three-course dinner could very likely begin with lox and bagel, progress to an order of cinnamon buns, and finish with a bowl of spaghetti. If she ordered, in her confusion, French fries, a baked potato, a plate of potato pancakes, and a side of mashed, her nonplussed waitress might just figure it was the latest fad diet.
When we found ourselves at Udipi Café in Sunrise last week one of a nationwide, family-run chain of vegetarian, alcohol-free, South Indian diners we were that alien. I'd had South Indian food only once before, in L.A., and I had pleasant memories of a delicious dosa with lots of spicy and creamy things to dunk it in. But I'd been with friends who were regulars there; they'd done all the ordering. I'd let myself be carried along on the gentle currents of their expertise, never imagining that some day I'd be called on to navigate a South Indian menu solo.
I've eaten plenty of North Indian curries, but frankly, the menu at Udipi might as well have been written in hieroglyphics. There were idlies and vadas and bondas, rava masala dosai, uthappams, bagala baths, uppumas, baturas and avial, and a full dinner that included sambar, kootu, poriyal, rasam, curd, papad, payasam, and tea. I recognized that last one tea a bit of floating flotsam in a perilous, storm-tossed, gastronomic ocean. I clung to it like a drowning woman.
2100 N. University Drive
Plantation, FL 33322
To complicate matters, the menu also offered "amchi mumbai-ki-Chinese." These offerings included paneer fingers (dry) and paneer tuk tum ("tender marinated homemade cottage cheese, bell pepper, onions, cooked in spicy selyan sauce") and other Szechuan/curry cross-bred concoctions as bizarre as any mythic chimera. If you searched desperately enough, you might discover the familiar samosa or a simple black dal, but by the time you found it, you'd be too exhausted to do more than gesture weakly for a refill on your chai.
I realized I'd been badly whupped, foodwise. I floundered through my first meal at Udipi, ordering the equivalent of a Kosher frank with oatmeal, plus a side of broiled chicken with Boston cream pie sauce, and slunk away in shame. Then I did a whole lot of homework and went back. I here offer... well, think of it as a star chart. I can't promise you'll reach any recognizable destination. This is a very, very rough map, my friends. I'm just hoping to prevent you from suffering the humiliation of appearing to the kindly and vigilant staff at Udipi to be as dumb as the proverbial American fence post. Udipi's food is delicious if exotic to us aliens but worth the time you invest in learning it. It's also almost impossible to spend more than 15 bucks for a meal, no matter how much you eat, making it one of Broward's most interesting cheap-grub destinations and an absolute paradise for teetotaling vegetarians.
Lesson one. The South Indian meal: Three starches and a starch. The most important thing to remember about a South Indian dinner is that it consists of three main courses: rice, rice, rice... plus a rice-based dessert. I highly recommend you begin your journey with the South Indian thali "Dinner for One" ($13.50), which is in fact a generous dinner for at least two. You'll find this option, if memory serves, on page three of your menu.
Your waiter will bring you a stainless-steel tray with a bowl of white rice in the center, covered with a lid of papadam crispy, thin, lentil-flour wafers and a soft round of roti bread. Arrayed around this center like little planets around the sun you'll find lots of cups holding brightly colored foodstuffs. A South Indian would begin her first course by putting a spoonful or two of rice on her plate, then pouring some sambar on top of it. Sambar is a kind of thick, scrumptious soup made with red lentils, onions, tamarind and sambar powders, fenugreek, and curry leaves, among other things. You can eat this alongside the dosa that your waiter has also set down a lentil crepe both soft and crispy, filled with a tiny scoop of potatoes and onions. Alongside this, moving clockwise around your tray, you can add a bit of dal (spicy chick peas). Advanced students might request a substitution of lemon rice, basmati with yogurt and mustard seeds, tamarind rice, jeera rice, or hyderabadi biryani in place of the plain white variety (all $7.95).
What to do with your hands. Use them. Particularly the right one. You'll need to rip off a piece of that dosa and employ it to scoop up your sambar and rice (a fork works fine for this too).