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.
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).
Second course. Moving in a clockwise fashion around the little dishes, you'll take another scoop of yes, you guessed it rice. You'll pour some rasam on top. Rasam is the watery, dark tamarind soup with little unidentifiable bits of green leaves floating in it. With your rasam and rice, you'll take up pieces of your crackly papadam and use them as scoops, if you like, or just enjoy their papery, chip-like texture and faintly bitter flavor with the runny rice.
Third course: Kurds. Kurds in India can mean anything from a semi-runny yogurt made with buttermilk to a dense cottage cheese cut into chunks (paneer, you've seen it elsewhere). In this case, it's cottage cheese in a soft spinach stew. Mix it all up with your last scoop of rice. Put some of that lovely onion-and-coconut mixture on your plate too (that's the avail, or avial, or avayal) and your spicy, dry, curried cauliflower (the poriyal), and some kootu (curried vegetables in gravy) if you didn't already eat all your kootu with your sambar. And polish off that very sour-hot dish of pickles while you're at it. Your roti makes a nice accompaniment here, if you've got a crumb of it left.
By this time, you should have only one dish a rose-colored mush of creamed rice and pistachios and cardamom and coconut and sugar and God knows what else. It's very sweet and lovely with your stainless-steel cup of masala chai.
So much for your first visit. Pay your bill, which will amount to pennies, and tip lavishly. Consider yourself launched. There are amazing things in your future. Light snacks, for instance, are an almost infinite category of comestibles although I don't recommend you make a meal of these unless you're carb-loading for a marathon. You'll gleefully discover the mildly sour iddly ($3.75), steamed rice and bean-flour cakes dipped in yogurt/coconut chutney and lentil sauces; the vada ($3.75), fried lentil donuts; and paneer pakoras ($4.95), fingers of homemade cheese in chickpea sauce. There's "street food," like stuffed puris filled with potatoes, rice, onion, tomatoes, and cilantro ($4.25). A full list of dosai, some as long as a grown man's arm enormous rice, bean flour, and cream-of-wheat crepes to pull apart and eat with sambar and chutney ($5.25 to $7.95). Of particular weird deliciousness are the rava dosai something like the thinnest potato pancake you've ever eaten (although they're made of cream of wheat), full of airy holes, alternately crunchy and pliant. You'll see the gigantic puffballs of filled baturas ($2.95) going by and the house specialties, like pesarat uppuma ($8.95) made of ground moong dal, rice, and cream of wheat with onions and chilis. I regret not trying the falooda ($3.50), a dessert made with condensed milk, vermicelli, "special veggie seeds," and raspberry syrup that's served with rose ice cream. And although I could live on their perfectly fragrant masala chai, I understand that sweet, milky Mysore coffee ($1.75), grown in the Karnakata peninsula and made rich and smooth by monsoon rains, is the preferred after-dinner drink for South Indians.
You'll be dining among 75 percent South Indians and 25 percent hippies accustomed to a life rich with rice and potatoes, so just watch what they're eating and what they're spooning on top of it. For under a 20-dollar bill, you've fortified yourself for your trip home to Persephone or Plantation. Take a spoonful of fennel seeds and candy on your way out; they're a terrific digestive.