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Where EAST meets the Northwest

TASTES OF SOUTH INDIA. The Planet Food travel series explores Southern India’s spice-laden cuisine, from Bombay to Bangalore to Cochin, in "South India." The show airs Saturday, April 25 on Oregon Public Broadcasting. Pictured is the show’s host, Padma Lakshmi. (Photo/Steve Davey, courtesy of Pilot Productions USA)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #16 (April 21, 2009), page 9 & 16.

OPB dishes out exotic tastes of India on Planet Food

By Allison Rupp

The more people you cook for, the better the flavor," says Padma Lakshmi, host of the travel show Planet Food, whose South India segment airs this month on Oregon Public Broadcasting. If this is the case, then India, one of the world’s most populous nations, must dish up some amazing tastes.

Judging from Planet Food’s footage as it meanders from Bombay to Bangalore to Cochin on the southern coast, India is home to an array of savory dishes such as biryani, masala dosa, and fish curry.

The hour-long episode begins in Bombay, where examining the food culture reveals innovative systems of cooking and serving food to the enormous population. The impossibility of dine-in restaurants serving all of Bombay’s patrons is one explanation for the proliferation of street food.

Another staple of the city’s eating culture, the tiffin courier service, began as a luxury for high officials but evolved into a necessity for every middle-class businessman in Bombay. Each afternoon, 5,000 tiffin wallahs deliver more than 200,000 lunches to Bombay’s office workers, each prepared by their wives at home.

From Bombay, Lakshmi visits Hyderabad to sample the famous biryani — lamb marinated in spices such as cumin and cinnamon — slow-cooked in an earthen vessel and served over saffron rice.

Then it’s on to Bangalore, where the best masala dosa breakfast awaits (along with lines of customers) at the landmark Mavalli Tiffin Rooms. Here the dosa, an Indian-style crępe, is filled with curried potatoes and onions and topped with ghee, a rich butter simmered until the milk separates from the fat.

In Cochin, located in India’s Southern tropics, Lakshmi samples a fish curry that she later votes the best food in the country. Legend says the region’s cuisine was deemed too spicy for the stomachs of European traders who began to do business in Cochin’s spice ports, so one woman began adding coconut milk to make her dishes milder. The practice caught on, and now coconut milk is a vital ingredient in many recipes.

No television footage of Cochin is complete without a glimpse of the spice trade, which provides images of mountains of peppercorns, ginger, turmeric, and cardamom. But Planet Food’s "South India" surpasses the usual spice tour with a visit to the pepper exchange. Like the stock exchange, traders yell and scream and pump their fists at one another, all for the sake of Cochin’s "black gold" — the peppercorn.

Planet Food’s final destination is the Krishna temple in Udupi, where 8,000 to 10,000 pilgrims eat for free every day. The food, which is donated or purchased with money from the temple’s collection boxes, is simple yet delicious, proof indeed that the more people you serve, the better the flavor.

In fact many of India’s top chefs train in the temple’s kitchens, which run with the help of more than 600 workers and 400 sacred, milk-producing cows. The efficiency with which the food is served and eaten is a sight in itself — an entire meal in less than 20 minutes.

Lakshmi — who viewers may recognize from the 2001 Mariah Carey movie Glitter or her stint as a judge on the Food Network’s "Top Chef" — handles the chefs gracefully and samples each dish with relish, though her descriptive vocabulary is limited. "This is good. This is really good," she repeats often. The model-actress and her frequently bare midriff draw crowds of gawkers at every destination, an obvious departure in style from Planet Food’s parent show, Globe Trekker.

Planet Food’s "South India" airs on Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) Saturday, April 25 from 8:00 to 9:00pm and repeats Monday, April 27 at midnight. For more information, call (503) 293-1982, or visit <www.opb.org> or <www.globetrekkertv.com>.