Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of South Indian Cuisine (+3 Vegan Tamil Breakfast Recipes)

Culture Tuesday is a weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores different cultures’ cuisines across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. Before you start exploring vegan South Indian cuisine with her today, you might want to click here to read her column about Indian cuisine, and here to read her column about exploring regional Indian cuisine through dal.

This article on vegan South Indian cuisine is written in collaboration with Supriya Raman of supriyaraman.com and @supriyaramankitchen on Instagram. All photographs are by her and each recipe developed by her based on the dishes she grew up eating in Tamil Nadu.

Culture Tuesday – Tamil Breakfast Dishes of Vegan South Indian Cuisine

Tamil Nadu is a state in South India. Its cuisine predominantly consists of dishes made from rice, vegetables and/or lentils with flavors from kaṟivēppilai (curry leaves), puḷi (tamarind), tēnkāy (coconut), miḷakāy (chillies) gingelly oil (untoasted sesame oil), herbs, and warm spices such as iñci (ginger), mañcaḷ (turmeric), miḷakāy tūḷ (chili powder), kaṭuku (mustard seeds), and cīrakam (cumin seeds). Within the state there are a range of regional cuisines with their own distinct flavors, ingredients, and cooking styles. These include the Karaikudi Chettinad cuisine which utilizes fresh spices to create fragrant and aromatic dishes, the Kongunadu cuisine which incorporates the significant use of millet, the Nanjilnadu cuisine which is a fusion of the general Tamil and Kerala cuisines, and the Tondaimandalam (Tondainadu) cuisine which is highlighted by the array of spices within dishes as well as the use of both fresh and dried chillies giving its dishes their hot and spicy characteristic.

While, usually, rice is the main ingredient used in meal preparations, other grains are commonly used. These include wheat, millet, and quinoa in their various forms which can also be used as substitutes for rice in a number of Tamilian recipes.

In Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, breakfast dishes tend to be hot (temperature-wise), savory, and largely plant-forward.

In Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, breakfast dishes tend to be hot (temperature-wise), savory, and largely plant-forward. They are notable as high nourishing and affordable dishes which are made using a variety of grains, lentils, herbs, and spices in various combinations and cooking methods to create a plethora of delicious dishes. 

Although there are popular Tamil breakfast dishes such as Masala Dosa, this article will highlight three lesser-known homestyle dishes with recipes often passed down through generations of families. These three dishes are Upma Pudi Kozhakattai with Upma Vadai, Idli and Vadai with Pongal, and Godhurnai (wheat dosai). Below, Supriya will talk you through each dish and share her recipes for them.

vegan south indian cuisine: rice upma
Vegan Rice Upma

Upma Pudi Kozhakattai and Upma Vadai

Upma pudi kozhakattai and upma vadai are both made from the same base of rice upma. The “Rice upma” base is made with rice and split pigeon lentils or red gram lentils (toor dal in Hindi or thuvaram paruppu in Tamil) that are broken into small couscous-sized grains, cooked with a particular combination of spices, herbs, and technique. The rice upma is then made into pudi kozhakattai (loosely translated as, “dumplings pressed in your fist”) that are steamed; and vadai that are pan-fried. The steamed kozhakattais melt in your mouth, while the crisped rice vadais are crunchy on the outside and tender inside. The pan-fried version features the unique intensely crispy golden-brown crust created by the uneven edges of the rice kernels.

vegan south indian cuisine: pongal
Vegan Pongal

Idli, Vadai, and Pongal

Idli, vadai, and pongal are all made using rice, and lentils. However, they could not taste more different than each other. A trifecta of perfection often served together with various types of chutneys and sambhar. Idli is steamed. Vadai is deep-fried. And Pongal is pressure cooked. 

Idli is made from a batter of overnight soaked parboiled rice, long-grained rice, fenugreek seeds, and black gram dal (urad dal in Hindi or ulutham paruppu in Tamil) The batter is salted and fermented overnight. That process of fermentation is a thing of beauty. When they are poured into molds and steamed the next day, they become fluffy aerated pillows perfect to dip into chutney and sambhar.

Idli, vadai, and pongal make a trifecta of perfection often served together with various types of chutneys and sambhar.

Vadai is made entirely from black gram dal with only a few teaspoons of rice. Quicker to make with only a few hours of soaking, the urad dal is blended with little to no water. When urad dal is blended, it naturally tends to become fluffy. To this, roughly crushed black pepper, fresh curry leaves, and asafoetida are added. Sometimes, onions too. This batter is expertly hand-molded into a circle with a hole in the middle and dropped into hot oil to fry. The outside is extremely crispy while the inside is like a cloud. A textural delight.

Pongal is a stick-to-your-ribs porridge-like comfort breakfast. Made from no-fragrant long-grained rice (not basmati or jasmine) and moong dal (or Payatham Paruppu in Tamil) and spiced with roasted cumin, black pepper, and ginger. Rather simple and quick to make and tastes royal. Traditionally spices are fried in ghee, however, plant-based butter works wonderfully.

vegan tamil dosai
Vegan Dosai

Godhumai (Wheat Dosai)

Godhumai, or wheat dosai, is truly a home classic rarely found anywhere else. This wheat flour-based dosai is a simpler version compared to the regular dosai which requires soaking, grinding, and overnight fermentation. This easier process makes this recipe a great last-minute “what to cook” dilemma solver. This dosai also has incredible texture; it is lacey, crispy in the edges, yet soft and tender. Served with Thogayal, a Tamil version of chutney. Depending on the type of thogayal, veggies and or herbs are first sauteed along with crisped lentils, tamarind, and spices prior to being blended into a chutney.

Vegan Tamil Breakfast Recipes by Supriya Raman


Click here or on the photo above for the full recipe.


Click here or on the photo above for the full recipe.


Click here or on the photo above for the full recipe.

Author: Samantha Onyemenam. Recipes and photography by Supriya Raman.

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If this article on vegan South Indian cuisine inspired you to learn more, you might also like:

Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Indian Cuisine

Culture Tuesday: One Dish. Three Regional Recipes. (Indian Cuisine)

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