Vegetarian in Madras

Apr 26, 2000 at 12:00 am
Udipi: Thilagam Pandian serves dosa (Indian crepe) - Metro Times Photo / Larry Kaplan
Metro Times Photo / Larry Kaplan
Udipi: Thilagam Pandian serves dosa (Indian crepe)
"I love to cook," declares Thilagam Pandian. The statement explains why Pandian gave up a job in medical records and opened a restaurant two years ago.

The simplicity of Pandian’s words contrasts with both the complexity of Indian cooking and the difficulty of running a successful restaurant. Udipi reflects the cooking of Pandian’s native state of Madras in southern India.

Located along a stretch of Orchard Lake Road that is home to several Indian restaurants, Udipi is the only vegetarian one. We began dinner with an appetizer of vada, a savory donut made of lentil flour and dotted with bright green cilantro. Two soups are offered. Rasam, a tamarind broth, is very spicy; we pulled a half-dozen red chili peppers out of the bowl. The tomato soup is less adventurous but tasty.

When we got to the entrées, I did not miss the meat, but my carnivorous co-diner grumbled as he ordered a vegetable curry cooked in coconut and yogurt. We also had uppuma, which was cream of wheat with a confetti of peas, lentils and cashews cooked into it. Unusual and delicious.

My next meal at Udipi was in the company of a vegetarian who enjoyed having free rein of the menu. We ordered dosa, a crêpe made of rice flour, which was filled to overflowing with tomatoes, potatoes and onions.

One afternoon I stopped by Udipi and Pandian described the tandoori oven in which they bake naan, a papery thin bread. "It bakes on the side of the oven," she said.

This I had to see. Pandian took me into the kitchen. The tandoori oven is lined with clay and heated with charcoal. The cook (who spelled his name carefully for me – Nasarden) took a baseball-sized lump of dough and pressed it with his fingertips into a circle bigger than a dinner plate. Then he dipped his fingers into a bowl of water and tapped them onto the bread. It was just enough moisture to make the loaf adhere to the side of the oven. Immediately, it puffed and blistered. A moment later, it was done.

At the next station, dosai are cooked on a well-seasoned griddle. The grill is prepped with water and then painted with batter applied with a wide brush. After the crêpe is flipped, it is brushed lightly with oil, which gives it a rich taste without excessive use of fat.

At the next stovetop a wok full of hot oil is used to cook the vada we had enjoyed as an appetizer. A bubbling cauldron was at the end of this row.

"What’s this?" I asked, peering into the milky liquid. A cheese is made with milk and vinegar then boiled in a sugar syrup and served as dessert, Pandian explained.

Indian cooking is labor intensive and full of esoteric ingredients that can overwhelm American cooks, so I am content to let Thilagam Pandian do what she loves to do. If you are a more adventurous cook than I am, Pandian has written a privately published cookbook, for sale at the restaurant for $12.