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By Dave DeWitt
Although there is no definitive proof, I suspect that curries originated in southern India because the Malabar Coast of Kerala became the first spice-growing region of India. Black pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, and cardamom first grew wild there, and then were cultivated for centuries before they spread into the other regions.
The Essentials of Southern Curries
In addition to the numerous spices found in the curries of southern India, there is one enormously important ingredient: the coconut. It is difficult to imagine a social function in many southern Indian states where coconuts are not present. At wedding ceremonies and the breaking of ground at construction sites, a coconut is broken. According to tradition, the act is a powerful but bloodless sacrifice to invoke the blessings of the gods. In thousands of temples across southern India, priests break a coconut before an idol of their gods, and distribute the meat to devotees as a sort of communion.
Traditionalists believe that the meat and water of the coconut represent the Hindu trinity of Bramha, Vishnu, and Shiva. However revered the coconut is in Hindu society, it is also and integral part of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Jain cuisines as well. The milk and coconut meat transform hundreds of ordinary fish, meat, and vegetable dishes into memorable treats. Although canned coconut milk is now available in Asian markets, I suggest that cooks prepare their own by following the suggestions and recipe here.
Another essential ingredient in the curries of southern India is tamarind, the tangy, sun-dried pods that often are sold in the form of a dried cake. Tamarind is also available in markets as paste, jars of concentrated pulp, syrup, and even powders.
The food of southern India is unknown to most non-Indians who visit Indian restaurants outside India. Most of these restaurants serve what is known as Moghlai and Punjabi foods from India's north and northwestern regions. The bias for this northern food is due largely to the fact that most of the early restaurant owners in the U.K. and U.S. were from these regions, and their success was widely copied.
Even in India, northerners have a limited idea of the incredible variety of delicacies found in the south. Most northerners (and non-Indians too) believe that all southerners are vegetarians. Many "experts" make statements like: "Over eighty percent of the population of India are vegetarians; and the southern half of India is almost exclusively so." Such observations are simply not true and have been fueled by articles in newspapers and magazines that perpetuate this myth, spread (perhaps unwittingly) by people from the two Indian states that are predominantly vegetarian. In Gujarat, in India's northwest, and in its neighboring state Rajasthan, at least seventy-five percent of the people are vegetarians because of the lingering influence of the Jain religion; with the rest of the India, the reverse proportion is true. The myth about Indian's food habits owes a lot to the Gujaratis, the largest group of Indian immigrants in North America and Britain.