When I say the words “South Indian food,” what comes to your mind? More likely than not, you think of idli, dosa, chutney, sambhar and so on. In the popular imagination, these delicacies have come to represent what is termed “South Indian cuisine.” However, the broadness of this category doesn’t do justice to the culinary diversity of the geographic region it covers. There’s no shame in enjoying your staple idlis and dosas, but it’s important to know that the southern states have much more to offer. And once you get a taste of those, you might just find yourself drawn to their aromas again and again. This was a significant takeaway after my recent meal at Dakshin, which recently shifted to ITC Grand Central in Mumbai.
Dakshin’s first outpost was established more than three decades ago. Since 1989, Chef Praveen Anand and his team of culinary experts from different regions of the South have been working to stay true to the restaurant’s vision. The first one was at ITC Kakatiya in Hyderabad. The mission is to give diners a glimpse into the many flavourful layers of South Indian food. To that end, one gets the opportunity to taste dishes from not just one or two, but five states here: Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and Telangana.
The newly reopened Dakshin maintains the traditional decor of its earlier avatar at the ITC Grand Maratha in Andheri. Richly polished wooden panels, ornate furniture, soft lighting and motifs of cultural symbols – all reflect the temple-style architecture the flagship restaurant is known to take its inspiration from. With this magnificent setting as our backdrop, we began our feast. We were first served the appalam basket (containing crisp pappadams) and an array of five chutneys, which we treated as a dip. Dakshin made an impression right from the start – these were some of the most delicious chutneys we have ever tasted. They were followed by items from “Iyer’s Trolley“. The trolley is known for its purely vegetarian fare, made in vessels that are also kept separate from others in the kitchen. . The trolley functions as a mini “live kitchen” experience: you can see your adai dosa, paniyaram and banana dosa cooking to golden goodness.
Dakshin is famous for its “Signature Dining Experiences” which present set portions of delicacies from different states. You can choose between Saivam (Vegetarian), Asaivam (Non-Vegetarian), Maitsyam (Seafood) and Saivam No Onion- No Garlic (Vegetarian). The Sampoornam (which has a separate curation for veg and non-veg), offers extra dishes in each course. Apart from the signature curations, you can also order individual delicacies separately. The last part of the menu is dedicated to a state-wise selection of culinary delights.
You might be wondering if the serving style here is like that of a thali. One does get limited portions of a wide variety of food items, ranging from appetisers to main course. The treats are served on a beautiful thali covered with banana leaves. Unlike a thali, however, everything included in the meal is not placed simultaneously on your table. Dakshin’s aim to take you on a culinary journey is further emphasised here: dishes arrive sequentially in batches and you can take your time to savour each one. This also means that you can enjoy your starters without worrying about your main course getting too cold.
As part of the appetisers, we tasted two a la carte items from the “Prarambham” category: Meen Varuval (fish fry) and Telangana Kodi Roast (chicken). Both were delicious, but the latter is something you should definitely not miss. We were then treated to a range of items from the various set menus. Each morsel made us acutely aware of how each dish managed to tease our taste buds differently. As Chef Prakash Mohanarangan explained to us, each region of South India has its own preferred souring agent and type of chilli. Although you may recognise the broad tastes of each dish, you’ll realise that what constitutes tartness or spice in one place is different from another, even if it may just be a few 100 kilometres away.
We saw that play out in front of us as we savoured dry preparations, vegetable dishes, curries, stews and more. For instance, we especially enjoyed the Chemeen Manga Charu (a Keralite Prawns curry with bydagi chillies and raw mango) and the Ooragai Mamsam (an Andhra mutton pickle-like curry). Comparing these taught us first-hand that sourness can be delightfully distinctive. But these considerations are an additional source of enjoyment – not the foundation of it. Dakshin manages to recreate the heartiness of home-style food in a fine-dining setting. You don’t feel like you have to make an effort to enjoy the food – you simply do!
We relished our savouries with classic accompaniments like idiyappam, veechu paratha, steamed rice and appams. Among the rice options, there was also biryani, bagala bhath (curd rice) and bisi bhele bhath. What a spread, right? But that’s not all of it. There are also some amazing drinks you can sip on. The Neer More (South Indian spiced buttermilk) here is a classic and you’ll be tempted to guzzle it in gallons. We loved that they served the tangy rasam in a glass rather than a bowl. Those wanting another kind of ‘hot drink’ won’t be disappointed either. Among the signature cocktails, we recommend East Coast Road and Banjara Hills. The latter – a concoction of dry gin, fresh watermelon, basil, orange pulp, tonic and chia seeds – paired with our meal especially well.
It was time for the sweet ending to our afternoon, in the form of a tempting trio: Elaneer Payasam, Badam Halwa and Kadal Patchee. The soothing notes of coconut in the payasam and the richness of the (not oversweet) badam halwa were fitting comforts after the savoury courses. It was our first time trying Kadal Patchee, a frozen dessert made using khoya and pistachios. Rather reminiscent of kulfi, this had chilled layers of milky goodness that were more than happy to dig into. As full as our bellies were, we could not leave without sipping on some piping hot filter coffee.
Having travelled around South India since a child, I had fallen in love with the different regional cuisines. But on coming home to Mumbai, I would usually find them homogenised under the “South Indian food” category. One could find establishments that perhaps specialised in the cuisine of one or two states – but not all of them. Dining at Dakshin was therefore a standout experience. If you too wish to discover the intricate tapestry of flavours woven throughout the Southern states of India, Dakshin is the place to be.
Where: ITC Grand Central, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Road, Parel, Mumbai