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Land of Rice and Lentils

South Indian food culture hits its apotheosis in Sunnyvale.


Above: An assortment of dishes, including the bitesize pani puri, at Chaat Bhavan.

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Dining room at Chaat Bhavan.

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Drinks at Aappakadai.

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A thali plate at Aappakadai.

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Falooda (vermicelli, rose syrup, basil seeds, milk, and ice cream) at Nirvanaah.

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A biryani, part of the buffet spread at Ulavacharu.

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Ulavacharu where a group of diners enjoy their meal.

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If you exit off Highway 280 at Wolfe Road in Sunnyvale, you’ll be confronted with gleaming tech campuses, the incessant din of ongoing apartment construction, and a higher-than-usual concentration of Teslas. But you’ll also find stretches of El Camino Real packed with dosa shops and grocery stores that hawk freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, sold curbside, and more types of rice than you thought possible. It’s a Little India right in tech’s backyard.

In the 1990s, Sunnyvale transformed from rural fields into a hub of software innovation. Walnut and prune orchards were paved over to make room for the first dot-com boom. Thousands of math- and science-savvy South Indians from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka came to Silicon Valley in search of economic opportunities. Raj Desai, CEO of the Milpitas-based Indian Community Center, attributes the burgeoning South Indian food scene to this large number of tech immigrants. “Over the last 10, 15 years, people have become a lot more confident of their role in the companies that they work for,” Desai says. “That sense of security gives people the ability to go enjoy their life outside of work.”

Nowhere is this enjoyment more evident than in the city’s wealth of South Indian food. Everyone knows the standard dishes of the typical North Indian naan-and-curry house, but the flavors of South India are still a rarity throughout much of the Bay Area, apart from the occasional dosa shop. It is a cuisine made up primarily of rice-based dishes loaded with every type of lentil imaginable and seasoned with mustard seeds, curry leaves, and Ayurvedic ingredients like turmeric, asafetida powder, and jaggery. Imagine the ingredients of a traditional dosa—lentils and rice—dismantled and cooked in a hundred different ways.

As a South Bay kid often made to feel ashamed of the home-cooked lentil stews that my parents packed me for lunch, I saw Sunnyvale’s tiny, ginger-scented restaurants as my refuge. And if you make the trek, you, too, can spend a whole day immersing yourself in these flavors.

Breakfast of Champions

Hidden in a small shopping complex off Reed Avenue, Madurai Idli Kadai is the kind of hole-in-the-wall that’s a challenge even for Google Maps to find . This offshoot of Komala Vilas—a Sunnyvale spot known for its mild, Brahmin-style vegan dishes—specializes in a rare treat: traditional South Indian batter-based breakfasts. Start your day right by dipping the crispiest split black lentil cakes and the softest tamale-like steamed lentil-and-rice-batter mounds—vada ($3.99) and idli ($4.50), respectively— into the sambar, a stew made from yellow lentils and vegetables. And don’t forget the crowning glory of any South Indian restaurant, the pongal ($5.25), a boiling pot of mung beans and rice flavored with cumin seeds, ginger, and heaps of black peppercorns and topped with a dollop of ghee. Add some housemade coconut chutney to the porridge for a combination that’s rich and hearty with just the right amount of kick.

Dosa Heaven

On to the most underrated meal of the day: second breakfast. Driving down the highway in South India, you can be guaranteed that every rest stop has a chai stall, a herd of goats, and a Sri Ananda Bhavan franchise restaurant—the same combination you’ll find near the intersection of Central Expressway and Wolfe Road (well, except for the goats). The Sunnyvale location doesn’t serve the food on banana leaves like they do in Chennai, but the two-foot-long paper roast masala dosa ($8.95), an extra-thin crepe-like vessel filled with spicy mustard-seed potato curry, is exactly the same. Unlike the dense, under-seasoned, overpriced specimens that are typical in San Francisco, Sri Ananda Bhavan’s dosas—available in a whopping 40 varieties—are the perfect blend of crunchy, spicy, and savory. Each order comes with four chutneys—tomato, cilantro, coconut, and peanut—and a spicy sambar. Rip off a piece of dosa and use it like a tortilla chip to pick up some potato masala and one of the chutneys, then dive into the bowl of sambar. It’s messy work, but someone has to do it.

Coastal Spice

South India’s Chettinad region is known for its massive fishing industry. Aappakadai, a sit-down lunch spot sandwiched between a Latino grocery store and a UPS, is the rare Bay Area restaurant that specializes in Chettinad’s seafood-focused cuisine—including nandu masala (crab curry), chicken keema aapam (a kind of thick, curry-filled dosa), and yera milagu varuval (dry-fried shrimp with red chilies). The restaurant is the meat- and fish-loving big brother to Sunnyvale’s wealth of vegetarian eateries. On a cold day, it’s the best spot for an exceedingly spicy lunch to warm you up. The meen kozhumbu—a tamarind soup studded with large chunks of catfish, hot peppers, and curry leaves—is delicious, but so fiery it should come with a hazard warning. That soup is the star of the thali ($12.99), a “tasting plate” overloaded with garlic rasam (tomato soup), chicken curry, and mysore pak (ghee cake). Bring a friend. Even a single order can be too much food for one person.

North Meets South, Buffet-Style

If, on the other hand, you’ve timed your expedition to coincide with weekend brunch, there’s no better way to nurse your hangover than with a well-priced buff et. At Ulavacharu, a Friday-through-Sunday all-you- can-eat counter ($15.99) showcases the Islamic-influenced cooking style of the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh—mostly curry dishes that are typically associated with the north. But the buffet spread doesn’t stick to any one particular region. This is probably the only place in the Bay Area where you’ll find chilled Stella Artois next to New Delhi–style paneer butter masala next to Chennai classics such as chakkarai pongal (a beloved South Indian holiday sweet). Go with an empty stomach to maximize the biryani-to-belly ratio.

Favorite Fried Foods

Chaat Bhavan is what happens when one South Indian city—Bangalore—becomes the metropolitan hub of the entire country. As people from all over India migrated to the city, Bangalore became known for chaat—typically a North Indian category of street snacks—accented with South Indian flavors: jaggery, mint, and mustard seeds. These dishes are the particular specialty of Chaat Bhavan, where a dinner of Bangalore-style chaat might include a plate of coriander seed spiced pani puri ($5.49)—a single-bite, pastry-puff-like sphere filled to the brim with chickpeas, potatoes, lentils, tamarind sauce, and spicy-tangy “pani” water. A minty chaas ($1.99), a yogurt-based drink, will soothe any animosity you may be feeling toward the spiciness of your meal.

The Most Interesting Ice Cream in the World

Finally, dessert: When Nirvanaah opened its doors in a bustling Indian shopping complex on El Camino in 2010, the Indian community came in droves seeking flavors of kulfi, or Indian ice cream, that reminded them of childhoods spent in the blistering heat of tropical monsoon rains. Seasonal flavors include traditional favorites like gajar halwa (carrot), sitaphal (sugar apple), and, best of all, alphonso mango—almost indisputably the sweetest mango variety. And because kulfi is made without eggs, it’s lighter than most ice creams. All the easier to increase your intake.


Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco 

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