North Indian food is not so hard to find in Sydney – all those rich, thick, creamy, bright red curries with soft, charry naan breads; oily, hot pickles and refreshing, cooling lassis on the side. But South Indian food, is more rare in these parts. It’s lighter and made for the tropics: the curries are looser, more immediately complex, often imbued with the aromatic scents of mustard seeds popped in the pan, earthy curry leaves and sour, citrusy tamarind fruit.
One of the most common dishes in the south is dosa: giant, super-thin crepe-like pancakes made from fermented rice and lentil batter (gluten free, yeah!) and filled with curry. Although there are many types of dosa at Janani, we urge you to try Tamil Nadu’s choice version, ‘masala’ dosa (filled with crushed potatoes with curry leaves and mustard seeds) to get a true taste of the Indian subcontinent. In India, it is often served with a dip of sour, tamarind-toned sambal and refreshing, mustardy coconut chutney. Here you get both of these, plus a mild chilli sauce and three different veggie curries. Break pieces of the crisp, slightly sour pancake off with your hands, top them with the potato filling and dip into your choice of curries. Not bad for $10.
If you’re like us and like a bit of spice at breakfast time, don’t miss the uttapam. Often described as ‘Indian pizza’, it’s a base with toppings, but that’s where the similarities end. Like dosa, the batter is made from fermented lentils and rice, so it’s nice and sour. But unlike dosa, it is served thick and spongy and studded with goodies. You can have it topped as you like at Janani, but we love just getting a bit of everything on there: carrots, onions, tomatoes – the lot. And all of those six delicious curries/dips you got with your dosa, you get with this too. Winning!
Another brekky option is idli. The batter is made of the same ingredients (fermented lentils and rice – Indian food is nothing if not resourceful), but instead is cooked using small moulds, so that the result is like soft little rice cakes, ready to be dipped and guzzled. You get a dip of sour veggie sambal, chilli sauce and cooling coconut chutney, and a coriander chutney to keep things herbal.
Indians invented tapas long before the Spanish, and thali, usually served at lunch in India (but available all day at Janani) is a bit like that. ‘Thali’ actually refers to the plate on which this meal is served, which allows for a heap of rice in the middle and a number of other dishes surrounding it (here there are eight, plus poori and pappadum breads). We go veggo and order the South Indian thali, which means little dishes of sambal, vegetable dahl, eggplant and tamarind curry, yogurt, coconut dahl and yellow dahl, plus a dessert bowl of kheer (sweet, milky soup with vermicelli noodles). There are richer, meat-centric thalis available in the North Indian style, or even a seafood version. The way to do things is this, though: pour a small amount of curry onto the rice and then pick it up with your right hand, or use your bread to do the job (check out the video below for a visual). Nothing tastes better than food eaten using your hands; trust us.
Janani isn’t a glamorous affair: it’s a big open space right on the highway near Strathfield in what feels like an industrial estate. It’s pretty quiet when we visit and would feel a bit soulless if it weren’t for the warm service and Bollywood films on the set. Which is actually quite like how restaurants in India feel: it’s all about the people, the laughs and the amazing food. Sure, it’s not exactly central, but getting out there is half the fun. Call it a ‘culinary adventure’. You won’t leave disappointed.