India has roughly one-sixth of the world’s total population. It is vast and densely populated with 29 states that have different customs, languages, geographies, weather, traditions and food.
Our region has a solid number of Indian restaurants that serve up dishes similar to what you’d find in Northern India, but you don’t find menus that focus on the other parts of the country.
Ethnosh, an organization that plans monthly dining events called “NoshUps” at immigrant-owned restaurants in Dayton, will be putting the spotlight on Southern Indian cuisine Jan. 21 when they visit Prems Chennai Delight near the Dayton Mall.
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These casual tasting events are a great way to sample and learn about foods from the region’s local ethnic restaurants, meet the people behind the scenes and hear their stories of coming to America. Ethnosh launched in Dayton on Oct. 13 at Olive Mediterranean Grill and has since visited Nanyea Restaurant Coffee House & Bar and La Costeñita.
The fourth NoshUp will introduce diners to head chef Premkumar Nagarathinam and his wife, Lavanya Premkumar, manager of the front of the house at Prems Chennai Delight, which opened in 2017. Named after Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu in South India where they are originally from, the menu focuses on the traditional dishes and preparations they grew up enjoying.
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The dishes, made with fresh ingredients that sometimes require more than a day of preparation and cooking, are what you would find in homes and traditional restaurants in the five states of southern India.
“You will definitely taste the unique flavor in each of the dishes,” said Nagarathinam. “If anyone has tried the food in Chennai, they will feel the same here.”
On a recent visit, Premkumar shared the restaurant has four chefs from Chennai — her husband, the head chef, a “curry specialist,” a tandoor chef and a chef who specializes in dosa (a thin rice and lentil crepe that is a staple of meals in southern India). The various dosas, which are mixed and fermented overnight, are stuffed with different ingredients like potatoes or vegetables. The kitchen team prides itself on working together to ensure it is producing authentic dishes that taste identical to the ones being served in Chennai.
Northern Indian dishes are creamier while southern Indian dishes rely on dry spices and herbs — cardamom, cinnamon, clove, fennel seeds, cumin, black pepper, ginger, garlic, onion, mint, cilantro, cilantro seeds, Thai chillies … you get the idea. This is very flavorful food.
The full Prems menu is expansive with a focus on south Indian dishes, limited north Indian dishes and some Indian street style Indo Chinese fusion dishes. It’s a lot to take in if you are unfamiliar. That’s the beauty of attending an Ethnosh event. The event takes you through the menu, the story of the restaurant and gives you a crash course in the food being served.
If you are unable to make it and love Indian food, Prems is a stop you need to add to your list. Ask plenty of questions — the front of house staff wants to find something you will enjoy that matches your tolerance for spice and takes into account any dietary restrictions and allergies. It’s a restaurant that’s hospitable and very friendly for those following a vegan or vegetarian diet.
In addition to vegetarian options, the menu features Halal chicken, goat and fish dishes including a wonderful Tava fish fry dish ($14) made with tilapia and an even better fish curry served with steamed idli ($11), a savory rice cake.
If you are really trying to explore the menu, consider ordering a dish made with gongura, a plant with a bitter flavor that is used in many southern Indian dishes.
Other dishes to consider are the Chennai-style chicken Briyani ($15), which is a large enough portion for several meals.
Masala vada ($7.50) is a great appetizer to start with made by coarsely grinding soaked lentils and chickpeas with onions, herbs and spices added. The mixture is shaped into a patty and deep-fried for a crisp exterior and soft interior. It’s a favorite snack in southern India.
The Egg Kothu Parotta ($13) is another that is popular with customers, made with flaky bread chopped into small pieces that are sautéed with meat and vegetables, mixed in with a spicy masala with egg stirred into the dish.
Consider a sweet mango lassi ($3.50) or lemon salt soda ($3) to wash it all down.
The very stark, modest restaurant may be unassuming, but the fresh, flavorful, mostly healthy food it is serving up brings all the color and heat and excitement to liven things up and a reminder that there’s a much larger world of Indian food out there to enjoy.
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