(June 25) Perhaps you’ve been in a discussion about whether you eat to live or live to eat. That conversation would take on new dimensions if you asked someone from India.

In the thinking of that culture, spices, flavors and combinations of both help your digestion, perk you up, slow you down or cool you off. The Eastern diet plays into an ancient system of holistic healing, called ayurvedic medicine. Besides diet, ayurvedic medicine touches on herbal remedies, exercise, spiritual practices and other methods to bring a person into balance.

It was the diet’s part of this system that led Roger Berkowitz, owner of the 26 Legal Sea Foods restaurants, with headquarters in Boston, to add a few southern Indian dishes to the menu a year ago.

He felt that seafood would be a good match with southern Indian cuisine since both are light and healthful, says Richard Vellante, executive chef and vice president of food operations.

After restaurant officials visited southern India and brought in two consulting chefs, the chain added eight southern Indian dishes to the menu — four of which remain, Vellante says.

Even if you don’t relate to the medicinal angle of Indian cuisine, you can relate to changing demographics and consumers’ interest in trying different cultural cuisines.

The Indian-American population in the U.S. increased 106% from 1990 to 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s the third-largest Asian-American group in the country, behind Chinese and Filipino Americans.

NATIONAL PROFILE

It’s difficult to generalize the national cuisine when the flavors, traditions and characteristics vary by region. But geography plays a part in distinguishing southern from northern Indian fare.

The South is tropical and primarily is a vegetarian region. “The people there are comparatively poorer than their northern brothers,” says Julie Sahni, a New York author, cooking teacher and consultant. She wrote the popular cookbooks “Classic Indian Cooking” and “Classic Indian Vegetable Cookbook.”

Perhaps it’s the tropical climate that makes Southerners less likely to use heavy creams associated with northern India. However, Southerners focus more on spices making the food more spicy hot.

Their diet primarily is rice, vegetables and yogurt. Each part of the meal usually is rice or some sort of pancake or crepe covered with variations of spicy or sweet mixtures of vegetables, sauces or yogurt.

If you’d like to duplicate a southern Indian meal, note the common spices, ingredients, vegetables and meal parts.

A common meal has three courses: rice and rasam, rice and sambhar and yogurt and rice.

REFRESHING RASAM

To start the meal, you have rice with rasam, which is thick, spicy tamarind and tomato soup. Rasam has a cooling effect and helps the digestion, says Madhur Jaffrey, consultant and cookbook author from New York. She has written several cookbooks, including “Flavors of India: Classics and New Discoveries,” “A Taste of India” and “An Invitation to Indian Cooking.”

Tamarind is a common fruit in southern Indian cuisine. The trees grow wild and produce the fruit with a sweet/sour flavor. It makes you feel cool, which is important in a tropical area, Sahni says. “It’s very medicinal and is used in drinks and desserts. … It’s added to balance flavor. Tamarind is known as the poor man’s lemon,” she says.

Prem Kumar, lecturing instructor in culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y., says rasam is similar to tomato consomme. It is extraction of tomato juice that is tempered. Tempering in India means to heat something to the point it smokes and then add mustard seeds. For rasam, add curry leaves and a little cumin and chilies. Pour the tempered ingredients over the tomato extraction and cover it to let the flavors blend. Then customers drink the rasam in a cup or glass.

Legal Seafood added a variation of rasam to its menu, which has turned out to be popular, Vellante says. “We decided to add seafood. It’s not real thick. It has a lot of nourishment and makes you feel good. It’s flavorful and warming,” he says.

It’s called mysore seafood rasam on the menu, described as a hot and sour seafood stew with tomatoes, shrimp, scallops and cod served with steamed jasmine rice.

STABILITY OF SAMBHAR

Another part of the southern Indian meal features sambhar served with rice or poured over a rice crepe called a dosa.

Sambhar is a thick vegetable and lentil soup or stew. It’s a primary dish of south India. “It’s highly seasoned with a very aromatic curried flavor you get from a spice blend, which is a version of curry called sambhar powder,” Sahni says.

To make the soup, cook the legumes (yellow or red lentils) with turmeric and salt. Then add a variety of vegetables, Sahni says.

Eggplant, squash, okra, pumpkins, potatoes, green beans, onions, cabbage and bell peppers are common vegetables of south India.

The vegetables in sambhar at Udipi Café in Decatur, Ga., are eggplant, bell peppers, cabbage, squash and radishes, says employee Remos Cardozo. To keep the soup from becoming too thick, the eggplant and squash are not peeled. “If you peel the skin, (the vegetable) mashes up when you boil it. Sambhar has to be thin,” he says.

As an accompaniment, serve sambhar over rice or over a dosa.

DOSA DOUGH

Dosa batter is fermented, which gives it a sourdough flavor. To make it, soak rice and lentils in cold water overnight until they are soft. Then grind it into a batter and ferment it. It has a silky consistency. In Hindi, dosa means silk, says Patty Gentry, a partner with Hampton Chutney Co., with two New York restaurants.

The restaurants have expanded the world of dosas, following Americans’ acceptance of crepes. Besides served plain with sambhar poured over the top, dosas often are filled with ingredients.

Masala dosa, common in southern India, is wrapped around a mixture of potatoes, onions and spices.
Hampton Chutney Co. offers 14 dosas, which have been westernized, says co-owner Gary MacGurn. One is filled with roasted butternut squash, potatoes, mushrooms and arugula. In spring the restaurants serve one filled with grilled asparagus with roasted red peppers. Another features avocado, grape tomatoes, arugula and jack cheese.

While Hampton Chutney Co. appeals more to American tastes, consider the dosa types available from Indian restaurants.

Ruchi restaurant in Overland Park, Kan., serves moong dosa, which is made with green lentils, onions and chilies. Mysore masala dosa features hot chutney, potatoes and onions. Rava masala dosa has a vegetable filling.

Udipi Cafe serves special rava masala dosa, which is Cream of Wheat and rice crepes grilled with onions and chilies and filled with potatoes and onions.

DAHLS AND CHUTNEY

No matter the meal, some part of it must include lentils, which sometimes comes in the form of lentil curry or dahl. It often is served by itself next to rice, the CIA’sKumar says.

To make dahl, boil and puree lentils, then temper it by cooking it until it smokes and add cumin seed, curry leaves, green chilies, turmeric powder and chili powder. It’s a simple dish, he says.

If a meal does not include sambhar, it must have dahl for the lentils, Kumar says. Lentils are important for the protein.

Chutney is another important meal component, often served in small quantities on the side. Sometimes it’s spicy, sometimes sweet, Kumar says.

While chutney is popular throughout India, southern Indian chutney could make heavy use of coriander, coconut, mustard seed, split peas and chilies, Jaffrey says.

Tamarind chutney is popular in the south for its cooling effect.

Legal Seafood added an herbal chutney sampler to its appetizer list featuring four chutney flavors to spread on bread. The flavors are cilantro, orange peel, peppery tomato and mint, Vellante says.

Hampton Chutney Co. majors on chutney as its name implies. The company sells six chutney flavors, not only to guests, but wholesale to those who order from across the country. “Each chutney has different ingredients, but they all have chilies and ginger or garlic and cilantro, MacGurn says. The six flavors are cilantro, mango, tomato, curry, peanut and pumpkin.

He recommends serving chutney on top of chicken or fish.

SCOOP ON CURRY

Southern Indian cuisine is known for its use of spices or curry.

In its list of seafood specialties, Ruchi features fish masala, which is marinated fish with spicy curry sauce and shrimp vindaloo, which is curried shrimp with potatoes.

Curry combinations are unending. Each vegetable can be served mixed with curry, which is a combination of many spices. These often are cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, pepper, saffron and chilies. Southern Indian curry often has more coriander and adds fenugreek and turmeric.

The heat of curry helps with digestion. Heat from both the temperature and spices predigest the food, so it is not harsh on the digestive system.

If you plan to add southern Indian cuisine to your menu, Legal Sea Foods’ Vellante suggests you do your research. “India is big and the climate is different. Really understand how they eat and what they eat,” he says.

He’s glad the restaurants added some southern Indian flavors to the menu. “The clientele appreciates that you have a global view of things and are interested in other cultures and have the ability to share other cultures with them,” he says.