Influenced by a myriad traditions and cultures, India's cuisine is wonderfully rich and Varied. Until recently, food from the North has dominated, but thanks to a southern renaissance, we now get to enjoy the subcontinent's culinary diversity

Integrity. I run into the word whenever I eat or discuss Indian food. Sure enough, it's right on the menu at newly opened Saravanaa Bhavan on Broadway: "Authentic South Indian cuisine." "I hate that word," says my lunch companion, Meeru Dhalwala, as she helps herself to the buffet of classic South Indian dishes like channa, idli, sambar, and other assorted treats. Dhalwala is half of the husband-and-wife team behind the ceaselessly celebrated Vij's and Rangoli restaurants just off Granville. (The other half is her husband, Vikram Vij.) No one would ever call their recipes "authentic"-in the context of their genre-bending restaurants, the word is oppressive. Vij's earned its fame by fusing Indian flavours with local ingredients and contemporary cooking techniques; Rangoli does a more casual version of the same. They're tossing "authenticity" aside to create food that's more connected to immediate influences than to an imagined, far-away past. Yet the lunch we're enjoying today at Saravanaa Bhavan (a chain of South Indian restaurants with locations in eight countries worldwide, including a whopping 19 in its hometown of Chennai) encapsulates something else happening to Indian food, both in Vancouver and on a global scale. Northern-style food-with its rich, stew-like curries and tandoor-cooked meats-has long been synonymous with Indian cuisine in these parts, so much so that bastardized versions of Punjabi-style samosas and butter chicken turn up in 7-Elevens and Costco freezers. But after decades of a northern-style stranglehold, southern cooking is storming Vancouver kitchens. I discovered Indian food as a child, at a Calgary restaurant called Taj Mahal. I tasted a masala of spices and a richness of textures I'd never imagined during my upbringing of char siu and cheeseburgers: tandoori chicken, basmati rice cooked with cardamom, the velvety potato-and-spinach curry saag aloo. I was convinced I'd never taste anything finer. Northern Indian food is, at heart, food descended from the courts of the legendary Mughal emperors, whose pursuit of luxury knew no bounds. These rulers controlled northern India, but had ethnic roots in what is now Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The clay tandoor oven in particular has Central Asian lineage. Imported chefs came from everywhere the Mughal empire touched. Europeans, particularly the Portuguese, introduced foods like potatoes, tomatoes, and even chili peppers from their conquests in South America. (Before 1500, the hottest Indian spice was black pepper.) The now-standard Indian vindaloo is a corruption of the Portuguese carne de vinho e alhos-pork cooked in wine vinegar. You can sample the progenitors of what we now call northern Indian cuisine in the kebabs and palaws at the Afghan Horsemen near Granville Island, and at Persian restaurants on the North Shore. India's food is as varied as its array of religions, landscapes, and cultures. Recipes differ from village to village, even from house to house, but the line between northern food (those marinated tandoor meats and butter-rich curries) and southern food (pancake-like breads and thinner, more soup-like curries) is bold and clear. Overall, southern dishes are lighter and more suited to everyday dining, with sharp tangy tamarind, citrusy-and-bitter curry leaves, velvety coconut, and generous doses of chilies the dominant flavours. The dosa, a crêpe-like pancake made from a fermented batter of rice, urad dal, and water, is perhaps the region's most famous export; idlis are steamed cakes made with similar batter. Both are usually served with sambar, a lentil-based stew, and a variety of chutneys. Nooru Mahal, a six-year-old Fraser Street spot run by Sri Lankan native Raj Aiyathurai, is a stalwart, and one of the city's original southern Indian restaurants-regional devotees love Aiyathurai's recipes, which come not from the generic "South" but from Sri Lanka in particular. Back at Saravanaa Bhavan, our conversation turns to a menu item at Rangoli. Dhalwala has created a dish of black chickpea, pea, and onion cakes in a spicy coconut curry. I assumed the dish was inspired by a southern recipe-not so, explains Dhalwala. She had no qualms about adding southern coconut to a dish with Punjabi spices. She didn't grow up in India, and thus doesn't feel burdened by its conventions. A lot of the fuss about what is and isn't authentic, she says, has to do with marketing. No restaurant owner questioned here would dare admit his food isn't authentic. In India, such rules are too rigid for such a varied cuisine. "If you actually get an Indian chef," she says with a laugh, "he'll say, ‘I don't know if it's authentic. It's mine.' " Vancouver boasts countless Indian restaurants, thanks to the region's 150,000-strong Indo-Canadian community. Most of the immigrants, and their restaurants, are Punjabi, and so you might think the quality of the food would be fantastic by sheer force of numbers. But India's restaurant culture has only recently blossomed in the wake of globalization. Historically, social and religious beliefs restricted not only the foods people ate, but whom they ate with and the kinds of people they would allow to serve them. An upper-caste Brahmin, for example, would never put lips to a cup that had been used by a Dalit, who belongs to the lowest rung. Modern restaurant culture grew in the 1920s and 1930s out of the necessity to feed a swelling class of urban office workers. Even today, Indian restaurants are mainly utilitarian eateries, not places to seek pleasure in a meal; home-cooked meals remain the best way to experience Indian food. In Mumbai, deliverymen transport tens of thousands of homemade lunches each day from wives and mothers to their working men, in a network as intricate as an ant colony. This shallow history of restaurant culture in India means that many establishments in Vancouver are started by immigrants with business, or other non-culinary, backgrounds. There is little prestige in becoming a chef, so young Indians don't typically aspire to the profession; for the most part, restaurants here are established by people who can work a spreadsheet but not a clay oven. So where do you find really great Indian food in Vancouver? We've got some ideas.

Northern Foundations

Raga

This West Side institution, which opened in 1981, serves food fit for the legendary Mughal emperors. Raga's charcoal-fired tandoor produces luxuriously tender meat. Chicken is unbelievably juicy; prawns are plump and tender. Light curries allow the spices to sing-this is why you fell for Indian food in the first place. Many vegetarian options are available. 1177 W. Broadway, 604-733-1127

Ashiana Tandoori

Writing in this magazine in the early 1990s, James Barber called Ashiana's "undoubtedly the best Indian food in the city." And its northern-style classics still earn gushing reviews. The menu and the prices haven't changed since 1992, but chef/owner Rick Takhar keeps re-inventing his food; his newest creations are found on the takeout menu. Try "Chef Rick specialties" like jaan-e-man-potatoes, jackfruit, cauliflower, and spinach cooked in peanut sauce-and tofu corn methi malai. The sauce for his ginger-and-garlic-infused chicken dilpasand is sublime; ask for the takeout menu even if you dine in.1440 Kingsway, 604-874-5060

Southern Wave

Nooru Mahal

Nooru Mahal was a Punjabi restaurant until Sri Lankan native Raj Aiyathurai took control six years ago, giving Vancouverites a taste of the subcontinent's southern flavours. Sri Lankan-style kingfish curry is light and brothy compared to the gravy-like stews of the north. It's a sharp, one-two bite of tangy tamarind and hot chilies. Sop it up with flaky southern-style paratha bread. Nooru Mahal's idlis-fluffy, sourdough-like steamed rice and lentil cakes-are perfect models. Nooru Mahal also offers its own take on fusion, found in southern dosas filled with northern stuffings like vindaloo. Singaporean staff have also lent their touch to the menu: Sri Lankan sting hoppers-patties of fine rice noodles-get a Singaporean treatment with coconut and palm sugar to make puttu mayam. "Only in Canada," says Aiyathurai of his creation. 4354 Fraser St., 604-873-9263

Saravanaa Bhavan

With 41 restaurants around the world including places like Delhi, Dubai, Oman, London, New York, and Toronto, Saravanaa Bhavan is the surest sign the world is catching on to southern Indian cuisine. The Vancouver branch of the chain opened in January to lineups out the door for vegetarian food that is light, fresh, and full of spice. Northern-style dishes are kept on a separate menu to keep diners focused on the South. Stick to the dosas, utthappams, adais, and other southern treats. A bonus: the prices are unbelievably low.955 W. Broadway, 604-732-7700

Chutney Villa

Chutney Villa's southern-style curries earn the spotlight, bursting with permutations of coconut, curry leaves, and hot chilies. But take note of the namesake chutneys; the not-so-"authentic" pear and banana chutney is outstanding. 147 E. Broadway, 604-872-2228

Global Excursions

Samosa Garden

Samosa Garden has plenty of Punjabi standards on the menu, and its tandoor-baked naan is perhaps the best in town. But the real lure is to sample foods from East Africa's Indian community. Samosa Garden's highlights include masala tilapia, the love child born of Indian spices and African fish. Kuku paka, from the Swahili words for "chicken" and "rub," is a delicious curry of grilled chicken marinated in coconut milk. 3502 Kingsway, 604-437-3502

Green Lettuce

This is Chinese food the way Indian people eat it. On weekend nights, Indo-Canadian families line up and squeeze into Green Lettuce for a taste of home. Just as Chinese immigrants to Canada tailored local ingredients to suit their palates (and created uniquely Chinese-Canadian cuisine), India's Chinese immigrants infused their recipes with Indian spices and heat. The result is dishes like gobi Manchurian, crispy battered cauliflower with a sauce of chilies, onions, and cumin. 1948 Kingsway, 604-876-9883

Indian 2.0

Vij's

Vij's reigns as one of the world's most celebrated Indian restaurants. Its still-revolutionary blend of contemporary cooking and Indian flavours helped spawn a modern-Indian movement from London to New York to Toronto. But while others seek to elevate Indian cuisine with ostentation-witness London's Rasoi and its tandoori chicken wrapped in 24-karat gold foil-Vij's transforms quality local ingredients to make food that's unexpected, dynamic, and always appetizing. Try the beef short ribs, served in a cinnamon and red wine curry with warm greens. 1480 W. 11th Ave., 604-736-6664

Rangoli

The pulled pork with sour cream chutney is like a sloppy Indian pulled pork burrito, a ménage à trois of Indian, Mexican, and American Southwest. The fresh mint and mango chutney breathes new life into the classic Punjabi snack of samosas with channa masala. Playful and relaxed, Vij's all-day younger sibling hits all the right notes for lunch or a casual dinner. 1488 West 11th Ave., 604-736-5711

Mysala Indian Bistro

Vancouver's Indian restaurants are usually mom-and-pop shops; Mysala is what happens when the kids grow up and open their own joint. This 60-seat lounge, in the heart of the Granville bar zone, mashes urban cool with Indian flair: deep booths, flickering candlelight, groovy electro-Indian beats. The menu is streamlined to fewer than a dozen mains. AAA rib-eye steak, free-range chicken, and grilled wild salmon with cilantro mint sauce are all cooked on a state-of-the-art grill (although there are tandoor items on the menu). Partners Paul Thind and Davy Sangara hope to develop the concept into a casual fine-dining chain, an Indian version of Earls or Cactus Club. 980 Granville St., 604-688-2969

Sweets and Snacks

All India Sweets and Restaurant

Situated in Main Street's Punjabi Market, All India features tables overflowing with neon Indian sweets up front and buffet steam tables at the back. Try the hyper-sweet gulab jamun, pastry balls made of powdered milk, then deep-fried and dipped in honey syrup. Skip the buffet and order savoury items à la carte. Indo-Canadian families take a break from browsing the nearby sari shops to load up on snacks of samosas with chutney and chickpea curry, or meats cooked in the tandoor. 6507 Main St., 604-327-0891

Groceries

Punjab Food Centre

These grocery stores in the Punjabi Market offer all manner of spices, vegetables, and Indian cooking tools, like non-stick griddles to cook chapattis or pappadums. Here you'll find all the necessary ingredients to make curries, dosas, and idlis from scratch, or take a chance on powdered mixes (though they won't produce the same results). Simplest of all are pappadums-toss them in your toaster oven for a quick and tasty snack. 6635 Main St., 604-322-5502