Cooking Southern Indian Food in Iowa

*Warning- this post may make you hungry*

One of my favorite things about my time in India, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the food. Since I lived at school with the students, most of the meals were freshly cooked from scratch, usually finished just minutes before we were ready to eat. And because my Fellowship project was focused around increasing food production on site, often the produce was grown on school grounds, meaning the ingredients were ultra-fresh and ultra-local.

Students harvesting radishes from the garden for lunch

While I didn’t have many opportunities to cook my own food at school, I was able to observe the kitchen staff and pick up some recipes to take back with me, as well as some kitchen tools. After I recovered from the jet lag, one of the first things I did back home in Iowa was to break out my new cookware and try to make some South Indian food. Maybe because I ate virtually nothing else for ten months, I was having a bit of a hard time adjusting physically and mentally to the more processed foods often found in the American diet. And missing the school and the students, the food that I was eating also had an emotional connection. 

My first attempt at lemon rice

My first experiment was a pretty simple recipe – I made lemon rice, something that was commonly served at the school for breakfast to use the leftover rice from the previous dinner. But what I hadn’t considered fully was the length my ingredients would have to travel in order for me to make that meal.

I have always tried my best to eat locally, seasonally, and vegetarian/vegan – which happened to be the standard diet of most people I met in South India! When we would make lemon rice at school, the kids would just go out to the lemon tree and pick the lemons we needed. In fact, over 20% of the produce we used in the kitchen grew directly on school grounds. But in Iowa, most people don’t have a lemon tree in their backyard. So in order for me to make lemon rice, I had to drive to the grocery store and buy fresh lemons, which in my case were shipped from Mexico. Which meant that my lemons, not including the stop for processing and packaging, traveled at least 1,600 miles (about 2,575 km) to get from the farm to my house. 

But why do I care how far my lemons had to travel for me to make breakfast? The subject has been written about in much more detail than I can get into in a blog post, but essentially it comes down to what is often referred to as “food miles.” The commonly accepted definition of the term “refers to the distance that food must be transported from the site of production to consumption.” Essentially, food miles measures how far your food has to travel, with the implication being that the greater number of miles the food will travel, the greater the carbon footprint and environmental impact. This also may include other unseen costs such as the highly mechanized means of production, unfair or unethical labor conditions, and the processing, packaging, and retailing of these food products. 

One of my favorite meals- idli and peanut chutney

Looking back over the meals I had in India with that in mind, all of the food that we ate at school was location and climate specific. When it got hot outside, we didn’t eat many beets because they thrive in cooler temperatures. When it was rainy, we ate fewer tomatoes because the plants are prone to disease and grow poorly when it’s too wet. Contrast that to the United States, where the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture estimates that the average meal travels over 1,500 miles (2,414 km) to get from farm to plate.

Obviously it is difficult to compare the food systems of two completely different countries, and especially ridiculous to compare a state in the Midwestern United States with a state in Southern India. My point is simply this: the food that I enjoyed and took for granted when I was in Tamil Nadu will be much harder to replicate if I stay true to my values of also eating seasonally and locally. Food cultures vary in different locations precisely because they were shaped by the location, growing conditions, and climate of their regions. 

With this in mind, my most recent cooking venture was making dosa with tomato chutney. Tomatoes are currently in season in Iowa, so I had no trouble getting fresh ingredients. Dosa is made from a fermented batter of ground rice and dal, which can be found in most dried goods sections. I’m happy to say that cooking experiment was a success, although once the winter hits, I’ll have to make an alternative to tomato chutney!

Making dosa in Iowa
Dosa and tomato chutney














Suggested Further Reading:

  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, Steven L. Hopp, and Camille Kingsolver
  • Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It by Anna Lappé
  • Food Matters by Mark Bittman
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

Works Cited:

Birnbaum, Juliana. “Definition of Food Miles.” Lexicon of Food, 9 Mar. 2015,

Devasahayam, Anjana. “Idli and Dosa Batter.” At The Corner of Happy And Harried, 4 Apr. 2018,

“How Far Does Your Food Travel to Get to Your Plate?” Cultivating a Healthy Food System, Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, 5 Feb. 2018,

Narayan, Vidya. “Lemon Rice / Kalavai Sadam.” Masala Chilli, 3 July 2019,

“Tomato Chutney for Idli & Dosa.” Saffron Trail, 26 Feb. 2018,

“The Unseen Costs of Food Miles.” Food Miles: Everything You Need to Know, 1 Million Women, 3 May 2016,

Tessa grew up in Wisconsin and graduated with a degree in Political Science and minors in Environmental Studies and Economics from Luther College in Iowa. After studying sustainable international development at the University of Oslo International Summer School, she returned to Iowa to give back to her community by serving as a FoodCorps member and then as Youth Education Coordinator at a local non-profit. Tessa has spent five years in the Cedar Rapids community, working with youth aged preschool through high school to create a love of growing and eating healthy food. She has also worked with teachers in the school district to implement nutrition and garden lessons into the curriculum, reaching those students who learn best through alternate, hands-on activities. In her free time, Tessa is a voracious reader and loves experimenting with new vegan cooking recipes. She is excited to take her experiences of outdoor education into a new setting in southern India.

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