The Western menu, based on an appetizer, a salad, a main course, and dessert, does not exist in the traditional South Indian meal. Rather, we offer several dishes at the same time, arranged around a large portion of rice. In fact, there is no word in our language, Malayalam, that is the equivalent of “appetizer.” The simple theory is that there is no need to stimulate an appetite for rice; in fact, eating before a meal is often discouraged. While growing up in Kerala, during evening hours, if we ever tried to raid the pantry for snacks, one of the adults in the family would shout from behind, “It is almost time for supper. Don’t ruin your appetite for rice!”
But when guests drop in during the course of a day—more often than not, unannounced—they are always entertained with an enticing array of snacks. Snacks are also served with afternoon tea. There are two types of snacks: those that can be prepared almost a week ahead, and those that taste best when served hot off the stove. Although these are not considered appetizers, I have had great success serving them as such. Practically none of them are very difficult or time-consuming to prepare, and many can be prepared in advance and either reheated or served at room temperature.