Ever since the local debut of the potato-stuffed crepe known as masala dosa at Madras Woodlands—a franchise from India that lurked near the U.N. in the late ’70s—southern Indian vegetarian cooking has gradually become more available in the metropolitan area. Exploiting grain and lentils for their complex nourishment, it’s the most advanced vegetarian cuisine in the world, supplementing earthy flavors with adventitious fermentation and a rainbow of chutneys. Moreover, the cuisine is so delicious and spice-intensive that no one misses the meat.
In the interim, we’ve become familiar with a catalog of dosa variations, including the Mysore masala dosa (coated inside with fiery spices), the paper dosa (thinner and crunchier), and the rava dosa (substituting wheat for urad dal in the batter). We’ve even witnessed the birth of new dosas, such as the “cheese dosa” I ate recently, oozing mass-produced mozzarella and not really very good. Believe it or not, further surprises await us from the vegetarian cuisine of southern India.
Which is why I’ve become so fond of Jersey City’s Sapthagiri (“Seven Hills”). The first thing that caught my eye on the menu was a house specialty called “pesarattu upma.” Now, “upma” refers to my favorite South Indian dish, a savory farina laced with black mustard seeds, curry leaves, and cashews. It blows my mom’s cream of wheat out of the water. Pesarattu upma uses this porridge, along with sautéed onions and fresh green chilies, as the filling for a crepe made from mung beans, which gives the wrapper a grassy flavor. Also new to me was the so-called set dosa ($6.99), native to Karnataka in southwestern India: Deploying dosas as flatbreads rather than crepes, it consists of two floppy, well-buttered pancakes of smaller circumference than usual, served with coconut chutney, sambar, and a puréed vegetable curry.
Sapthagiri opened with little notice two years ago on a side street off Newark Avenue, the main drag of Jersey City’s India Square. The restaurant is pleasantly decorated with strings of colored lights and allegorical paintings, and the staff is patient and helpful, even with the pickiest or most unknowledgeable diner. In addition to South Indian dishes, the bill of fare incorporates Mughal vegetarian food from the north, and even the stray Gujarati dish or two from the far west, on a menu that seeks to satisfy vegetarians from all over the country.
In fact, the front of the menu proclaims, “We serve Jain and Swaminarayan food,” name-checking two religions headquartered in Gujarat, both of which eschew onions: the Jains, because the bulbs grow underground, and thus insects may be killed in their harvesting; the Swaminarayans, because onions and other alliums are thought to provoke anger and irritability. They may be right—medieval European philosophers also believed that onions stimulate choleric humors. But you don’t have to avoid onions at Sapthagiri unless you want to: Many dishes on the menu make liberal use of them.
In addition to the dosa surprises detailed above, the menu contains many oddities worth trying. Bouncy and fun to eat, aloo bonda ($3.49) are perfect spheres of mashed potatoes shot with spices and fried in a chickpea batter, while paneer makni ($7.99) presents a pile of pressed-cheese boxcars bathed in a butter sauce usually reserved for tidbits of tandoori chicken. Shaped like miniature flying saucers, the plain idli dumplings tend to be denser and more flavorful than those at the dosa houses that line Newark Avenue. Several unusual types are offered, too, including Kanchipuram idli ($3.99), named after a town in Tamil Nadu and ramified with cashews, coriander, fresh ginger, and turmeric rhizomes, which confer a bright orange color.
Hopscotching around the menu, there’s a version of uttappam that embeds the thick pancake with freshly grated coconut, making it almost like a dessert; a gigantic flatbread called bhatura far puffier than poori; a curry called gutti vankaya that immerses baby eggplants in a sauce of peanuts and tomatoes; and puliyogare, a tamarind-flavored rice casserole that I’ve seen nowhere else in town. Each selection comes with a pair of chutneys that vary according to where the dish originated: Cilantro signals a northern recipe, while coconut betokens a southern one.
In fact, the vast collection of freshly made chutneys is itself worth admiring at Sapthagiri. Jain-friendly dishes, for example, come with a diced-tomato chutney that resembles a French confit. If you ask your server nicely, you can also get a rotating stainless-steel caddy with four further condiments on it, all of them orange and two of them extra-hot. Who says you can’t please everyone?