By EWAN McDONALD for viva

The monsoon was squalling across the city when we arrived at Satya, that time in early evening around this time of year when heavens blacken, gales roar up the ridges where the settlers cleverly drove the main roads and within moments you're drenched to the skin and wondering how anyone ever thought there could be a water crisis in Auckland.

"Just the right weather," we told each other as we picked our way across the pavement, nodding to the locals waiting for the City Mission to open. We'd come to the somewhat unwelcoming environment of Hobson St because a friend had recommended Satya. Maxine dines out often and if the food at any place is good enough to attract her once a week, it is clearly worth checking out.

At first glance you might wonder what the fuss is about. No, sorry, at first glance you'd probably miss the tiny shopfront among the Thai massage parlour and the Thai beauty parlour and the little dairy; at second glance you might wonder what the fuss is about.

It is, as it should be, about the food. Padma and Swamy Akuthota opened about three years ago and specialise in cooking South Indian food, said to be healthy, lighter, fresh and original when compared with the heavily gravied and one-dimensional dishes that spring to mind when someone mentions the "I" word. Much of it is street food; a great deal is vegan or vegetarian, based on Ayurvedic principles, which is a very good reason to feature Satya this week; and all of it is the genuine article, as it is cooked in homes.

Because Padma is not a chef. She is a cook who comes to the kitchen in her sari every evening and prepares the meals that her mother might have cooked while her husband greets and hosts (not serves) their guests.

Many of those guests are regulars who've kept quiet about the place because they don't want it to become too fashionable and ruin their little secret. Others, like our friend, are more giving and sharing souls who follow the suggestion on the menu to "Please tell a friend if you like this food".

Every dish is fully explained ("Idli: Non-controversial stuff - steam-cooked rice and lentil cakes, quite bland in taste so we dip it in vege lentil soup") and Swamy adds further explanations and recommendations as he brings the dishes to the table. Many ingredients are imported exclusively for the restaurant, many of the spices are ground on the premises.

We won't go on about the decor because it's just basic black workplace cafe tables and chairs, colourful fabric banners tented across the ceiling. We won't talk about the wine list because Satya is unlicensed, though you can dilute your curries with lassi, the yoghurt drink, an Indian beer or soft drink (must try a Masala Coke. Anything's got to be better than that vanilla stuff, which can't be natural).

We will tell you that the food here is delicious, ridiculously economical, endlessly fascinating, and guaranteed to open your mind, tastebuds and sinuses to exciting adventures. Oh, and if only one of you is vegan/vegetarian, there are plenty of curries made with things that have faces, too.

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Open: 7 days dinner 6pm-9.30pm, Mon-Sat lunch 11.30-2.30

Owners: Padma and Swamy Akuthota

Cook: Padma Akuthota

Food: South Indian

On the menu:

* Bhel Puri: tomato, onion, carrot, chickpeas, boiled potato, tamarind chutney, bhujia, puffed rice, roast ground spices, lime juice $6.95

* Dal Thalimpu: South Indian lentil soup $8.95

* Green beans coconut curry: green bean and coconut cooked in a nutty seasoning $10.95

* Spinach paneer curry: Indian cottage cheese and spinach cooked in gravy $13.95

Wine: Not licensed; Indian beer, yoghurt and soft drinksfls

Smoking: Smokefree

Disabled access / toilets: Street entry, toilets tricky

Parking: Limited street parking around here

Bottom line: Padma and Swamy's homely cafe on an unwelcoming city highway specialises in South Indian food, said to be healthier, lighter and more original than other Indian cuisine. Much of it is street food; a great deal is vegan or vegetarian; all of it is the genuine article because Padma cooks as she would at home. Delicious, ridiculously economical, endlessly fascinating.

* Read more about what's happening in the world of food, wine, fashion and beauty in viva, part of your Herald print edition every Wednesday.