The classic Chettinad cuisine

The classic Chettinad cuisine
Photo Credit: V. Muthuraman
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Contrary to popular belief, Chettinad cuisine is not too fiery or oily finds out the author during a stay at the Bangala in Karaikudi

Samanth Subramanian
September 21 , 2015
07 Min Read

Clichés can be most unsettling. Before I left for Karaikudi, I was generously burdened with advice that seemed to stem from a wealth of knowledge on Chettinad food. That it was much too fiery, and so to take along plenty of Digene; that it was much too oily, and so to walk around frenetically between meals; that it included dubious meats, and so to always check whether the chicken was really chicken and not crow. One friend even gave me what must surely be the most unique suggestion ever to be dispensed before a food trip: “Don’t eat too much.”

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As it turned out, I was only too glad to disregard all their suggestions, but very particularly that last one. At The Bangala in Karaikudi, I was put through a crash course in authentic Chettinad cuisine, at the end of which I was convinced that it is not too fiery or oily, that its meats are honest and true, and that above all, one should always, always eat too much.

The Bangala is a classic Chettinad home converted into a comfortably minimalist retreat, the irrefutable logic possibly being that guests are more likely to linger in the dining room than in the bedroom. “We pride ourselves on our kitchen, on showing people what real Chettinad food is like,” says Mrs Vishalakshi Ramaswamy, one of the two chatelaines of The Bangala. “And it isn’t at all like people imagine it to be, nor what restaurants all over Tamil Nadu have suddenly started serving.”

She says this at breakfast on the first day, over what has got to be the most definitive proof of her statement—the paniyaram. Made of a blended batter of rice and pulses, the humble paniyaram is the base for an endless succession of fantastic culinary riffs. Fried in hot oil, to be served with an onion-tomato-chilli chutney as tiny, flat vellai paniyarams for breakfast; combined with black pepper, onion and curry leaves, steamed with oil in moulds, and served with sambar as kuzhi paniyaram for tiffin; shaped into little balls along with mustard seeds, onion and coconut, and fried till golden brown as masala cheeyam; made of five different rice types as anjarusi paniyaram.

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In its most visually fascinating form, the batter is squeezed out of a single hole in a hollowed coconut shell, a rapid finger movement flicking white globules into hot oil to form little fried nuggets of paniyaram. These are then dunked in a mixture of sweetened milk and coconut milk, flavoured with elaichi, and served as the air-light paal paniyaram. “Begin with the paal paniyaram,” advises Mrs Ramaswamy. “It’s always good to have a sweet beginning to your endeavour.” Frankly, it’s also always good to have paal paniyaram.

A little while later, I speak to America Natesan, a chef so delightfully named because his employer, a Mr Alagappa Chettiar working for the United Nations, took him along to New York. Between 1964-68, America Natesan did his bit for world peace, turning out badam halwa that, according to some conspiracy theorists, ensured that the Six-Day War lasted only six days. Forty years later, he’s still cooking—he has to rush off, after our conversation, to supervise a festive lunch.

With his stocky frame and his Godfather voice, America Natesan is the ideal teacher, if at least because you never want him to wonder why you treat him so disrespectfully. He fills me in on the fundamentals—how a meal will never have more than three fried items, how colour is so important that coriander chutneys will sometimes be made solely for their greenness, how the number of side dishes in a Chettinad meal will always be an odd number, and how at really big lunches that number can go as high as 13. “But let me also tell you about raththa kootu,” he rasps, as a non sequitur but with obvious relish. “We boil goat’s blood, cut it into little pieces, and add that to a cooked stew of vegetables. Sometimes”—and here America Natesan’s eyes take on a dreamy look—“we even add bits of intestine.”

Raththa kootu does not make an appearance during any of the meals at The Bangala, but Chettinad’s famed magic with meat operates throughout. There is a fillet of pan-fried seer fish, soft as butter and spiced to perfection. There are chicken gravies—full and even-tempered the first day, sharp and hot the next. There is a fine prawn masala and an even better quail masala, chewy and dense with smoky flavour. There is a mutton pulao, the meat so soft it almost blends into its ghee-filled habitat of rice.

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“But the Chettiars don’t eat as much meat as people think,” says Mrs Ramaswamy. “For a meal at home, there will be only one meat dish, if at all. It’s primarily at weddings and other functions that you find multiple meat dishes.” There is also, contrary to belief, no tradition of eating parottas (essentially layered parathas). That, says Mrs Ramaswamy dismissively, has only emerged over the last few years.

The typical Chettinad meal is strikingly similar to meals all over South India, but with distinctive little variations of its own. It will begin with a fragrant Chettinad soup, often made with drumsticks and touched with cinnamon and bay leaves. It will proceed through rice and kozhambu, a thickened, tangy stew that takes on the character of its chief ingredient—red and full-bodied with tomato, dark and fierce with black peppercorns, light and sunny with buttermilk. Specific to Chettinad is the yelan kozhambu, a thin concoction made of beans and coriander in daal water.

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The kozhambu safely stowed, the meal will then meander through possibly sambar and certainly rasam and curds. Running in parallel throughout is America Natesan’s motif of odd-numbered side dishes—a kootu, a pachidi (a sort of raita, but made with vegetables), a masal of potato or yam, a thovattal of fried vegetables tempered with coconut, and very incongruously, a cutlet, crumbed and fried on the outside and soft meat or potato on the inside. Just in case you’d run out of choice by the time curd rice rolled around, there are pickles—the classic South Indian mango pickle, as well as the more unique, incredibly salty pork pickle. To make sure that guests don’t go hungry for the next couple of years, wedding lunches will also include a side platter, or varkanam, of mixed rices—lemon, coconut, sweetened milk, sugar—and quick-fried fritters called bajjis.

Where dessert could possibly go after that is a mystery. But go it does. It could be paal paniyaram or carrot halwa or the sticky-sweet akkara vadisal. To be honest, I wouldn’t actually know. After tasting America Natesan’s badam halwa on the first day, I insisted on repeating that for every meal thereafter. On our final encounter, I looked at her, glistening with ghee and sparkling with saffron. She looked at me. I have never been good with farewells, and on this occasion, it would diminish my masculinity in no way to admit that I had tears in my eyes.

The Chettiars are one of Tamil Nadu’s foremost business communities. Back when Brahmins were still dithering about whether to cross the seas, Chettiars were rapidly foraying into South East Asia, trading like the dickens, sending back lavish embellishments to their huge mansions. Chettinad homes were often built out of Burma teak, with pillars from Italy, ceiling tiles from Czechoslovakia and mirrors from Belgium, all paid for with profits from Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam.

In the matter of food, however, they remained, as Mrs Ramaswamy puts it, “dominant to themselves”. “We made a bigger impact on food in other countries than that food did on ours,” she says, with just a smidgen of pride. Just as Mr Alagappa Chettiar uprooted America Natesan and installed him in Manhattan, Chettiar businessmen took along squadrons of cooks and provisions to ensure that they ate abroad exactly as they ate at home. An admirable sentiment, but after two days of Chettinad cuisine, it raises a crucial question for me. If they ate that magnificently all the time, how did they ever get any work done?


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