It’s probably been 15 years, but I still remember my first banana leaf meal at The Bangala in Karaikudi. I’ve been there quite a few times since and nothing changes. The meal is scrumptious, the hospitality is warm and the energy of Meenakshi Meyappan hasn’t wavered even though she’s in her 80s. One thing has changed though—gourmands across India are more aware of Bangala, and the cuisine from the region that is popularly known as Chettinad.
It’s one of Tamil Nadu’s most arid belts; the mercury barely dips here, except for a brief spell around December to February. The odds were heavily stacked against Meenakshi when she chose to repurpose a mansion that was used as a clubhouse by her family into a boutique hotel in the late 1990s. Two decades later, Chettinad has emerged as one of Tamil Nadu’s niche travel destinations, with multiple heritage mansions welcoming guests from all over the world. The region’s grand architecture and cuisine have been the two key drivers that have wooed the most evolved of travellers.
It’s easy to time travel around the 70-odd villages tucked away between Pudukottai and Ramanathapuram.This is the stronghold of the Nattukottai Chettiars, an industrious mercantile community that established an influential trading network across Southeast Asia, as well as some of Tamil Nadu’s largest corporate houses. Their business success sparked a construction boom of sorts that commenced in the 1880s. It’s these palatial homes that now tell the story of the grand lifestyle of this community. Much like Bengal’s imposing feudal mansions, their imported embellishments (including the finest Italian marble) are combined with fine local products like the region’s fabled Athangudi tiles.
That was not the only thing the Chettiars brought back from their travels. The region’s cuisine is unique in its use of spices. It was kavunni arisi
or black rice that sparked my romance with this cuisine. That was even beforeI set foot in Chettinad. For centuries this was forbidden rice, reserved only for the noble class in China. It’s an integral element in Chettinad cuisine, where this mildly sweet and glutinous boiled black rice is finished with ghee, crushed cardamom and grated coconut. This is a dish that you can sample not just at Chettiar homes, but also at quite a few heritage hotels in Chettinad. Visalam, located in Kannadukathan, is one such luxury abode.
Managed by the CGH Earth group, this is one of Chettinad’s last imposing homes from a splendid era that lasted until the 1940s. Art deco elements dominate this charming property, which features stucco walls smoothened with egg yolks and shells. The hotel’s culinary team also helps guest unravel some of Chettinad’s culinary intricacies and unique spices via interactive sessions. Many will be fascinated to discover the community’s love for star anise, a spice that’s more commonly used in Asian culinary traditions east of Tamil Nadu.
I was at the Taj Connemara, one of Chennai’s oldest destination hotels with a rich colonial heritage, some few weeks ago. In the 1980s, the hotel put the spotlight on Chettinad cuisine when it unveiled Raintree, an al fresco restaurant with a commendably well-researched menu. This restaurant has been through a couple of avatars and still serves several Chettinad signatures. Nevertheless, most Chettiars will tell you that you have to eat at a Chettiar wedding to enjoy a truly authentic taste.
Umayal Palaniappan, a Chennai-based expert on Chettiar cuisine, tells me about a group of wedding caterers called Maistris. They swerve into action every time there’s a wedding in Chettinad. A large crew handles everything from cooking to serving guests. The region’s best cooks never leave Chettinad, which is one reason why standalone Chettinad restaurants in Chennai and Bengaluru can seldom match up to dining standards in Karaikudi or Kanadukathan. Many of these restaurants outside Chettinad turn up the spice levels instead of focussing on the flavours. That’s the topic of conversation almost each timeI meet Meenakshi.
Karuppiah is one such cook who’s never considered venturing beyond Karaikudi. He’s over 70, and still supervises The Bangala’s legendary banana leaf meal every single day. Meenakshi is pained at the way Chettinad cuisine has been misrepresented. While spices like star anise, nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom are used extensively along with black pepper, the dishes have never actually been spicy enough to deeply numb the taste buds.
One of my favourite Chettinad dishes is the mandi. It’s prepared with the water drained after washing rice, and is cooked with a star vegetable in mind. I’m also partial to the okra mandi, a recurring highlight of the banana leaf meal at The Bangala. There’s a keera masiyal (spinach mash), a fine example of the subtle use of spices. This interplay also comes to the fore in the pepper kuzhambu (gravy) with mutton.The Chettiars love their mutton, and one of the region’s newer dishes that has risen in popularity is the kola urudai (finely minced mutton balls).
The pepper chicken is one of the dishes you can learn to make at Saratha Vilas. This 1900s mansion in Kothamangalam was restored by architectural duo Michel and Bernard, who are based out of Quebec. It’s now an intimate boutique hotel where guests can deep dive into Chettinad cuisine with visits to local markets. They may also try their hand at making the balanced gravy that’s a signature of Chettinad cuisine.
If you’re not willing to sweat it out in the kitchen, I’d recommend a visit to the village shandy (what the locals call sandai). This busy market moves from one town to the next each day, and features everything from seafood to spices and meat. If all that Chettinad food gets too much for you, you can opt for Saratha Vilas’ continental breakfast as a welcome detour.
I must clarify that it’s not just meat that dominates Chettinad meals. The region is equally famous for its snacks, those delightful meals between meals. Annapoorna has been a favourite for vegetarian diners for their signature delicacies like the vellai panniyaram
, which is a fluffy white pancake-style dish made with rice and black gram. There’s also the kummayam
, a subtle and sweet concoction made of lentils and jaggery. And you don’t have to check into one of these boutique hotels for a true-blue Chettinad experience. Just last year, Park Hotels transformed a 150-year heritage home into a fascinating dining destination.
The Vaadhyar’s House (vaadhyar
is Tamil for ‘teacher’) acquired its unique moniker after being rented by a line of teachers for seven to eight decades. It offers a choice of vegetarian and non-vegetarian platters, with emblematic dishes like meen
(fish) curry and uppu kari
, a stir-fried mutton preparation. You can also finish your meal with the mellow paal paniyram
, which is a deepfried lentil dumpling soaked in milk.
It’s meals like these that convince me that Chettinad cuisine, alongside the food of Lucknow, is one of India’s most evolved culinary traditions. And one weekend is time enough to eat your way through Chettinad.
Karaikudi is the most significant commercial hub in the Sivaganga district of the Chettinad region. Both the Tiruchirappalli and Madurai airports lie about a two-hour drive away from Karaikudi. Chennai, the state capital, is a seven-hour (400km) drive from Karaikudi.
Where To Stay & Eat
has been expanded from its original 90s design to include a pool and a new set of charming rooms. For an older property, stay at the 1900s Chettinad mansion-turned-hotel Saratha Vilas
. The Visalam
offers interactive culinary sessions for guests. The Vaadhyar House
, managed by Park Hotels, is a newer restaurant with delicious tasting platters.
What To Do
> Shop for Chettinad cotton sarees in Karaikudi.
> Visit traditional Athangudi glazed tile units, where you can place customised orders.
> While most Chettiar mansions are off limits inside, you can photograph their architecture. Chettinad Mansion is one of the few that feature private memorabilia while still being open to visitors.
> Try antique shopping in Karaikudi. More than a dozen stores make up a unique antique district here.
> Visit the Pillaiyarpetti Temple to witness its six-feet-tall, rock-cut icon of Karpaga Vinayagar, a form of Ganesha.