July 15, 2024


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Flavours from the Chettinad kitchens- The New Indian Express

6 min read

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Chettinad cuisine, one of the most renowned cuisines of Tamil Nadu, is linked to a community called Nattukottai Chettiar (Nagarathar) from the Chettinad (Sivagangai) region. History tells us that Nagarathars who initially lived around the modern-day Poompuhar relocated inland to the hot, dry and arid Sivagangai region due to natural calamities. The Chettiars didn’t stop there and as traders and mercantile bankers, they started to travel and trade with Malabar region, Calcutta, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma and Malay states (Malaysia, Singapore).

The explorations brought changes in their lifestyle, food and economy. The Chettiars who were traditionally vegetarians were introduced to meat, fish, pepper, red rice and spices because of their life beyond the Chettinad.

Their proximity with the Britishers and the westernisation of their palate gave birth to the Butler cuisine (Anglo-Indian-British food with Indian spices), a forerunner of modern-day fusion food. Dishes like mutton chops, mulligatwany soup and cutlets are examples. In addition to accumulating wealth, local spices and food habits, the Chettiars also helped to boost the economy by contributing to the paddy cultivation in Burma, reviving coffee plantations in Sri Lanka and so on. 

Chettinad food is an amalgamation of both subtle and strong flavours. The ancient Tamil saying ‘One is lucky to eat like a Chettiar’ is happily vouched for by the community. A typical Chettinad meal is cooked by a set of cooks under the watchful supervision of aachis and is served on a banana leaf. The dishes are served in a clockwise direction, in odd numbers. Each spicy dish is interspersed with a subtly flavoured dish to cool the system. Spicy dishes give way to the piquancy of a sour tamarind curry. Hence, there is a progression of flavours and this gives the diner an unforgettable gastronomic experience.

The traditional Chettinad dishes mostly use locally sourced spices like kalpasi (stone flower), fennel seeds, Marathi moggu and pepper that impart a unique flavour. The adoption of foreign techniques for preservation, including sun drying for meat and vegetables, pickling in brine, has enriched their culinary repertoire.

The aachis oversee the careful roasting and grinding of spices, in stone grinders, and chopping of vegetables with aruvamanai and every kitchen in a Chettiar home is equipped with olden-day equipment like aatukal, ammikal, yanthiram, ulakkai and kunthani. A typical meal includes a varuval like baby potato roast, a kootu (lentil curry), urundai, masiyal (mash), mandi (curry), kolambu like paruppu urundai kulambu, rasam, dangar chutney which are served with rice and palagaarams (appam or paniyaram). 

The famous non-vegetarian dishes include nandu rasam, mutton uppukari, chicken pepper masala, kadai roast. Surprisingly, there is no such dish called Chettinad chicken as it is an adaptation of their pepper chicken. Multiple traditional sweets like ukkarai, payasam, kavuniarisi and Butler desserts like bread and butter pudding and mousse provide a sweet ending to a Chettinad feast.

Vazhappoo/Saiva meen kolambu

Mustard seeds: 1/2 tsp
Urad dal: 1/2 tsp
Fenugreek seeds and fennel seeds: 1/2 tsp each, Gingelly oil: 3 tbsp
Coconut: 3 tbsp
Cashews: 6

Banana flower: 1 bunch, Besan: 3 tbsp
Rice flour: 1 tbsp
Baking soda: 1 pinch
Shallots: 10, Garlic: 10
Tomato: 2
Tamarind: 1 marble-sized
Chilli powder:  1 tsp
Coriander powder: 2 tsp, Turmeric: 1/2tsp

Clean the banana flower and boil it for three minutes. Make a batter with besan, rice flour, salt, baking soda and chilli powder. Dip flowers into the batter for two seconds and fry till they turn golden. Heat oil and add the tadka ingredients and then add the curry leaves and garlic. After a minute, add shallots, green chilli and saute. Add tomatoes, dry spice powders and fry till the oil separates. Now, add the tamarind water, salt and cook for five minutes. Add the coconut paste and cook for five more minutes. Remove from the flame, add the fried flowers and serve after 10 minutes with hot rice.

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