On a recent visit to Chettinad, several food facts came to light: the food doesn’t have to be loaded with spice; vegetarian options are just as delicious; most homes and establishments still retain traditional cooking techniques; and pressure cookers don’t rule the kitchen!
The uppu kari , for example, is a mutton dish that is slow-cooked, with chillies that are aged until they turn the colour of charcoal: so dark that one might mistake the bits for tamarind at first glance. We ate several helpings of this delicious dish, cooked to perfection by Ramu at The Bangala, in Karaikudi. It absorbs the flavours of the curry leaf and black pepper, while enveloping husky fragrances of other spices used sparingly to elevate — rather than suffocate — the dish. It took us completely by surprise, not having to reach out for hankies to combat the ‘fiery Chettinad food’ as it is misconstrued by most.
Meenakshi Meyyappan (called Acchi by her staff) says that it was always the people from outside the region who created the hype about Chettinad’s food being heavy on spice. Co-author of The Bangala Table , she says, “Here in Chettinad, our spices are hand-ground, using coriander seeds, black pepper and round dried red chillies which are of a darker colour, different from the Andhra chillies. It’s not an overload of heat, but the spicy undertones that add the flavour. I’m always taken aback when guests ask us why we aren’t serving authentic Chettinad food.”
“In fact,” she adds, “Our food is not meant to be oily either: an authentic Chettinad recipe will never say ‘fry until the oil floats’. Our cooking techniques are such that the oil gets well assimilated into the dish and without making it greasy.”
There was so much more that we sampled during our stay. For instance, we tasted a chunky milagu kolambu (pepper curry), a local keerai (spinach) , merakkai pachadi (gourd raitha), masala crab, fluffy appam s, mundhri kolambu (tender cashew nut gravy) , and a heavenly kavuni arisi halwa (black rice halwa) with toasted almonds and cashews.
Then there is the kai kari mandi, typically made at the end of the week using leftover vegetables. The taste varies slightly each time, depending on the vegetables used: simple Indian cooking at its best.
The cuisine at Chettiar homes was also influenced by their travel, so puddings and custards also became a part of their diet. Therefore, we got to taste a divine strawberry mousse with a dollop of thick clotted cream, delicate squares of a guava jelly and fresh tender coconut pudding.
China ware, silver platters and banana leaves are used at The Bangala to dish up these sumptuous meals. It’s great value for money, given the variety and quantities served. Food cravings are also paid heed to. Dining here should definitely be on the culinary map of any passionate food enthusiast.
Some hole-in-the-wall options are also popular in Karaikudi area: Priya Mess, Sri Ram Mess and Friends restaurant. At the latter, though the tables and menu cards were dirty, the kitchen consisted of a clean open space where the food was cooked at a rapid pace. The parottas and veechu parottas were served piping hot, with gravy.
A case for the munchies
In Chettinad, evening tiffins are traditionally referred to as palagaram. Chettinad is also home to some snacks that are hard to come by elsewhere.
The oval, crunchy seedai here is different from the round seedai found in other parts of Tamil Nadu. The seepu seedai — a curled, variegated version — is equally delicious, as is the sugar-coated inippu seedai . It can be made to order and several folk are adept at making it.
One of them is Thaenappa Chettiar, whom we encountered selling his home-made snacks on the steps of Pillayarpatti Temple. He was also selling maavu urandai (green gram ladoos). This jolly gentleman has been making them for decades. They made for the perfect road trip munchies — not greasy, very tasty.
We ordered more of the same to take back home, along with another famous snack: the white, thin thaenkulal murukku from another home cook everyone called Soundaram acchi .
Our Chettinad trip encapsulated a gastronomic experience of a different kind. Take your taste buds on a visit, it’s more than worth your while.
Soundaram snacks (offer courier services too)- 9244250733
Thaenappa Chettiar- 9047983639
The Bangala (reservations) -04565 220221
Friends restaurant- 04565 236622