Chettinad Cuisine: Fieriness At Its Best

First things first – Tamil Nadu’s Chettinad cuisine is not for the faint hearted. It is boldly spiced and aromatic. In fact, it is so spicy that it ought to come with a statutory warning in bold letters, since you simply can’t take it lightly!

Chettinad is a small region in the Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu, and till a couple of centuries ago, majority of the locals were merchants who travelled to Southeast Asian countries for trade. Their travel played a huge influence in the way these Chettiars cooked their food. For instance, the sticky red rice ‘Kavanarisi pudding is inspired from a similar dish cooked in Burma, which was a common business destination for Chettiars.

And why just food? Their travels exposed them to different cultures and they happily imbibed some of these in their lifestyle. A good example is the usage of fine china soup bowls and silverware, when they hosted English guests during the British Raj. Their kitchen utensils and cutlery were so ornate that today they are considered collectibles, valued for their design, large size and vintage make.

Even today, Chettiars are legendary for their hospitality and the size of their kitchens. Their lavish banquet halls are testimony to the feasts served there. A traditional meal can sometimes include over 20 dishes!

In the olden days, the kitchen had a communal feel, since Chettiars followed the joint family system. Hence, every meal was a large and elaborate affair. So important a role did food play in their lifestyle, that every self-respecting Chettiar would eat his meal only at home and would carry large tiffins filled with food if he couldn’t be at home for lunch or dinner.

Given Chettinad’s proximity to the coastline, its cuisine has seen the inclusion of myriad varieties of seafood, like this Denji Rawa Fry.
Given Chettinad’s proximity to the coastline, its cuisine has seen the inclusion of myriad varieties of seafood, like this Denji Rawa Fry.

INFLUENCED BY TRAVEL AND HABITAT

The dry and hot climate of Chettinad greatly influenced the food preparation methods. “Locals dried their meats in the sun, in a process called Aatu Kari Uppukandam, to preserve them better. Similarly, seasonal vegetables are salted and these Vatthals are added to Aviyal, Sambhar or Poriyal during the monsoon months,” reveals Chef Shanmugam of Southern Spice Restaurant at Taj Coromandel. Though he has over 14 years of experience specializing in South Indian cuisine, he is drawn more towards Chettinad food because of the complexity of its flavors, despite the simplicity of its preparation and presentation.

Given the region’s proximity to the coastline, the cuisine has seen the inclusion of myriad varieties of seafood. Meat is restricted to fish, prawn, lobster, crab, chicken and lamb as the Chettiars do not eat beef and pork for religious reasons.

Food is an integral part of the slow-paced Chettinad life, even in contemporary times. Walk through the lush paddy fields of the county and the tantalizing aroma of spices beckon you. Even the richest family is very conscious when it comes to using produce – they only cook as much as will be eaten during a meal. The matriarch of the household keeps a careful watch on food preparation and she will not tolerate it if food leftover from lunch is re-heated and re-served during dinner. Doing this is as good as submitting a disgraceful apology for being a pathetic homemaker.

Rice is omnipresent in almost every meal of the day, be it in the form of Idli, Dosai, Adai or Pongal for breakfast; Appam and steamed rice for lunch and dinner. Papad and appalams are another must-have during lunch and dinner, along with some homemade pickle.

DISTINCTIVE CHARACTERISTICS

One unique characteristic of Chettinad cuisine is the presence of a boiled egg atop most dishes. These are often eaten with rice or rice-based accompaniments such as Dosais, Appams, Idiyappams, Adais and Idlis because the monotonous taste of these perfectly balances the spiciness of the gravies.

The fieriness of the food is courtesy the practise of using freshly ground masala with whole red chillies and freshly grated coconut, like in this Allepey Fish Curry.
The fieriness of the food is courtesy the practise of using freshly ground masala with whole red chillies and freshly grated coconut, like in this Allepey Fish Curry.

The other distinctive feature is the fieriness of the food and the rich aroma rising from it. The spiciness is courtesy the practise of using freshly ground masala with whole red chillies and freshly grated coconut. “The fragrant aroma is derived from spices like Marathi Mokku (dried flower pods), Anasipoo (star aniseed) and Kalpasi (dried bark), fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, peppercorn, cumin seeds, fenugreek, etc., that are liberally used in the preparation,” says Chef Shanmugam. Tamarind is what gives the dishes its tangy flavor, while grinding whole red chilies with coconut ups the fiery quotient. Oil is liberally used in most dishes, so weight watchers might want to be judicious while enjoying Chettinad food.

Traditionally, the spices are ground coarsely using grinding stones that lend the masala a unique texture and flavor. Even today, many households prefer grinding masala in a stone grinder rather than using an electric mixer. This heavy contraption has a depression in its center where the spices are placed with some water. Another vertical stone pestle is used to grind the spices by moving it in quick circular motions – an exercise that can put any gym rat to shame.

A SCIENTIFIC CUISINE

The bright red color of the Chettinad gravies can strike fear in the hearts of many an adventurous gastronome, but the fact is that it will not burn a hole in your digestive tract. In fact, Chettinad food imbibes many Ayurvedic practices, which makes it one of the healthier cuisines in the world.

Take the ubiquitous presence of Idli, Dosai and Appam in almost every meal. These are made of fermented rice, which is easily digested.  The method of sun drying vegetables helps to trap the nutrition of the produce, which is released when it is added to stews and gravies.

Even the spices are not randomly chosen to merely add flavor to the food. Instead, each spice offers health benefits ranging from aiding digestion to quelling cough. Take the case of turmeric, which has antiseptic qualities, and is a mainstay in almost every preparation. Then, you have the liberal usage of garlic that is known to fend off the common cold and fortify the heart.

Sift through the mélange of spices that goes into almost every dish, and suddenly the therapeutic benefits of each individual condiment dawns on you – be it the antibacterial property of the star anise, or the ability of glucose-enhancing cinnamon that can help keep diabetes at bay.

Most desserts use jaggery in place of sugar, and besides lending an earthy taste to the sweet dish, jaggery is a great energy booster. Not just that, it helps alleviate anemia, asthma, menstrual cramps  and also helps in purifying the blood.

Chettinad cuisine offers a bouquet of benefits with a complex balance of many distinctly different flavors – each of which are robust and demand your attention when you sit down to savor your meal. Because savor it you will, alongside sips of some buttermilk to soothe the conflagration that will light up in your mouth.

–          Vinita Bhatia, with inputs from Chef Shanmugam, Head Chef of Southern Spice at Taj Coromandel. Chef Shanmugam hosted a Southern Spice food festival at Masala Bay in Mumbai’s Taj Land End between 10th to 23rd March, 2014.