The clever use of every possible spice in the kitchen, freshly ground, renders the Chettinad cuisine its characteristic, spicy, aromatic, complex, yet well-balanced flavours.
The waft of an aromatic Chettinad dish in a typical household is unmistakable. One can get the aroma of the spices immediately, whether it is a simple cabbage kootu or a fish kozhambu. Chettinad cuisine reflects the lifestyle of the Nattukotai Chettiars who come from one of the driest regions of South India in Tamil Nadu, just west of Madurai and 250 miles south of Chennai. This business and financial community started travelling to Burma, Ceylon, Dutch East Indies and Malaysia, in the late 19th century, which in turn impacted and influenced their cuisine, as spices like Madagascar cloves, Tellicherry pepper, Ceylon cardamom were incorporated in their food. Pepper, fenugreek, fennel, clove, bay leaf, turmeric and tamarind, are spices fairly commonplace in the cuisine of southern India. But what sets Chettinad cuisine apart, is that these are roasted and then freshly ground for each dish. Correct use and blending of the aromatic spices are crucial to this cuisine. Kalpasi (black stone flower), Marathi mokku (a type of caper), Anise seed and dry red chilies, are the soul of this cuisine. Ajit Bangera, Sr. Executive Chef, ITC Grand Chola, Chennai, explains, “Chettinad cooking has always been distinctive and robust and is popular not only in India, but other parts of the world. It is characterised by delightful sauces with irresistible vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. The use of coconut is minimal in Chettinad cuisine, oil is used very conservatively and the spices used are full-bodied in flavours.” Medley of flavours
Although there is a liberal use of spices, Chettinad dishes are not overpowered by it. One can get the distinct flavour of each spice, even though the dish abounds in different flavours.
Traditionally, legumes, grains, pulses and locally grown vegetables, form the cornerstone of this cuisine. Vegetables are usually cut with an iron blade and spices are hand-pounded in stone grinders. Fresh curry leaves and mustard seeds perk while the use of fennel seeds is made in the cooking of meats and fresh coconut is used to give a dash of sweetness to the gravies. Interestingly, no garam masala is ever used in the preparation of vegetarian dishes. Only garlic, red chilies, onion and tomatoes are preferred.
Coconut oil is used for cooking, to impart the typical flavour to this cuisine. Gingelly oil or sesame seed oil is also used for finishing some dishes. A meal at home usually begins with nannari sarbath and nongu, a soft jelly-like fruit from the Palmyra tree, a delicacy in summer. These cool the system and allow the person to digest the spicy food. Several servings of rice are eaten in a meal with paruppu (a lentil based gravy), Kozambhu (a thick spicy vegetable curry), a special spicy sambar, rasam and curd. Of course ghee for flavouring rice is a must and sweet dishes like payasam and paniyaram follow at the end of the meal. An elaborate lunch, on special occasions, is served the way the Chettiars originally ate, on a banana leaf with six grains, nine savoury side dishes and sweets. The items are served clockwise on the leaf and each spicy dish is interspersed with one that cools the system. There is almost a procession of flavours. Boiled rice, ghee for flavouring the rice, sambhar, kozhambu, paruppu, and at least five vegetable dishes including kootu, poriyal, are served. Apart from these, rasam, curd, appalam, pickles and payasam, form a part of the meal. An odd number of items are served as per tradition. Apart from an abundant variety of vegetarian dishes, Chettinad cuisine is the main branch of South Indian cuisine that specialises in non-vegetarian food. Owing to hot and pungent, freshly ground masalas, these preparations too, are spicy and boiled egg. Rice-based dishes like Appams, Idlis, Idiyappams, Adais and Dosais compliment the Chettinad gravies, meat or fish.
Meats & Seafood
Master Chef Balasubramanian of The Orchid Mumbai, elaborates, “During the ancient times, Chettinad cuisine was predominantly vegetarian. Due to its geographical region, commercial trading became the main business. This increased the continuous travelling to different regions that brought in a lot of non-vegetarian dishes that were modified to suit the Chettinad taste. Nowadays, the cuisine is a mixture of both.” Today, the Chettinad cuisine boasts of a wide repertoire of non-vegetarian dishes. Apart from, vegetarian delicacies like Karamani Poriyal (beans stir fry), Kosumalli (Brinjal curry), Paruppu Masiyal (toor dal curry), non-vegetarian specialities like Chicken Chettinad (chicken cooked in a peppery onion sauce), Kozhi Melagu (chicken masala), Kadai Roast (Pot-roasted Quail), AttuKaal Paya Curry (Lamb Trotters curry), and Mutton fry, are some of the popular dishes. Meat is more popular amongst the Chettiars. Quail, desi murg, mutton, lamb boti, lamb paya and lamb brain, are few of the preferred dishes consumed by Chettiars, according to Chef Bala. The cuisine is replete with seafood too. Eral or prawns, Meen kuzhambu or fish gravy, Nandu or crabs are commonly eaten dishes. The Madurai kottu poratta, yet another palatetickling preparation is served with a zesty river fish gravy.
The Chettiars are also known to relish their desserts, no matter how elaborate the savoury spread is. According to Chef Bangera, some of the desserts popular in this cuisine are Paal paniyaram, Kavanarasi (red rice halwa) and Paal payasam. Theinippu suzhiyam, deepfried balls of rice and dal batter, stuffed with mashed Bengal gram, jaggery and coconut, are another delicacy. Aadi Kummayam , a sweet made of black dal and rice, with a smooth and soft texture is a must-have, especially for festivals and celebrations.
written by : MINI RIBEIRO