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The spice of Chettinad life

Chettinad cuisine is much more than its array of recipes. It’s a story told through spices, with an impetus on the Chettiars’ impressive history and undying passion for food.
Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 20:55 IST
Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 20:55 IST

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Chettinad cuisine, which is rich in bold flavours, has its origins in the Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu. It’s an ode to the legacy of the Nattukottai Chettiars, or Nagarathars, a subsect within the larger Tamil community in South India known for its trading acumen dating back in history. The spice island’s culinary signature is a composite of a history written in spices and the trade winds that sailed from Southeast Asia until reaching far-flung corners.

A tale written in spice

Chettinad cuisine is much more than its array of recipes. It’s a story told through spices, with an impetus on the Chettiars’ impressive history and undying passion for food. Unravelling its tastes leads to a patchwork of provenances, with dishes spiced by the same black pepper that made them millionaires through trade and then turned fiery due to the chillies. Even the area in which it’s located, the arid Chettinad region, lends a special flavour to succulent sun-dried meats and vegetables. The cuisine is known for its aromatic curries, cooked with coconut, ginger, garlic, and a variety of spices, to be eaten with rice or dosas.

“The essence of Chettinad cuisine lies in its longstanding commitment to traditional cooking methods, which is the reason behind its distinguished flavour and excellence. The slow cooking method, especially over an open flame, the practice of sun-drying spices, vegetables, and even meat, the manual grinding of spices, and the use of clay pots and wooden utensils may seem laborious, but they are the secrets to unlocking the depth and richness of the dishes. These methods allow us to gradually infuse flavours, preserve nutrients, and impart a unique earthy aroma, making each dish a culinary masterpiece. It is this commitment to tradition that sets Chettinad cuisine apart and makes it a true reflection of the region’s cultural heritage,” said R Prabhakaran, from Anjappar Chettinad Restaurant.

Chettinad Kaaram Kozhi.

Chettinad Kaaram Kozhi.

Credit: DH PHOTO/ PRERNA CHULUKA

Some iconic dishes that epitomise the region’s culinary prowess include the crispy Kuzhi Paniyaram and the flavourful Chettinad Urulai Varuval. Each dish tells a story of tradition and innovation. Signature delights like the Chettinad chicken curry and Eral Masala beckon food enthusiasts with promises of rich, aromatic indulgence. For a vegetarian delight, try the Chettinad Urulai Varuval, a stir-fry made with baby potatoes, spices, and herbs. Chettinad chicken curry, also known as Naatu Kozhi, is a signature dish made with marinated chicken cooked in a rich and spicy curry sauce. For seafood lovers, Eral Masala is a must-try, featuring succulent prawns cooked in a zesty and aromatic curry paste. Finally, end your meal with Paal Payasam, a creamy and sweet dessert made with milk, rice, and cardamom. Accompaniments like appams, idiyappam, and rice perfectly complement these dishes, adding texture and variety to each meal. Appams and idiyappam are delicate rice and coconut milk pancakes and steamed rice noodles, respectively. Rice is often served with a dollop of ghee and a side of accompaniments like papads or pickles. Together, these elements create a harmonious balance of flavours and textures, making each bite a true delight.

The cooling factor

At the heart of Chettinad cuisine lies its masala, an art form that transcends mere heat. Crafted through a meticulous blend of spices like cloves, cardamom, bay leaves, cumin, coriander, and turmeric, a symphony of flavours is orchestrated. 

“Chettinad cuisine is known for its intense spiciness, due to which people tend to disregard it as a cuisine that consists of only spice and heat. A not-so-well-known fact is that the cuisine intriguingly incorporates cooling ingredients like coconut milk, yoghurt and fresh vegetables. These components provide a sophisticated flavour profile while taming the heat. “It is quite a misstatement if anyone refers to the cuisine as spicy,” said chef Manish T K, an assistant professor at the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, Manipal. “This cuisine uses coriander seeds instead of chilli, which is another unique yet significant aspect,” he adds. The heat, coolness, and depth of flavours come together to create a unique dining experience. Moreover, the strategic use of souring agents like tamarind, tomatoes, and citrus elements adds a refreshing tang and complexity to the dishes, making this cuisine a must-try. Additionally, the use of fresh herbs like curry leaves, cilantro, and mint makes it more refreshing and palate-friendly. This balance of flavours is a testament to the ingenuity of Chettinad cooks, who have mastered the art of combining seemingly disparate elements to create a truly unforgettable culinary experience.

“The Chettiar mansions in Karaikudi offer authentic Chettinad food that is truly an experience of a lifetime,” says chef Regi Mathew, who is also the co-owner and culinary director of Kappa Chakka Kandhari. Traditional cooking techniques and recipes are still fundamental to Chettinad cuisine, even as it embraces the modern day. Although this cuisine has been given new life through inventive techniques and modern adaptations, its fundamental qualities have not changed. Chettinad cuisine captivates palates and introduces its timeless flavours to a new generation of diners by upholding tradition while embracing change. However, this development is primarily concentrated in urban areas, leaving other parts of the nation unknown in terms of this cuisine. “The food of Chettinad is genuinely an undiscovered treasure,” adds hospitality expert M Gopidharu, a hospitality consultant and owner of 360 Degree Hospitality Services, Hyderabad.

Spice quotient
♦ Cumin seeds add a warm, earthy flavour and aid in digestion while relieving bloating.
♦ Coriander seeds give a sweet, citrusy flavour and lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
♦ Turmeric has a slightly bitter flavour which contains anti-inflammatory properties.
♦ Red chillies provide a spicy kick and also boost immunity and metabolism.
♦ Tamarind is pivotal in Chettinad cuisine as it offers a tangy contrast to the heat of black pepper.
♦ Kalpasi (stone flower) has a umami flavour and has antioxidant properties.
♦ Marathi moggu (dried flower pods) gives a subtle, complex flavour and has anti-inflammatory properties.
♦ Star anise gives a warm, comforting flavour and has antiseptic properties.
♦ Fennel seeds have a mild anise flavour that also aids in digestion and has anti-inflammatory properties. 

A symphony of flavours
Contrary to its reputation for spiciness, Chettinad cuisine surprises with its nuanced balance of flavours. Cooling ingredients like coconut milk and fresh vegetables complement the fiery spices, while souring agents such as tamarind and tomatoes add a refreshing tang. Fresh herbs like curry leaves and cilantro further enhance the dining experience, showcasing the ingenuity of Chettinad cooks.

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Published 01 June 2024, 20:55 IST

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