If you like your food hot and spicy and non-vegetarian, then you must try Chettinaad cuisine, the speciality of Tamil Nadu. Be it a fish, chicken or mutton Chettinaad preparation, the flavours of freshly ground spices especially pepper, chillies, garlic, ginger and liberal amounts of oil blend superbly well to make every preparation a speciality. Some of the Chettinaad delicacies: Nannari Sarbath and Nongu are summer drinks that help in reducing body heat; Chicken Chettinaad (chicken pieces cooked in a gravy of onions and tomatoes flavoured with curry leaves, coriander and ground spices); Appu Chicken Dosai and Madurai Kottu Poratta which goes well with river fish gravy, paya gravy (made out of lamb trotters, a Moghlai touch) and mutton liver fry making the combination simply irresistible. Some of the other Chettinaad specialities include Pallatur Mutton Masala, Madurai Malli Chicken, Chicken 88, Appu Karuvattu Thokku (made from dry fish), Viral Fish Fry and Nattu Kozhi Milagu Varuval.
Although the Chettiars are well known for their delicious vegetarian preparations, their repertoire of recipes includes all manner of fish, fowl and meats, as well as delicate noodle-like dishes and carefully preserved sun-dried legumes and berries that the Chettiar ladies make into curries. In fact, Chettinaad cuisine rules the eating out roost in Chennai. Every existing restaurant that is not pure vegetarian, seems to have a board advertising Chettinaad specialties.
Taste the basic meal
A basic Chettiar meal will be served on a large banana leaf. It would be a big mound of rice, two basic vegetable preparations, pickles, papads, followed by the best of the best: a lavish flow of chicken gravy that’s poured onto your rice from the small bucket of the foodstuff that the waiter carries with him. This chicken (or fish) gravy takes the place of the dals and curries of other cuisines, and is thick, spicy, savoury and totally delicious. These are nearly all meats - spicy mutton, crisp fried liver, fish fried in a fiery red powder, prawns and a startling variety of birds: chicken, duck, turkey, pigeon, partridge, quail. In the same range, one can include the numerous pickles, specially roasted and pounded powders, dry snacks, papads, appalam and vada. Numerous shops now sell pre-packed snacks like murukkus, small spirals of fried rice dough, chips and other edibles like thattai, masala vada and so on.
One point that puzzles all is the Chettiar love of meat combined with their general frugality…the answer lies in the importance given to organ meats. Liver, kidneys, sweetbreads, brains, none of the organs are wasted. One of popular dishes in a Chettinaad menu is the varuval, basically a dry dish of chicken, fish or vegetables sautéed with onions and spices. Poriyal and kozhambu are curries with ingredients stewed in a gravy of coconut milk and spices.
Dry vegetables – a speciality
The aridity of the area accounts for another important element of Chettiar food: the importance of dried vegetables called, in general, vathals. They would be collected after the short growing season and dried in the sun for the long dry months when nothing much grows. Apart from vegetables, vathals include preparations from rice, wheat, sago and ragi dough that could be fried like papads before eating. Long lasting vathals were also useful for the men to take on the three year cycles that they would spend doing business abroad. They could be used to make quick dishes, like the vathal kozhambu or curry that’s a Chettiar staple.
The role of rice
Rice is the basic accompaniment to most Chettinaad dishes (though ragi is also grown and eaten as a staple). Apart from being cooked as it is, it’s also ground and made into the usual idlis and dosais, but with a Chettiar touch. Dosai griddles, for example, are greased with a rolled up banana leaf, that the Chettiars claim adds a special flavour. Paniyarams are small bits of fermented rice flour made like idlis and lightly fried. Ground rice is extruded like noodles into a little nest shape that’s steamed to make light and absorbent iddiappams, another great Chettiar specialty. One special variation uses the Burmese red rice to make richly coloured idiappams.
Here is a variety of Chettinaad specialties, which you can mix and match, to set up some great Sunday meals.
The roots of Chettinaad cuisine
Chettinaad cuisine hails from the deep southern region of Tamil Nadu. Its roots can be traced to a small village called Nedungudi, which has traditionally provided Chettinaad cooks. Nedungudi, about 600 kms south of Chennai, is a village of chefs and their assistants. Today, it supplies at least 800 cooks and samayal maistris (head cooks). These chefs measure out the spices, provide that last deft touch and brandish their skills to provide what is inimitably Chettinaad. The neighbouring villages of Rayapuram, Melapatti, Kandanur and Azhagapuri too are in the same business - providing cooks to cities and towns.
Of travels and influences
Chettinaad cuisine takes the name from the richest and best-known non-Brahmin Tamil community, the Chettiars. The Chettiars had made their money by leaving their homes in the arid areas of Ramnad district in southern Tamil Nadu and going to work across South East Asia as traders and moneylenders. With their wealth they had come home and built the massive homes of Burma teak that gave them their name of Nattukotai (country fort) Chettiars. Chettiar wealth and prestige was obviously a good peg to hang a cuisine on, and the style of those Chettiar houses, with their Burma teak interiors and the huge amounts of brass and steel vessels that were part of the dowries of Chettiar women, gave a distinct visual look. Real Chettinaad food includes ingredients from Southeast Asia that the men brought home with them. The use of star anise, a typical Chinese spice is one. Red rice from Burma is another, cooked with green gram, coconut, spices, sugar and ghee to make a meltingly rich sweet called Kavunarisi, or Governor’s rice (apparently at one time the rice was exclusively grown for the Governor). The aridity of the district makes supporting cattle hard, so the Chettiars supplemented their diet by hunting for game for meat. It is that element from Chettinaad food that accounts for the rabbits and the variety of birds that crop up in the many Chennai restaurants.