- Benjamin John
Gastronomical Journeys to Chettinad - a unique South Indian fare.
Updated: Sep 19, 2019
"A great introduction to cultures is their cuisine. It not only reflects their evolution, but also their beliefs and traditions." - Vikas Khanna
One of the prominent cuisines that you cannot miss during your South Indian tour would be the 'Chettinad cuisine' which belongs to the Chettiars of Karaikudi and Kanadukathan. Chettiars were a business community who were settled in the South East coast of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, near to Nagapatanam. Later they moved to the present day Karakudi and Kanadukathan because of a cyclone that hit the shores of the Bay of Bengal. The clan was estimated to have around 10 lakh members and, they spread across 74 different villages, in and around the present day Chettinad which is about 120 km east of Madurai.
Chettiars were mostly involved in trade and money lending business across the globe, mainly focusing on far east countries like Burma, Panang - the present day Malaysia, Cambodia, Lavos, parts of China, Ceylon etc. They were loyal traders and were very close to the Kings of the lands, where they had business relations. Their places of business, had a strong influence on their cuisine since they were outside the country most of the time.
The Chettinad cuisine is all about its mouth-watering flavours, aromatic spices, and the culinary traditions which is a reflection of the history of Chettinad cuisine. It is a punch of flavours in your mouth. The secret to this flavoursome cuisine would be the inclusion of a whole lot of spices in the right proportions. A south Indian cuisine based from Tamil Nadu is customarily considered to be a vegetarian cuisine. However, owing to the external influences from different countries, the Chettinad cuisine is altogether a different model. It has a lot of non-vegetarian preparations and an equal amount of vegetarian preparations. Non-vegetarian preparations mostly consist of chicken and mutton.
Apart from foreign influences, the Chettinad cuisine has a strong impression from the Malabar Coast, especially from the Syrian Christians and the Malabar Maplai Muslim cuisine. However, having nonvegetarian was not considered to be a crime, as the Hindus in the Malabar Coast had many such preparations in their cuisine. The non-vegetarian influences, further strengthened its hold in the Chettiar food habits from the late eighteenth century, after they established businesses in Burma, Ceylon, Dutch East Indies, French Indo-China which is now Malaysia and Singapore. The non-vegetarian menu from other parts of India, en route to their overseas businesses, also influenced the Chettinad cuisine. These travel cultures have directly or indirectly influenced the Chettinad cuisine in a big way.
Chettiar meal is different in its own way. The meal begins with a sweet and ends with a sweet. They sit on the floor and have their food on banana leaves. Rice is their staple food and a lot of interesting things are made out of rice. Frying and sauteing are the conventional modes of cooking. Since their business brought in a lot of money, the Chettiars used to buy all the nonperishable ingredients that would be required for a year, while returning from overseas. The joint family system has the women staying at home while the men travelled, overseas for business. The most common spices used in Chettinad cuisine would be anaisipoo (star aniseed),kalpasi (a lichen), puli (tamarind), milagai (chillies), sombu (fennel seeds), pattai (cinnamon), lavangam (cloves), bay leaf, karu milagu (Peppercorn), jeeragam (cumin seeds) and venthayam (fenugreek).
Since their initial settlement in Nagapattinam was continuously troublesome because of cyclones and winds from the Bay of Bengal, they had moved into an interior place, where they did not have a threat from water bodies like rivers and lakes. Once they shifted to the present day Chettinad, it was literally a dry land. All of the water bodies that we see there now are man-made.
The Chettiar's had a keen participation in the century-old spice trade. They were involved in the import and export of a lot of spices and fruits like pungent seeds, barks from places like Cochin and Panang, Banda Island, Arab ports in the straits of Hormuz. To the coconut and rice and legumes that are staples of South Indian cooking, they added Tellicherry pepper, Ceylon cardamom, Indonesian nutmeg, Madagascar cloves, and blue ginger from Lavos and Vietnam.
Essentially it is an intricate combination of different spices to bring out flavoursome cuisine that is not very spicy at the same time pungent. During one of our visits to Chettinad, we stayed at a place called Vishalam, which is a CGH experience and we got to witness a cooking demonstration by a Chettinad cooking expert, Latha. She is part of the Vishalam team. We made some 'Mutton Uppu Varuval' and shot a video of the same. The video was shot at Visalam when we were in Chettinad. Check out the video below to have an idea about the Chettinad cooking style.
The Chettinad cuisine promises a unique and well-balanced thrust of flavours. The cuisine is unique because of the foreign influences that it had and the kind of ingredients they opt to make their preparations. The aromatic spices used in Chettinad cuisine, work their magic, giving way to one of the most flavoursome cuisines in India.
Still waiting !!!! Try out the rich flavours of this delicious South Indian cuisine. You will love it!!!