Travel around Delhi and you’ll chance across the occasional restaurant that advertises its unique selling point. “Our chef is from Bukhara” proclaims the signboard outside. Wherever the chef is really from, what the restaurant is trying to do is to hope that some of the greatness of the legendary restaurant will rub itself on their much more modest hostelry. But that’s Delhi. In Chennai, when a restaurateur thinks up a tactic to draw the crowds to his restaurant, he will advertise his restaurant as “Serving Chettinad Food”.
The food in that particular restaurant may have as little to with the cuisine of Chettinad as the Delhi chef had to do with Bukhara, but that’s what tall claims are all about, aren’t they? Chennai’s breed of “Chettinad” restaurants have a single trick up their sleeve: make it so spicy that other flavours are lost completely. Indeed, ask the man on the street in Chennai what he knows about the cuisine and he’ll tell you how spicy he believes it is.
Chef Jacob, TV show host and researcher of the cuisines of Tamil Nadu tells me a completely different story. He takes me through a bewildering range of eateries in Madurai. All are owned by various branches of a large family reported to have their origins in the Chettinad region. The food is identifiably similar. There is scarcely a vegetable in sight. Crabs, prawns, lamb and rabbit all make their appearance in a host of biryanis and stir-fries.
Madurai, far more than any other city in the state, is closest to the Chettinad region and so has become a showcase for the cuisine. However, there’s a distinction to be drawn between the food as it appears in people’s homes and as it is served in restaurants. Take the signature Chettinad Chicken. Called Kozhi Mulaga in Tamil, which translates as Pepper Chicken, every hotel chef worth his toque will tell you that without kalpasi and marathi mukku, there is no Chettinad Chicken. These are two relatively rare spices that are available only in a few states, and then too, only in a few markets in those states, but that give a deep, forest-like fragrance to the dish they flavour. Marathi mukku looks like truncated vanilla pods and kalpasi looks like a lichen, being crinkly and grey and white. Chefs from the major hotel chains who travel from Tamil Nadu to Delhi to cook for Chettinad food festivals always carry these two spices with them, in the interests of authenticity.
However, Meenakshi Meyyappan, author of the only definitive book on the Chettiyar Heritage swears to me that not only are kalpasi and marathi mukku not used to make Chettinad Chicken, she doesn’t even know what either spice looks like. When I show her samples, she stares in disbelief. So, what is the real story behind the dish? It’s probably like tandoori chicken and butter chicken in the north. You’d really have to search hard to find a family who actually prepares these at home, but no restaurant would be so foolhardy as to leave them out of a menu.
To discover more about the cuisine that has been hijacked by others, I travel to the region, and stay in one of the villages, called Karaikudi. There is a method to my madness. Out of the 70 odd villages that comprise the region of Chettinad, there is only one hotel and that is in one of the villages called Karaikudi. It is a former club and its scale is more western than the fantastic, utterly impractical mansions of the Chettiyars. It combines traditional hospitality: an army of former domestic staff clean and polish The Bangala. The hotel keeps a kitchen that has become something of a by-word in the area, and watching the cooks at work is something that all the guests do, coming as they do from France, Italy and Denmark.
There are a couple of myths that are busted for me at The Bangala. The first one is the spice quotient. No dish is fiery hot. The restaurants in Madurai serve food that is far spicier. At The Bangala, food is purposely kept home-style. The second myth is that Chettinad Chicken is the Tandoori Chicken of the cuisine. It is not. There are several other specialities that far outweigh Chettinad Chicken. Paniyarams are one example. They are one of the many starch components of a meal and like idlis and dosas, they too are made with a rice/urad dal batter, usually with a bit of flavouring added. There are several types of paniyarams, all specific to the Chettinad cuisine, but none is as sought after as Vellai Paniyaram. This can be described as an idli shaped morsel, pure white in colour that has literally been poached in industrial quantities of gingelly oil. Avowedly not for the weight-watcher, every Chettiyar who has memories of visiting his or her ancestral property during school holidays, will carry the memory of old retainers lovingly churning hundreds of vellai paniyarams for the dozens of children of one mansion at tea-time.
Karaikudi – and one or two of the neighbouring villages that I visited – is not very like a town. If anything, they are like ghost-towns and the primary reason for their being – the Nattukottais or enormous mansions that look like ships when viewed from a height – are falling to rack and ruin. Not unlike the stately homes of Britain, except that these appear
on every street in the curiously barren region. It was the region that more or less determined the cuisine, because little grew there. Even vegetables could not be counted upon throughout the year, so in the rear courtyards of the huge mansions, vegetables would be dried by the women of the house, and then stored in huge drums.
The Chettiyars have always been associated with finance and it was this that took them to parts of South East Asia – Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia and Vietnam. It was when the men folk traveled that they learnt how to use spices like star anise. Juxtaposed against the fact that being in the rain shadow of the state, not much grows in Chettinad and you have the recipe for one of the most unusual, certainly the most famous of Tamil Nadu’s cuisines. Their ways with the humble aubergine, spiked with just the right amount of powdered fennel, their easy acceptance of a variety of meats that almost certainly has its origin overseas – no wonder Chettinad cuisine is as popular as it is, and no wonder it has developed a restaurant avatar.
This financially savvy community thought of everything. Their houses were built like ships, albeit with tons of Burma teak, Italian tiles and several hundred pillars supporting the courtyards. There was rainwater harvesting built into the design of the mansions. The layout was such that the joint families who lived in them could, if the need arose, be self-sufficient for months. Today, the wedding caterers of the community are still called upon to cater to weddings at which the guest list runs into thousands. And for a few days every two or three years, the mansion springs to life. For the rest of the time, the unparalleled cuisine lives on in restaurants that try to recreate a piece of the magic of the original.