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The truth about Chettinad

chettinad food

One of the few south Indian cuisines to be really exposed to us all over the country is, of course, Chettinad — or more correctly, the cuisine of the Nattukotai Chettiar community of Tamil Nadu. Speak of south Indian non-vegetarian food (at least outside the four peninsular states) and nine out of 10 people are likely to nod their heads in understanding and say, “Chettinad chicken” (CC). As far as popular tastes go, CC has indeed become the equivalent of the Punjabi BC (butter chicken) — standing for all the clichés that we now equate with non-tiffin south-Indian food; “spicy” being the most common adjective used for it. But despite its overwhelming popularity in the foodie universe, the cuisine of the Chettiars is not really understood much. For one, it is a mistake to think of it as being simply “spicy”, or “chilly”— which is what most Indians usually mean when they call something “spicy”.

At a unique Chettiar fund-raising dinner held at the ITC Sheraton Park hotel in Chennai recently, I got a sampling of what authentic Chettinad cuisine should really be like— and no, chicken was hardly the highlight there. “America” Natesan is a big name in the community. As a cook of ample repute and fame his services are hugely sought after during weddings and other festivities and, in fact, he has earned his sobriquet because of months at an end spent in America catering to NRI weddings there during the “season”. But Natesan is not just a community cook—in fact he (and there are others like him) is what you would call a wedding planner in modern day parlance. He arranges for everything from décor and made-to-order mandapams to the priest, flowers, furniture, crockery and cutlery— in short the entire paraphernalia required for a traditional Chettiar wedding. The complete solution comes as a “set”—that’s what it is called. And anyone availing of an entire “set”, is provided “set soup” complimentary during the wedding feast. I mention this because it was Natesan and his men who had been roped in to cook that evening at the hotel — hotel chefs keenly watching them in the kitchen to learn the secrets of their masalas even as Natesan & co tried to dodge the observers adroitly; but that’s another story…

Having been told by executive chef Praveen Anand, one of the great researchers in the country into south Indian cuisines, that the humble soup (just dal water, apparently) in the typical Chettiar feast was special because of the tempering (with cinnamon and pepper) best exhibiting the community’s judicious use of spices, I was quite looking forward to sampling it. But alas, it wasn’t on the menu. One possibly has to attend a Chettiar wedding for that. The spread that evening at the Sheraton Park included dishes from other south-east Asian countries to where the Chettiar community has spread because of its trade links. Quintessential Burmese dishes like the Khao Suey are part of some Chettiar family repertoires too today and the version we got was different but with many more fresh condiments than what I have had in the past. But above all, the Chettiar semiya (food) is undoubtedly distinctive because of the use of spice. While it is not overtly “spicy” or hot as in the way we understand it in the north, the way they handle individual spices so that the khuzambus (curries), the dry meats, and vegetables all taste different from one another is really remarkable. Commercial kitchens may have ruined the true taste of Indian cooking by using the same masala or gravy for different dishes—butter chicken or paneer makhani, what’s the difference really?—but when you sample authentic, home style dishes from particular communites, you begin to appreciate the diversity of flavours that go into each of our meals. In true Chettiar cooking there is no ubiquitous “garam masala” mix drowning out all other flavours, instead the likes of fennel or star anise (note the south-east Asian connection) are more important. Excessive spicing is only the recourse of an ignorant cook; in the hands of the knowledgeable aachi (the term for Chettiar matriachs) or community cook, spices are handled judiciously and subtly.

Chettinad chicken is what has caught popular imagination but a Chettiar feast would include quail, rabbit, pigeons and other game meats too. Legend has it that the Chettairs were once a leading business community in the ancient Chola kingdom but after a feud with the ruler were all but killed. A small group managed to escape to the Pandya kingdom and got permission to stay in one of most arid and landlocked regions before using their inherited acumen to take to trading in the 19th century with south-east Asian countries and acquiring their fabled wealth and status. Since their home is naturally arid, a variety of game meats are found in their cuisine. And organ meats not to mention animal blood delicacies are part of the repertoire too. But what is even more surprising is the fact that despite all this, the community was and is predominantly vegetarian. This should not really be surprising since this is a high-class Hindu community, that would have been traditionally vegetarian but for its nomadic lifestyle. In fact, the aachis were typically vegetarian, it was only their sea-faring menfolk who took to fish. One of the most interesting dishes in their repertoire is thus meen kozhambu and its vegetarian equivalent, “lotcha kottai elai”, as chef Anand informs me. The aachis would prepare a curry and divide it into two portions. While fish was put in one portion (meen khuzambu) for the men, the women themselves made a mock fish curry of sorts for themselves with the other half. For this, besan would be rolled in a fragrant leaf, steamed and cut. This imitation fish would then be curried for the vegetarian women. Business, food and the business of food were all entwined for this community.

One of the most interesting culinary practices has to be by way of each child in the household getting a special vessel to eat from. This vessel is called a “vaadi”, literally meaning “interest”. For a business community, it is pertinent to teach their progeny to only eat from the interest—without touching the principle! But finally, what I found most remarkable about the Chettiars and their passion for food is the fact that recipes have been codified—something that doesn’t seem to have been done in the rest of India at all– and passed down from mother to daughter. These are apparently zealously guarded and even today, it may be tough for you to get an aachi to part with her kitchen secrets. It would be well worth it if you managed.

(This article appeared in Anoothi Vishal’s food column, Foodphile, in Financial Express)

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