The vast expanse of area that India treads through, it is no surprise that the geographical ambits of the country hold a mirror upto its rich diversity, and even the unity in it. As landscapes change every few kilometers, so does the natural bounty and cultural rendezvous that greets you from these regions that are as diverse as can be. In sync with the myriad of flavours that the standing of India across different geographical zones brings to it in what is quite unique an experience in existence is also the rich offering of the country in terms of what gets on to its palate. The Indian gastronomic experience is one that take you on a tour of some of the most interesting culinary routes in the world. Even in its unsophistication, the cuisine of different regions of the country comes across as particularly evolved and refined, be it in its taste, its schematic residing in local ingredients and of course in their defining structure and aesthetics. And one such marvel of the food world to have emerged from the country is what the world identifies as Chettinad cuisine. A unique extravagance of flavours that marks the culinary experience of the Chettinad region in Tamil Nadu, Chettinad cuisine is also one of the most raved about gastronomic indulgences in the country, inciting not just the taste buds of those fortunate enough to have had mouthfuls of its many lipsmacking dishes but also the intrigue of all with its very prominent identity as well.
One of the many culinary legacies of India that which arouses a whole volley of flavours, Chettinad cuisine is marked by its very prominent use of a wide variety of spices. However, despite the seemingly more than optimum range of its uses, the popularity of Chettinad food as being something that is really spicy is only an aberration of what it tends to be in its most authentic preparation. The cuisine of the Nattukotai Chettiars, or Nagarathars, Chettinad food is indeed marked by the wide use of a variety of spices that which includes star anise and tamarind and chillies and fennel seeds and cinnamon and cloves and bay leaf and peppercorn and cumin and fenugreek. But in all their wide usage, what these spices impart to the many trademark dishes of Chettinad is more so their characteristic flavour rather than catering mostly to the spice quotient.
In its palatability therefore, Chettinad cuisine tend to be more prominent in its tangy tones, what with tamarind and tomatoes very integral ingredients to its preparation. Even in its most authentic Indian experience however, Chettinad cuisine also assimilates enough components of cooking that are very noticeable influences of a foreign origin. Specifically in its widespread use of such ingredients preserved through techniques like sun-dried meats, berries, salted vegetables and pickles in brine, Chettinad cuisine comes across as rather versatile and unique within the whole encompassment of food practices native to India. In incorporating seamlessly such influences, Chettinad cuisine has evolved not just in its identity as a truly global cuisine but has also attained a range of favours in its food that while is complex is appealing to purveyors of every kind of taste.
Even outside its ingredients though, the food practices of Chettinad tends to be a whole world of uniqueness in themselves. The serving of food in authentic Chettinad style is as much an experience to relish for the senses as it is a delectable meal to devour for the tastes. Very characteristic of being a food culture stemming from the southern parts of India, Chettinad food is also traditionally served on banana leaves with even a specific protocol as to how a particular number of dishes are to be brought to the table. With always an odd number of dishes served at any meal or feast, each item also occupy a designated space on the leaf. With items served first placed at the top left corner of the leaf moving thereby in a clockwise direction, the Chettinads also have their own typical way of going about their fare. Starting with paniyarams and chutneys, followed by vegetables, meats, rice and sambhar, a curd rice and then a sweet item, every Chettinad meal is a full course affair with such a fusion of flavours brought about by the many intermingling of its offerings that which while tend to be intense in the flavours are surprisingly quite subtle in the taste of it. Uncommonly aromatic as well due of course to the skilled play of a whole repertoire of the choicest spices and the most exotic of ingredients, Chettinad cuisine is also as markedly distinctive in its many traditional methods of preparation, be it grounding the spices with traditional equipments or cooking the food in such pretty utensils that are all the rage today as collectibles now, owing to their distinctive design and make.
While indeed every food experience tends to be more than just an appetiser to the tastes, exploring also into other nuances of culture and heritage and most prominently identity of an entire race or region, it still is exploring the many elements of diversity that every cuisine has to offer in terms of their range that has us all upbeat for the sheer drools that the very mention of food guarantees. Let’s therefore dive into the rich world of Chettinad cuisine and unearth some of its most exotic tastes for the authentic experience of a lifetime-
There sure would have been no better way than to start of on the Chettinad trail than with a dish that screams its identity throughout. Perhaps the most popular of chicken gravy stemmings from south India, the very mention of Chettinad Chicken is enough to send us drooling. Touted to be a fiery hot chicken curry, this however is not an authentic Chettinad churning, not at least as per popular perception. For natives of the region, it is the pepper chicken preparation called Milagu Kozhi Varuval that counts as Chettinad Chicken unlike the characterisic red dish that which is a hot favorite across eateries throughout the country. With pepper as the main ingredient in this curry that which also generously makes way for a blend of some 15- 16 spices and ingredients, most prominently ginger, garlic and coconut, this however is a dish that is an absolute bliss for die hard chicken lovers.
A Chettinad classic, that which also finds expression in south Indian cuisine as a whole, idiyappams make for a dish that looks as good as it tastes. Rice flour pressed into noodles like strings, these soft and moist idiyappams further manifest the global nature of Chettinad cuisine as these also are delicacies enjoyed in Sri Lanka as string hoppers. Delicately made but zesty nevertheless in their choice of accompaniment that tastes as amazing savoury or sweet, this very unique food can be a healthy and nutritious meal by itself as well.
While the whole of southern India delights with its assortment of coconut milk based sweet preparations, Chettinad awes with an altogether different aura of its own. Dumpling made of a combination of urad dal and rice are cooked to moist perfection in coconut milk and sweetened for a mellow but memorable serving of dessert that gets as exotic as it can.
Chettinad is as wondrous a tavern of taste in its many veggie delights. And one particular recipe that is sure to absolutely take over your taste buds is that of Palkatti Chettinadu. A traditional paneer dish from the region, this is quite a diversion from your usual matar paneer or paneer butter masala. Palkatti Chettinadu involves cooking fried paneer in a thick gravy of mustard seeds, urad dal, tomatoes and a whole lot of spices for a taste that is sure to linger on your tongue with an appeal of its own.
Another distinctive sweet treat that you can gorge on while exploring the unexpected alleys of the Chettinad taste range is the lesser known Kummayam. Kummayam or Aadi Kummayam is specifically prepared as a traditional delight on Aadi Fridays or Tuesdays and comes across as a recipe that is as healthy as it is delicious. Made with moong dal powder or combined with urad dal powder, this is almost like one of those dal halwas except that it is much smoother but less extravagant even when being equally indulgent.
Just when you thought that Chettinad cuisine cannot get any more pleasantly sweet, here we are with perhaps the most exotic of dessert delights this south Indian region has to offer. Kavunni Arisi is a type of black rice from Chettinad that however is a beautiful deep purple in color. In its rather fuss free preparation for a dessert this heavenly, Kavunni Arisi might just end up being one of your go to sweet dishes. Soaked black rice is pressure cooked and then cooked further with sugar and cardamom powder and ghee for a rich, creamy, luscious pudding like dish that really appeals to the tongue with its very characteristic flavour and texture.
Mutton Kola Urundai
A very popular non veg preparation in Chettinad is the mutton kola urundai. Mutton keema is precooked and then flavoured with with an array of ingredients before they are shaped into balls and deep fried to perfection for an appetiser that is easily one of the most delicious roundels of meat you will ever bite into.
Chettinad Fish Fry
A classic fish recipe from the region, Chettinad fish fry makes for a hearty serving of fishy deliciousness. Unique in its marination that which brings together a whole medley of exotic ingredients so typical of Chettinad cuisine, this is a recipe that brings to you the true coastal flavours of Chettinad.
Vazhaipoo Meen Kuzhambu
One of the most unique dishes you will ever come across not just in Chettinad but anywhere in the world is a dish known as Vazhaipoo Meen Kuzhambu. Also called Saiva Meen Kuzhambu literally meaning Vegetarian Fish Gravy, this is an exotic dish made with a very interesting veggie ingredient. Vazhaipoo Meen Kuzhambu is a dish unique to the place that which sees batter fried banana flowers cooked in a spicy tangy gravy in trademark Chettinad style. An exclusively veg preparation but as much a delightful discovery for even non veg lovers, it is dishes like this that lend Chettinad cuisine its one of a kind identity.
Appams are a delicacy staple to all of south India but Chettinad’s culinary legacy rests deeply in the kandarappam. Sweet fritters made with an assortment of rice and lentils mixed with coconut and jaggery and elaichi, these are traditional bites of deliciousness that finds place of reverence in every festival and occasion of the region.
Paniyaram is yet again very much a south Indian delicacy but Chettinad’s vellai paniyaram tends to be somewhat different. Made from a batter of urad dal and rice, this is a traditional and classic recipe prepared at every Chettinad home on special occasions and therefore makes for a rather loved dish.
Much like its chicken counterpart, Mushroom Chettinad too is a characteristically Chettinad dish that which brings together the usual fare of tamarind, coconut, chillies and freshly ground spices for a mushroom dish that tastes mindblowingly amazing.
Chettinad Muttai Masala
One of the many flavours that make Chettinad cuisine stand out is its tangy- spicy piquancy that which finds its way also in its egg curry recipe. Boiled eggs are fried and cooked further in a delectable tomato and onion gravy flavoured of course with a heady mix of spices for a dish that pairs as well with rotis or rice or idiyappam.
A rather special preparation from Chettinad that adds even greater flavour to its many assortment of dishes is what is known as vendakkai mandi. With tamarinds soaked in rice water being what lends this dish its easily identifiable flavour, this is a lady’s finger based gravy that however can be made with various other veggies as well. Traditionally savoured with rice, this mandi preparation is a further insight into just how evolved in its cuisinal explorations Chettinad tends to be.