Taking the road less travelled from Tirunelveli to Chettinad via Madurai can be a richly rewarding culinary experience. Even in a tiny rural hamlet, one can always find a Muniyandi Vilas or a ‘Military Mess’ serving an assortment of specials from ‘mutte barota’ (egg paratha) to ‘vartha kari’ (fried meat). What they lack in hygiene they will make up for with robust, honest ‘sapad’.
It is fascinating to watch these sweaty, bare-bodied, mustachioed chefs at work as they perform mundane tasks like slicing onions as if they were subjects of a ‘time and motion’ study at Harvard. The true ‘kairasi samurai’ have an unerring instinct; a rule-of-thumb method so to speak, which allows them to work without constant recourse to recipes which are traditionally passed on from father to son or mother to daughter.
This deftness with the seasonings and the final touches is what characterises the best of them. Besides the standard idli-vada joints, there are a plethora of eateries in Tamil Nadu where the adventurous foodie can get to sample a range of spicy, authentic local flavours.
The Chettiar community
Chettinad food is the traditional cuisine of the Nattukottai Chettiar community, who were the pioneers of the plantation industry in the Far East. They use a variety of spices, freshly ground masalas, sun-dried meats and salted vegetables, reflecting the dry environment of the region.
Most of the dishes are eaten with rice or idli, dosa, iddiyappam and chappathis generously laced with ghee. Through their mercantile contacts with Burma, they learnt to prepare a type of rice pudding made with sticky red rice. While they were traditionally vegetarians, once they established trading ties with Christians and Muslims, the non-vegetarian influence became entrenched in their cuisine and when they began trading with Ceylon, Burma and the Dutch East Indies, there was no looking back. They are wonderful hosts and a meal at a Chettiar home is a lavishly satisfying experience since the table is likely to be groaning with an array of dishes.
Writer Guy Trebay claims, “There is a saying in South India that one is lucky to eat like a Chettiar not only because a Chettiar table is a groaning board but also because the cuisine is uncommonly subtle and aromatic, a heritage of their participation in the centuries-old spice trade, the global import and export of pungent seeds and fruits and barks from places like Cochin and Penang, the Banda Islands, 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, or galangal, from Laos and Vietnam.”
It is as if they have picked out the rock stars from each of the countries they have traded and travelled in and amalgamated them into one dazzling United Nations of flavours.
The culinary influence of the Chettiar community who trace their ancestry back to the merchant bankers of the Chola kingdom is tangible and no visit is complete without sampling the quintessential Chettinad Chicken. Succulent morsels of plump chicken, seasoned generously with black pepper, green chilli and spices, are dry roasted to perfection prior to being garnished with curry leaves.
A fabulous feast
Other exciting options on a Chettinad menu are Nandu Rasam, a spicy soup made with small crabs, Karaikudi Eral Masala, prawns fried in a mélange of spices, crab masala, mutton fry, brain fry, chicken roast and Sora puttu, which is shredded shark meat sauteed with ginger, garlic, coriander, green chill and onion — recommended for those who enjoy fish but don’t want to pick out the bones.
Cabbage poriyal is a lightly spiced, sautéed and steamed very traditional Chettinad dry vegetable dish which tastes best when served with tomato rasam and steamed rice that has been topped with fragrant ghee. They make a fabulous curry with banana flower and coconut milk and an ennai kathrika, brinjals in a piquant sour and spicy curry, which is to die for.
Then there’s the Paruppu Urundai Kuzhambu, which is simply a mix of lentil cooked in a tangy tamarind sauce. The complex interplay of sweet, sour, and piquant flavours in this versatile dish will have you begging, like Oliver Twist, for more.
Then there’s mutton koala balls (no, they have nothing to do with those adorable cuddly little creatures from Australia), it’s a sort of shammi kebab, and kal dosa (traditionally cooked on stone) served with a tangy fish curry made from a tiny, anchovy-like fish called netthile. The food is enjoyably spiced: finely balanced at the point where your scalp prickles and your nose runs but you don’t need to gulp a glass of water. Quail and rabbit are great delicacies here and before I provoke howls of outrage from wildlife enthusiasts, let me clarify that these are domestically reared Japanese quail, not the endangered species. The rabbit roast or 65 has an unusual, gamy taste and is supposed to be low in cholesterol. Wind up your meal with curd rice, banana, beeda (paan) and a belch, though not necessarily in that order.
Here is one of my favourite recipes….
Toor Dal / Tuvar Paruppu - 1 cup
Dry Red Chilli – 2, Turmeric Powder - 1 tsp
Salt to taste
Curry leaves a sprig
Rice Flour as needed
· Gingelly Oil / Indian Sesame Oil - 2 tbsp
· Mustard Seeds /- 1 tsp
· Urad dal / Ulundu Paruppu - 1 tsp
· Fenugreek Seeds / Vendayam - ¼ tsp
· Asafoetida / Hing a pinch
· Curry leaves a sprig
· Sambar Powder - 2 tbsp
· Tamarind - 1 small lime size
· Salt to taste
1. Soak toor dal for 2 hours. Drain and set aside.
2. Take dry chilli in a blender, pulse few times.
3. Add in toor dal and puree till little coarse.
4. Shape it into balls and set aside.
5. Take oil in a pan, add mustard, urad dal, asafoetida, fenugreek and curry leaves and saute.
6. Add in sambar powder and mix well.
7. Add in tamarind pulp, water and salt. Mix well.
8. Bring it to a boil.
9. Take each ball, roll it in rice flour and drop in kuzhambu. Boil for 15 mins.
10. Cook till done.
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