Of the many cultural communities in Tamil Nadu, the Chettiyar’s have made their presence known in the culinary world through the Chettinad Chicken. But there is definitely more to them than this iconic dish, which according to food enthusiasts has often been peddled across the nation in inauthentic ways, by simply making it spicy and oily.
Chettinad cuisine has a complex history, being influenced by geography and migration patterns of the community itself. A mercantile community especially famed for their spice-trade network, the Nagarthar Chettiyars flourished under the Chola kingdom in the regions of Poompoohar and Kaveripattinam. They have also been said to have maritime trade links with areas like Ceylon, Burma, and Mauritius, which have impacted their culinary repertoire, giving rise to dishes like idiyappam.
Freshly ground and blended spices customised to each individual dish become the soul of this cuisine, and despite popular assumptions, Chettinad dishes are not meant to be oil heavy at all. Another misconception is that it is only meat-centric, but interestingly, meat was included in the mix in the later stages due to the community’s affinity to travel to different regions.
Unless you’re planning on a trip to Karaikudi (which definitely should be on your bucket list!), the best way to try authentic food from this community would be to make it yourself. So here are five dishes from the wonderful world of Chettinad food you should know, and maybe you’ll even be inspired to whip up one of these mouth-watering delicacies in your very own kitchen.
Paniyarams have frequented quite a bit in the rotation of my Tamizh household’s dishes, so I was intrigued to find that it actually has Chettinad origins. These are small, fluffy balls made of steamed rice flour and/or other lentils according to the type. They can have different fillings and flavours, or eaten in different ways such as dunked in milk or with sambar. There’s karuppatti paniyaram, paal paniyaram, masala paniyaram, egg paniyaram but the most popular is vellai paniyaram, made out of mixing milk in the original batter before steaming.
II. Kavuni Arusi
This is a sweet sticky rice dish garnished with cardamom and coconut. Interestingly, the dish is supposed to have come about with the Chettiar community’s contacts with Burma (current day Myanmar), when they travelled there for commercial purposes in the 19th century. This dessert is made out of a special glutinous black rice specific to the region.
This tangy and spicy dish literally translates to Banana flower fish stew but surprisingly does not contain any fish at all. It gets its name from the fact that the banana flowers resemble anchovies in appearance. Breaking the stereotype that Chettinad food is only for meat lovers, this flavourful curry is sure to delight vegetarians looking to trying out this cuisine.
IV. Sura Puttu
Owing to the community’s proximity to the sea, a number of seafood delicacies like fish fries and prawn curries form a part of the Chettinad repertoire. Sura puttu is a scramble made out of shark meat (often substituted with other fish as well) and freshly ground spices. This aromatic delicacy is served with rice or stuffed inside rotis.
V. Kada Fry
We know of chicken and mutton featuring heavily in the cuisine but other kinds also make their presence, in this case — it’s quail meat. The dish is made from marinating tender quail meat in robust spices, which is then fried in golden brown. The dish is an example of the Chettiyar’s incorporating jungle fowl from the arid region they inhabited into their culinary practices.
If cooking isn’t your thing, then you can definitely get a taste of the cuisine in some restaurants in major cities. Anjappar and Karaikudi have branches across Chennai and Bangalore and are popular hotspots of exclusively Chettinad food. Authenticook offers an interactive Chettinad cooking and dining experience in Chennai, at the home of a local. The Tanjore Tiffin Room and South Of The Vindhyas in Mumbai have a couple of dishes marked out as Chettinad-styled. Similarly, Swagath and Tamil Nadu House Canteen are good spots in the Delhi-NCR region.
Another way to try good Chettinad food is through Chettinad food festivals held across hotels and restaurants over the years, which are announced by major news channels so stay updated through these forums.
Feature image courtesy of The Better India.
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