My Love Affair With Tamil Nadu’s Chilli Fried Quail

My Love Affair With Tamil Nadu’s Chilli Fried Quail
Yummy Tummy Aarthi

Quail are grossly underrated in India, phenomenally cheap, and dang delicious. My love affair with Quail, otherwise known as Kaadai in Tamil Nadu, began a decade ago, and it’s still going strong. I first experienced Kaadai when I came down from the Nilgiri Hills to my parents’ home in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. I was a kid at the time and was used to being showered with hugs from my folks after returning from months away at school. However, my father was nowhere to be found. I went upstairs, only to find him on the balcony beasting through a quail, deep fried to perfection in a bright, orange chilli paste.

I pulled off a tiny leg piece with a quick movement, as I feared I would lose a finger to my dad from the way he was tearing away at the poor little fowl like a deprived dog. Curious to see what was so special about this fried bird that would distract a loving father from his son’s long overdue return, I took a bite. Just then, my tastebuds revealed to me that one day, long in the future, a child of mine would play second fiddle to the ever-glorious Chili Fried Kaadai.

Photographed by Julian Manning

Southern fried quail goes by the name Kaadai, and every time I order I get a new pronunciation lesson from a waiter both confused and amused at my interpretation of the word. After ten years of ordering the damn thing, I am convinced that I am either utterly hopeless, or the waiters of Coimbatore are secretly messing with me. However, the consolation prize of a freshly cooked quail always eclipses my disappointment at my innate ability to make South Indian waiters laugh at me.

Kaadai doesn’t technically mean quail in Tamil but refers to the style in which it is usually cooked. The excerpt below from Pat Chapman’s book India: Food and Cooking – The Ultimate Book on Indian Cuisine sheds some light on this.

Kaadai is called Kaadai because of how it is cooked in a wok, along the same sentiment of people saying “Xerox this” instead of “copy this” – names stick, and this one has stuck. Also, the term Kaadai specifically refers to the Japanese Quail. These aren’t quail imported from Japan, but a common quail found in Southeast Asia, especially in Japan. They weigh anywhere from 100 to 160 grams, which is a pretty small amount of meat at the end of the day. However, although the tasty poultry may be lean, it’s so tasty you’ll suck the white meat off the bones like it’s your mama’s cooking.

Although Kaadai Chili Fry is the most popular and widely available quail dish in Tamil Nadu, you can also get other variations, like Kaadai Pepper Fry and Kaadai Stew, which are also amazing.

Photographed by Julian Manning

The Pepper Fry is perhaps the spiciest version of the small bird and calls for a lot of curry leaves, red chillies, and a boatload of freshly ground peppercorns. The stew still carries a bit of heat but calls for cooked-down tomatoes for the sauce as well as a lot of cashews and a bit of coconut to taste.

Photographed by Julian Manning

Some may find it peculiar that Quail is a popular dish in Coimbatore, a fairly large Tamil city. This erroneous notion has to do with people’s perception that the state is teeming with Tamil Brahmins, hence the ubiquitous neon hotel signs advertising ‘Pure Veg’ food. As stated in the 2012 survey (more recent studies lack the depth of The Hindu’s interviews) conducted by The Hindu on The Food Habits of The Nation, “based on interviews with 14,680 respondents, spread across 883 villages and urban areas in 19 States” – approximately 55 percent of Brahmins across the nation are vegetarians, however, only around 8 percent of Tamil Nadu residents are vegetarian, if we rely on the survey’s data. This information suggests that the state is rather a haven for meat eaters, especially if we look closely at the variety of local meat dishes, which feature jungle fowl, rabbit, and turkey, among others.

The hotels and bhavans that Kaadai can be found in are predominantly middle-class restaurants. They offer good prices (around INR 150 - 200 per Kaadai dish), great food, clean kitchens, but are far from anything fancy.

If you still find it strange that Quail is a popular dish in Tamil Nadu, the fact is the state is overflowing with quail farms, specifically Japanese Quail farms, as the birds are easy to keep, far more resistant to disease than other common poultry, and mature in roughly six weeks.

If you don’t live in the South of India you’ll be hardpressed to find these dishes in a restaurant, so online recipes are the best way for foodies interested in experimenting.

If you’re ever in Coimbatore, Rayappas Hotel (with the most options), My Place, and Hari Bhavanam are great places for Kaadai.

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