Cuisine from the land of the Chettiars

Spicy and aromatic, Chettinad cuisine’s popularity extends far beyond its state of origin – Tamil Nadu. Its national and global appeal especially in South East Asia and its wide repertoire of dishes, are encouraging chefs in India to innovate with the colour, texture and presentation to offer guests an exciting yet authentic experience By Rituparna Chatterjee

Spicy and aromatic, Chettinad cuisine’s popularity extends far beyond its state of origin – Tamil Nadu. Its national and global appeal especially in South East Asia and its wide repertoire of dishes, are encouraging chefs in India to innovate with the colour, texture and presentation to offer guests an exciting yet authentic experience By Rituparna Chatterjee

20150930eh16A region in the Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu, Chettinad is a culturally and historically rich neighbourhood famous for its agriculture, architecture and most significantly its unique cuisine. Chettinad’s origin dates back to the 13th century when the Nattukottai Chettiars migrated to Karaikudi from Kaveripoompattinam, following a massive flood. This new settlement slowly came to be known as the Chettinad region (Land of the Chettiars). It comprised of 96 villages in 1947 over a 600-1500 square mile area, out of which around 75 villages exist even today. The story of the Chettiars is quite interesting. They started off as traders and merchants of salt, gems, textiles and jewellery and eventually entered the banking profession in the 19th century.

The most famous ambassador of the Chettinad region has been its cuisine, for it is one of the spiciest and the most aromatic cuisines in India. The Chettinad cuisine has numerous influences ranging from the dry, arid and hot climate of the region, to the Chettiars having mercantile contacts with Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, etc. The Chettinad cuisine was also served to the British guests during the time of the Raj. Because of these numerous influences, the Chettinad cuisine has evolved multi-fold.

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Some of the popular Chettinad dishes include pepper chicken; Varuval, a dry dish fried with spices and onions; Murukku, fried dough in circular shapes; Vada, a deep fried doughnut made with a batter of lentils; Kozhakattai, stuffed and steamed dish; Kozhambu, a thick gravy version of curry made from coconut milk and spices as a base, among some. This cuisine is also famous for its pickles and desserts especially Payasam, which has a liquid consistency and is flavoured with nuts on a base of milk.

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Chef Thirumal M

Despite its spicy nature, the Chettinad cuisine has gained immense popularity globally avers chefs. “Chettinad cuisine has become popular over the last decade and is widely accepted around the world especially in South East Asia where the Chettiars had business links. Also I guess the wide repertoire of dishes appeal to the global audience,” expresses Chef Thirumal M, chef de partie, Bengaluru Marriott Hotel Whitefield adding that a number of new restaurants have opened up to serve this cuisine and existing restaurant brands serving Chettinad cuisine are also doubling their existence around the globe. Many chefs who work with this cuisine have made changes according to the subjective taste of the guests who relish it. Voicing similar thoughts, Chef Uchit Vohra, executive chef, ITC Windsor, states, “15 years back Chettinad cuisine was known only in and around Tamil Nadu and today it is popular all over the country. It is this heightened demand which has already taken this experience overseas.”

Reinventing Chettinad

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Chef Uchit Vohra

Over the years, Chettinad cuisine has evolved the art of using spices and has developed into a wonderful food experience. Also people’s demand has taken the entire experience of the Chettinad cuisine further ahead. “Chettinad as a cuisine has been accommodating the changes of time,” avers Chef Vohra, adding, “We love to experiment with our food and when it comes to variety in non-vegetarian food, Chettinad cuisine is the best. Pepper, chilly, garlic and ginger are some of the key ingredients, which we use in our preparations. Since the masalas are made in the kitchen, it gives a distinctive taste to the dishes. We have incorporated few of the Chettinad classics in our menu as well.” The main focus at Dakshin, the south Indian restaurant of ITC Windsor, has been to successfully reinvent and offer something new to everyone. “Our main agenda has been to create food that’s chic, light and beautifully presented but doesn’t stray too far from the core of the Chettinad cuisine, and will make the traditionalists happy,” explains Chef Vohra. Likewise, for Bengaluru Marriott Hotel Whitefield, the focus has been on maintaining the authenticity of the cuisine by playing around with the colour and texture by adding certain side dishes to serve it as a meal. “I keep in mind my guests whom I have to serve the food and then experiment with the taste, texture, colour and ingredients. It is a continuous exercise and you have to modify your food to appeal to the demography of a particular place,” opines Chef Thirumal M, suggesting, “You can use different cooking methods to attain the end result of your liking but I firmly believe that slow cooking is essential with respect to Chettinad cuisine as the spice blend gets its best end result only if proper time and temperature are religiously followed.”

Rising promotions

The global appeal and popularity of Chettinad cuisine has been encouraging hotels across the country to organise food festivals either dedicated to Indian cuisine with Chettinad forming a distinct part of it or hosting an exclusive presentation of only Chettinad cuisine. “We make sure that this cuisine is showcased in our buffet at M Café because of its popularity. Chettinad cuisine will also be showcased for seven days in the upcoming festival at Bengaluru Marriott Hotel Whitefield called the Indian Culinary Route. We believe in promoting different cuisines by doing extensive research by speaking to the concerned people and reading materials, etc,” explains Chef Thirumal M. While at Dakshin, ITC Windsor, a Chettinad food promotion event was organised last year.

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“The response was positive. We have plans of doing it sometime soon again,” reveals Chef Vohra. As for future innovation required in this cuisine, Chef Vohra suggests, “I feel some modern touches will be required to improve the presentation, plating and overall look of the food without compromising on the authenticity of the recipes. Modern plating styles, more interactive chefs on this cuisine, are required to increase consumer awareness on the legacy of this cuisine.”

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