An old Tamil saying goes, “One is lucky to eat like the Chettiars”. The Bangala in Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu, a heritage hotel known for serving the best Chettinad cuisine, might be inaccessible to many unless one travels to south India, but great cuisines need a platform to take them to wider audiences and The Bombay Canteen, Mumbai, under the aegis of executive chef Thomas Zacharias, is doing just that.
In collaboration with The Bangala, The Bombay Canteen is hosting ‘Canteen Chettinad Table’, a two-week festival till May 19, to give gourmands an opportunity to taste the complex, but well-balanced flavours of Chettinad cuisine on a banana leaf just the way the Chettiars eat back home. Available only for dinner on pre-order, a few à la carte dishes are on offer for lunch as well.
The ubiquitous Chicken Chettinad, purportedly synonymous with the cuisine, is, however, conspicuous by its absence on the menu. Meenakshi Meyyappan, or achi (elder sister) as she is fondly called, the custodian and unofficial brand ambassador of the cuisine who was instrumental in setting up The Bangala in 1999, explains, “There is no dish by that name in our cuisine. Chicken pepper fry is the dish that comes the closest. Based on its peppery flavours, people in small restaurants have spiced it up further, christened it Chicken Chettinad and the name has erroneously stuck.” The menu instead allows gourmands to taste the pachadis (south Indian raita), mandis (curry), kozhambu (gravy) and kootu (diced vegetables in puréed lentil gravy), which typify Chettinad cuisine.
Interestingly, age has not dimmed Meyyappan’s enthusiasm and passion. This octogenarian tastes each dish and scrutinises it minutely. Of course, her trusted lieutenants of decades—head chef Raman alongwith chefs Pandian and Kasi—execute the dishes to perfection with the help of Zacharias and his team. “The Bangala is known for its authentic Chettinad fare and at The Bombay Canteen, too, we are ensuring that. I don’t do much cooking back home, too, but I know exactly how the food should taste,” says Meyyappan emphatically, adding, “I agreed to bring this cuisine to Mumbai when Thomas approached me, as I feel myths surrounding it need to be debunked and more awareness needs to be created.”
A Chettinad meal, usually served on a banana leaf, has items that are served clockwise. Each well-spiced dish is interspersed with those that cool the system. There is almost a progression of flavours. Also, an odd number of items are served as the Chettiars are superstitious. “A Chettiar meal is usually elaborate and comprises seven-nine courses. At The Bombay Canteen, we’re replicating the experience by serving a multi-course gourmet feast on banana leaves with several vegetarian and non-vegetarian options,” explains Zacharias, adding, “There is a fixed menu for dinner daily… from daangar (sweet and sour chutney with tamarind and potato), milagu kaadai masala (quail in black peppercorn masala) and ravai cutlet (semolina cheesecakes with fresh coriander) to milagu kozhambu (black peppercorn and fermented buttermilk chilli curry), uppu kari (dry cooked mutton), pepper rasam, thayir sadam (curd rice) and paal paniyaram (cardamom-infused milk with rice dumplings, tadgola, tender coconut and mango), diners will get to taste everything.”
Chettinad cuisine reflects the lifestyle of the Nattukottai Chettiars who come from one of the driest regions of south India in Tamil Nadu, just west of Madurai and 250 miles south of Chennai. This business and financial community started travelling to Burma, Ceylon, Dutch East Indies and Malaysia in the late 19th century, which, in turn, impacted and influenced its cuisine, bringing in some western flavours.
Originally vegetarians from the ancient port town of Kaveripoompattinam, it is only after moving to the 76 villages that comprise Chettinad—where, owing to water scarcity, there were hardly any vegetables—that the Chettiars, or Nagarathars, turned to meat and fish. “Our ancestors, thus, began eating quail, patridge, mutton and chicken as a matter of survival. Of course, later, they began cultivating vegetables too,” informs Meyyappan, adding, “However, on a daily basis, most of us still eat vegetarian food with meat and seafood once or twice a week.”
Whether it’s a simple cabbage kootu or fish kozhambu, the waft of an aromatic Chettinad dish in a typical household is unmistakable, as spices are key to each dish. “Although there is a liberal use of spices, Chettinad cuisine is not overpowered by these… it’s not fiery either as most people believe. One can get the distinct flavour of each spice even though the dish abounds in varied flavours,” Meyyappan elaborates.
What sets Chettinad cuisine apart is that the spices are roasted and then freshly ground for each dish. Correct use and blending of the aromatic spices is crucial. Ammi kal, or a flat rectangular grinding stone with a cylindrical rollerstone, is typically used as it imparts unique flavours. Again, utensils, as per Meyyappan, play a vital role and her kitchen at The Bangala adheres to aatu kal, a special granite stone used to grind rice and dal batters, aruvamanai (vegetable cutter) and the appam chatty for appams. “Ramanathapuram chillies, shallots, coriander seeds, tamarind, cinnamon, pepper and cardamom form the soul of our cuisine. The spices have evolved and entered Chettiar kitchens post their travels to south-east Asia. Cardamom, star anise, cloves, thus, got added to the already existing repertoire of spices like coriander seeds, cumin and red chillies,” she says.
Particular about her spices and ingredients, Meyyappan prefers to buy them at the right time of the year from the same vendor and has them carefully stored. “Cinnamon, of course, we use from our plantations and it is peeled fresh from the bark,” she says.
Contrary to popular belief, fresh coconut is used sparingly to give body and a dash of sweetness to the gravies. “We rely on shallots. Even tomatoes are a recent inclusion as originally these did not exist. The Chettinad cuisine has truly evolved over a period of time,” avers Meyyappan.
Apart from vegetarian delicacies like milagu kozhambu, milagai mandi (the traditional okra preparation), pepper rasam and vazhaipoo kozhambu (chickpea-coated banana flower in a gravy that Zacharias has included in the menu), the Chettinad cuisine boasts of a wide repertoire of non-vegetarian dishes as well, many of which are being served at The Bombay Canteen. Expect to savour nandu kozhambu (crabs cooked in shallots, coconut milk and tamarind), milagu kaadai masala, the popular bheja preparation called moolai masala and Chettinad lamb chops.
The freshly-ground masalas in the non-vegetarian preparations make the dishes pungent and feisty. Zacharias has, hence, ensured that dishes like mangai vellam pachadi (sweetened raw mango pickle) and beetroot thayir pachadi (beetroot raita), based in curd, come to one’s rescue, helping you cool down.
The Chettiars, however, are not great ones for desserts.
“We generally eat fruit at the end of a meal. It is only on special occasions that halwa and payasam are eaten,” states Meyyappan.
To be able to relish a Chettinad meal from The Bangala at The Bombay Canteen is a special occasion and so one enjoys paal paniyaram to round off the perfect meal. A journey of Chettinad flavours at The Bombay Canteen turns out to be one of unrestrained gluttony, but when the saapad (food) is so soul-satisfying, who’s complaining?
(Mini Ribeiro is a freelancer)