Southern Spice

Part of the Spotlight feature The Chettinad Affair

Scenes from our meals at The Bangala and the home of Meenakshi Meyyappan

Perhaps the one thing our group of travellers was most excited about – don’t judge us for it – when we touched down in Chettinad was its food. We came with hungry stomachs and happily abandoned diets, ready and willing to take on the region’s famously delectable cuisine, its robust and full-bodied flavours seasoned by the scorching sun.

The Chettiar community is made up of wealthy moneylenders and merchants who in the 20th century travelled to South and Southeast Asia and built their fortunes overseas. These widely travelled traders brought with them not just imported embellishments for their palatial residences, but also culinary influences from Ceylon, Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia that would ultimately inform the creation of their own unique cuisine.

For a community that is known (and loved) for its meat-heavy cooking, it’s difficult to fathom that the Chettiars were originally devout vegetarians from Kanchipuram. In the 19th century, the enterprising community adopted the Chola port town of Kaveripoompattinam as its base and from here began a series of voyages to Malacca, Sumatra, and Java. Soon they developed an appetite for the Southeast Asian food that they encountered on their journeys. Meat, seafood and foreign spices made their way into the Chettiar kitchens, infusing the food with a distinct flavour that would set it apart from others in South India. The cuisine underwent significant localisation with the use of the region’s high-quality spices, local produce and indigenous utensils and implements.

Chettinad’s spirited fare has been variously described as luscious, tangy and fiery. Each dish is known to pack within it a fierce individuality best reflected in the various versions of sambhar and rasam prepared in the region. A typical lineup would include Chettinad chicken curry, nandu (crab) masala, sundakkai vathal kozhambu (a sundried berry-based curry) and poondu parippu (curried garlic lentils) served on a plantain leaf alongside rice-based accompaniments like dosais, aapams, idiyappams, adais, idlis and paniyarams. For the adventurous there’s thalakkari perattal, a crown curry prepared using all parts of the goat’s head and aatu ratha poriyal – a side dish made with coagulated goat blood. The sweet-toothed can indulge in kavuni arisi—a glutinous black rice pudding or the modest adhirasam — a flat donut sweetened with jaggery.

In addition to common ingredients like coconut, tamarind and curry leaves found in most South Indian cuisine, a blend of kalpasi (a kind of lichen), star anise, fennel seeds and pepper lend Chettinad food its peculiar flavour. A simple curry can have about 18 spices wet-ground using an ammi kal or a stone grinder. The Chettiars cook with an array of meats ranging from chicken, mutton, pork and seafood to pigeon, rabbit, pheasant and quail. What’s also unique is the nose-to-tail cooking philosophy, which not just minimises waste but produces unique textures and flavours as well.

The best place to experience Chettinad cuisine in its most authentic form today is Karaikudi, the region's principal town, which is about 100 kilometres to the south of Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu. In 1999 the Meyyappan family opened the doors to The Bangala, a heritage Chettinad bungalow converted into a boutique hotel in the heart of Karaikudi. In addition to its extensive courtyards, patterned flooring and utterly charming interiors, the biggest draw at The Bangala is its family-run kitchen, presided over by the warmly hospitable matriarch and chef par excellence, Meenakshi Meyyappan. This was our home through this journey.

Not only did we get to taste the almost unbelievable variety of dishes at the Bangala, we were also lucky enough be invited into the home of Mrs Meyyappan herself. A massive table was laid out just for us, in the family mansion gleaming with Italian marble, Czech chandeliers and intricately carved Burmese teak. An honour, sure enough, but this also was the feast of a lifetime, featuring the best and most beloved dishes from the Bangala.

The unusual piquancy of crab rasam, the melting meat off mutton chops, the earthy taste of quail curry, the always classic Chettinad chicken, fluffy appams with prawn stew, slivers of delicious fried fish… Each dish served to us played with texture and flavour, striking that most dexterous balance to both satiate and still leave us wanting more. Let us raise tumblers of piping hot filter coffee in a toast to this food of kings, and put the weighing scales away.

How did we carry back the peppery heat of Chettinad with us? These exceptional cookbooks keep us company, whether we dream of recreating the magic of a traditional Chettinad meal in our own kitchens, or just have some flavourful inspiration at hand: