Of all the unique aspects of Chettinad, the most famous ambassador of this region has been its cuisine. Almost no restaurant in India serving non vegetarian food would miss out on having Chicken Chettinad on its menu, and Chettinad cuisine is synonymous with spicy fare even to the Indian palate.
Popular dishes and vast menu
Popular Chettinad dishes include Pepper chicken, and Varuval – which is dry dish fried with spices and onions. The freshly ground masalas which are made using sun dried assortments and hand pounded on pestles provide an earthy flavor. Dry snacks are very popular, including chips and fried dough in circular shapes called ‘Murukku’. Once again these are hand made in large quantities and go very well with the filter coffee famous in the region. An all-day snack also includes the ‘Vada’ which is a deep fried doughnut made with a batter of lentils. Sun dried vegetables are a part of the cooking. This reflects the techniques used in the dry and arid region to preserve vegetables for the off season. Stuffed and steamed dishes like the kozhakattai are also part of this vast cuisine. A thick gravy version of curry called Kozhambu is made from coconut milk and spices as a base. Chettinad cuisine is also famous for pickles, particularly with the popularity of spices. Payasam is a famous dessert of liquid consistency that is flavored with nuts on a base of milk.
Influenced by the region, culture and travel
The Chettinad cuisine has been influenced by the nature of the region, which is a dry, arid and hot region. At the same time the Chettiars trace back their history to a life near the coastline, so their cuisine also has great seafood like prawns and crabs. The much travelled Chettiars also brought back many influences from abroad and their cuisine was also used while entertaining the British guests during the time of the Raj. Chettiars are legendary for their hospitality and the size of their kitchens and their lavish banquet halls are testimony to the feasts served there. The kitchen was a community affair and a matter of pride for the women in the family and being a joint family system, every meal was a large and elaborate affair. No self-respecting Chettiar would eat outside, and would carry their food when they couldn’t be at home for lunch or dinner. Even the kitchen utensils and instruments are collectibles today, valued for their design, large size and vintage make.
Western and local identity
Chettinad Cuisine also has traces of westernized dishes from the history of hosting British guests during the early 19th century. This is accentuated by fine western cutlery used to serve Chettinad dishes. At the same time some meals are still served off banana plantain leaves and eaten with the hand as is the tradition, with a traditional multi course meal that can contain over 20 dishes. The central part of the cuisine is still the rice, as it was hundreds of years ago, which is reflected in the large paddy fields that greet the visitor all over this region. The multitudes of dishes serve as an accompaniment to the rice. Rice takes many forms in the cuisine, starting from steamed rice cakes (idlis) and pancakes (dosas) for breakfast.
Integral part of culture and life
Even today, the cuisine is an integral part of the Chettinad life. The aroma of spices and oils follows you as you walk the by lanes of the town, as each home prepares for its meals. Always freshly prepared at home with ingredients from the local area, every home invariably serves up at least a few classic chettinad dishes for every meal. Chettinad cuisine is spicy, aromatic and contains the liberal use of oil. Popular spices used are peppercorn, cinnamon, bay leaves, cardamom, nutmeg, green and red chilies, coriander, cumin, fenugreek and star anise. Traditionally, the spices were prepared and ground using grinding stones, lending a unique texture and flavor. It is an interesting sight to watch the manual methods of cooking still carried on from centuries of tradition.