Food Culture of Chettinad

Celebrated across the country, Tamil Nadu boasts of a vibrant variety of delicacies that simmer in its kitchens. Ranging from simple pappads, upmas and pachadis to mouth-watering dosas, idlis, uthapams and spicy curries, their cuisine is unforgettable.And when you progress a little into its hinterlands and get to sample the dishes from their Chettinad region, the effect is spell-binding! The word ‘Chettinad’ refers to a social caste that specializes in the preparation of food, thus making Chettiars excellent master chefs. The Chettinad region comprises of 76 villages and 2 towns in the Sivagangai district of Tamil Nadu in south India. Though a small community, these Chettiars dominated the trading and finance business in the 19nth and 20th centuries and is believed to be the pioneer of the modern-day banking system being practiced in India.

Their calculative lifestyle is reflected in their culinary skills with all dishes offering a perfect balance in flavors. Since food is such an essential part of the Chettiar’s lives, the kitchen is given special importance and is among the largest rooms in a typical Karaikudi home. And the best compliment to their cuisine in south India is the saying that ‘one is lucky to eat like a Chettiar’.

Legend has it that the Chettiars were earlier residents of the Coromandel coast of Tamil Nadu where they traded in salt, till a great flood in the 8th century prompted them to migrate inwards into the semi-arid hinterlands around the Karaikudi region. From here, they set-up trading links with south-east Asian countries, with one of the main items being spices.

Traditionally, Chettinad meals were served on a banana leaf with servings of rice, pickles, pappads, vegetables and non-vegetarian dishes. Each item had to be served in a specific sequence and had a specific space on the banana leaf. Aside from this, the Chettiars are a superstitious lot when it comes to numbers and prefer to serve their dishes in odd numbers of seven or nine (per meal!). Another unique feature of Chettinad food is that they usually garnish their food with a hardboiled egg….

Chettinad cuisine is believed to be the most aromatic and spiciest cuisine in India. Though the method of preparation is simple, the cuisine is well-known for its complexity of flavors. This it gets from the wide variety of spices that are always freshly roasted and ground for each meal preparation. Most dishes are loaded with heavy use of green chillies, dry red chillies and black pepper along with local spices like star anise, stone flower, cumin, fenugreek, fennel, cloves and tamarind. Further depth to their gravies is increased by addition of tomatoes, coconut, ginger and garlic.

Another distinct feature of their cuisine is the use of sun-dried vegetables and sometimes, even sun-dried meats, which are preserved in such a way so as to enhance their nutritional value. Even though their vegetarian dishes are delicious, it’s their non-vegetarian dishes including chicken, mutton, prawns and other sea foods that really make an indelible impact on the taste buds. Their meals are invariably accompanied by buttermilk to tone down the heat of their curries.

As you can imagine, their womenfolk end up spending quite a bit of time in their kitchens, hand-pounding fragrant spices in stone grinders and even using different kinds of firewood to develop specific flavors in their dishes….

So when given a chance, go all out for a Chettinad meal; you won’t regret it!