Chettinad. The Nattukottai Chettiars, an enterprising trading community from this region established an unrivaled trading network across South East Asia as early as the 19th Century; long before the term globalization was even coined.
The Bangala was one of the many palatial homes that were built by the Nattukottai Chettiars between the 1880s and 1940s. Some of these homes are a shadow of their former self and have been plundered by antique hunters. Many homes like Bangala have stood the test of time; a throwback to a time when this community flourished and their homes were adorned with plush Italian marble and the finest Burma teak. Many Chettiar homes followed Bangala’s path and morphed into intimate boutique hotels. It’s not just old world charm that draws visitors from all over the world to Chettinad, it’s also the region’s cuisine that has been influenced in part by the Chettiars’ global expeditions with unique spice like star aniseed.
(Also read: 10 Best Chettinad Recipes)
Back in the 1980s, the Taj Group set up Rain tree, an al-fresco restaurant at the Connemara in Chennai. It finally put Chettinad cuisine on the national stage. Over the years many restaurants sprung up across Southern India with the Chettinad tag, many of these so called Chettinad restaurants misrepresented this evolved cuisine. The Bangala’s restaurant has aimed to set the record straight and it has a huge advantage that Chettinad restaurants in Chennai and Bengaluru don’t possess. Whether it's Hyderabad or Ambur, the best biryanis are always served at weddings and homes. It’s the same here; the Chettinad wedding feast is the ultimate celebration of the region’s fine cuisine. Almost all weddings in Chettinad are handled by a group of caterers called Maistris. Typically a large 100-member crew handles everything from cooking to serving for a guest list of 1000. These wedding cooks don’t usually work at restaurants while other talented cooks are on the payrolls of wealthy families. It’s not easy to find true blue Chettinad cuisine in restaurants even around the region. That’s what sets a handful of restaurants like Bangala apart; For instance Bangala’s whimsical chef – Karupiah, is over 70 and has been tirelessly churning out Bangala’s exquisite Banana leaf lunch for years.
Chettinad cuisine is distinct not only in its usage of spices but also in terms of its dishes and cooking methods. One of my favourite Chettinad dishes is the Mandi. It is prepared with the water drained after washing the rice and cooked with a vegetable (the Okra Mandi is truly delicious) and spices. Contrary to the curries in Chettinad restaurants in Chennai that are full of spices and numb your taste buds, subtle flavours are the real essence of this cuisine. Of course, there are spicy dishes like the pepper Kuzhambu (gravy) but even here it’s more the interplay of spices rather than just fiery chilli.
(Also read: 10 Ingredients That Make Chettinad Food a Lip-Smacking Affair)
Aside from their traditional dishes, many homes in Chettinad have also added dishes along the years. You might find more modern dishes like the Raj-era mint and potato croquettes or a soya chunk biryani served in many homes that use tradition. Mrs Meyappan has focussed on serving home-style food that is still served in some of the region’s historic homes at her restaurant. It’s almost impossible to get the cuisine’s finest exponents to leave the region. It’s why even well-intentioned Chettinad restaurants outside the region struggle to maintain authenticity. It’s the one thing that I discuss with Mrs. Meyappan every time I am back at the Bangala.
Great cuisines need a platform or iconic establishments to take them to wider audiences. Mrs. Meyappan’s biggest contribution to Chettinad cuisine has been beyond running an outstanding restaurant. She has authored numerous books and the Bangala also conducts culinary sessions for visitors to Chettinad. She has emerged as one of the most visible ambassadors for the Chettinad region even as the Bangala has almost become a gold standard for Chettinad cuisine. I only wish I don’t have to drive seven hours from Chennai every time I want to explore the region’s authentic eateries and to eat an authentic Chettinad meal.
About the Author:
Ashwin Rajagopalan is a cross cultural training expert and lifestyle writer. When he's not writing about food, he thinks about gadgets, trends and travel experiences. He enjoys communicating across cultures and borders in his weekday work avatar as a content and editorial consultant for a global major and one of India's only cross cultural trainers.
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Most people hit retirement mode as they enter the sixties. Not 83-year old Mrs. Meenakshi Meyappan. She set up Chettinad’s first heritage hotel in Karaikudi in the early 2000s and is still actively involved with daily operations. Sandwiched in the arid belt between Pudukottai and Ramanathapuram in Southern Tamil Nadu are the 70-odd villages and towns that make up