I still remember my first visit to Chettinad, about seven hours from Chennai. This cluster of about 70-odd villages and towns spread between the Pudukottai and Ramanathapuram districts in Tamil Nadu's southern half is home to the Nattukottai Chettiars. This enterprising community forged trading links across Asia and also set up some Tamil Nadu's best known Corporate houses. The community's wealth boomed from the 1880s to the 1940s, a period that witnessed the construction of palatial homes. That's one reason why people visit towns like Karaikudi and Kannadukathan where you can access a few of these imposing mansions. Many of these homes have morphed into intimate boutique hotels. The region is also a gourmand's paradise.
The Chettiars' travels around Asia saw them incorporate many ingredients that differentiate their cuisine from the rest of Tamil Nadu. I believe that Chettinad cuisine along with Lucknowi cuisine is one of India's most evolved. Star aniseed and black rice (once known as forbidden rice in China because it was reserved only for the nobility) are some of the ingredients that are unique to this cuisine. Over the years Chettinad cuisine has been misrepresented in cities like Chennai and Bengaluru. It has become synonymous with fiery cuisine that sets your taste buds on fire. That's quite far from the truth. Chettinad cuisine is more about the interplay between spices rather than just gravies dunked with chilli powder or spicy masalas. Freshly ground pepper and chilli powder are usually used in equal proportion in most dishes.
If you wish to experience the real flavours of Chettinad cuisine, then head to Karaikudi (the largest town in the region) and check out some of the region's authentic dining experiences:
The Bangala, Karaikudi
Chettinad wasn't on the radar for global travellers in the late 1990s when Meenakshi Meyappan converted her old family home into a boutique hotel. In just a decade, the success of the Bangala sparked a wave of heritage homes to follow suit. The Bangala's banana leaf lunch is one of the finest Chettinad meals you can sample anywhere. It features some of the classic Chettinad dishes like the Mandi. This dish is prepared with the water drained after washing the rice and cooked with a vegetable (okra is a popular option) and spices. And then there's the pepper kuzhambu (gravy) that tastes delicious with steaming hot rice. The Bangala's menu also incorporates dishes that were served in Chettiar homes during the days of the British Raj like potato croquettes. The meal usually ends with a sinful badam halwa that is served with a creamy homemade ice cream.
Vaadhyar's House, Kannadukathan
An hour from the Trichy airport and two hours from Madurai is Kannadukathan, a town steeped in Chettiar heritage with many landmark homes. The Park hotels has reimagined one of these heritage homes that the locals called Vaadhyar's House (teacher's house; this has been home to generations of teachers). This cafe blends a contemporary vibe with a flavour of traditional Chettinad architecture. It's the same with the menu that features International cuisine. But it's the local flavours that shine here. Their well-priced vegetarian and non-vegetarian platters round up some of the region's most emblematic dishes while their small plates like the kozhi milagu (chicken pepper fry) and the subtly sweet Paal Paniyaram (deep fried rice-urad dal dumplings shallow fried rice dumplings soaked in coconut milk) are a must-try.
Art-Deco design elements dominate CGH Earth's 1930s boutique hotel with Italian marble and stucco walls. Visalam keeps Chettinad culinary traditions alive in their restaurant. The hotel's Chettinad culinary sessions in its interactive restaurant are extremely popular. You can savour dishes like the kola urundai, finely pounded mutton balls and the kavunni arisi halwa made with black rice finished with grated coconut and a hint of cardamom.
Guests at Chettiar weddings recount tales about the elaborate menus. This usually includes tiffin time or tea time (between lunch and dinner). Chettiars love their snacks like Aadi Kumayam (Lentil and rice halwa) to Rangoon Puttu. This unassuming vegetarian restaurant is a popular tiffin spot. Locals swear by their Vellai Panniyaram (A fluffy white hopper made with rice and black gram) and dosa varieties.
Chettinad cuisine is more than just spices and gravies. Head to the places mentioned above to savour the best of Chettinad cuisine.
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About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.