You don’t usually see a tiny region giving birth to a whole new cuisine. Chettinadu (The land of Chettiars) has this distinction of creating one of the most aromatic cuisines of India. In direct contrast to Brahmin cuisine, Chettinad cuisine uses meat and exotic spices extensively. Contrary to popular belief, Chettinad cuisine is neither spicy nor oily. It is however, bursting with flavour.
Chettinad is a small region in southern Tamilnadu consisting of Karaikudi and 74 other villages. It is not a geographic entity and so does not have a clear cut boundary. This is the homeland of the Nattukottai Chettiars (Nagarathar). Being one of the driest areas of Tamilnadu, it is not conducive to agriculture. Unable to farm, its people instead became successful traders, bankers and businessmen, going as far as south-east Asia to trade. Their enormous success and legendary wealth are reflected in their palatial houses and the expensive spices used in their cuisine.
Chettinadu curries are built from the same four basic building blocks as all south Indian curries – lentils, yogurt, tamarind and coconut. What makes them unique are the flavouring and certain cooking techniques used.
In spite of their great wealth, Chettiars frown upon wastage of any sort. In their curry, the Mandi, even the water used to wash rice grains (Arisi Mandi) is not wasted. Polished rice always has a thin coating of flour on it. The water used to wash rice grains dissolves this flour. When added to the curry, this water not only adds nutrients, but also acts as a thickener. See Solai’s Mandi.
When the regular Pulikulambu is flavoured with fennel, it becomes a uniquely chettinad curry. (See Malar’s plantain Pulikulambu.) Similarly, the regular more kulambu uses a blended mixture of coconut, cumin and chilies. Add fennel and some ginger- garlic paste and this spiced up more kulambu becomes a Chettinad curry.
Chettinadu Kara Kulambu is just a regular kulambu on steroids. Here onions, tomatoes and garlic are stir fried, mashed and mixed with tamarind paste to cook up a rich, thick kulambu. (See SEEC’s Kara Kulambu)
Perattal ( stirred up) is another unique curry where boiled vegetables are stirred and cooked with freshly ground masala paste. (See Pasi Payaru Perattal). The simple Paruppu is spiced up with garlic, onions and chilies, becoming the Paruppu masiyal. Similarly the humble rasam is flavoured by fennel, ginger and garlic morphing into the Chettinad rasam. Even Keerai Masiyal, the quintessential Brahmin curry is jazzed up with garlic to morph into a more flavourful avatar.
Chettinadu cuisine derives its punch from exotic spices like marathi mokku (dried flower pods), anasipoo (star anise) and kalpasi (dried bark). Other spices like fennel, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, ginger and garlic are commonly used in everyday cooking. Using readymade masalas is frowned upon. Most spice mixes are freshly ground.
In fact, a quick and dirty method of converting a normal Tamil curry into a Chettinad curry is by adding some fried fennel, ginger and garlic. The use of fennel however is not very common in other parts of Tamilnadu and is actually frowned upon by Brahmins.
Chettinadu cuisine uses all the traditional vegetables, spinach and pulses of Tamilnadu cuisine. It also uses a variety of sun dried vegetables reflecting the aridity of the region. Some curries pair well with certain vegetables and these combinations are frequently cooked. Thayir pachadis frequently use carrot, cucumber, gooseberry, boiled snake gourd & ash gourd. Mandi is usually cooked with spinach, chilies, okra, mochai, or sun dried vegetables.
Keerai Masiyals usually use mulai keerai, arai keerai, manathakkali keerai, ponnanganni keerai or siru keerai.
Kootus are made with eggplant, chow-chow or banana stem. Puli kulambu uses okra, bitter gourd, eggplant or bottle gourd. More kulambu usually has eggplant, okra, ash gourd, drumstick, okra or colocasia.
With these principles in place, feel free to experiment with these building blocks and flavourings to cook up a huge variety of Chettinad curries.
Srimathi of Few minute wonders is hosting RCI: Chettinadu Vegetarian Cuisine and am reposting this for the event.