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Eat, pay, love! - Satya Prasad Movva - The Sunday Indian
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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Eat, pay, love!


SATYA PRASAD MOVVA | New Delhi, October 2, 2011 17:36
Tags : Chettinad Chicken | Vendakay mandi | Chettiyar | Annapoorna | kulipaniyaram | kavani arsi |

“Karaikudiiiii!” the driver yelled, waking me up from an uneasy slumber. I gave a start, grabbed my bag and stumbled off the bus. I looked around, confused for a while, surprised by the simplicity of this small town. I had expected bustling activity and a cacophony of noises. What greeted me instead was a ghost town apparently accustomed to a quiet way of life. I walked slowly to my destination, appreciating the sight of the early morning sun illuminating the temples and numerous tea shops that lined the streets. I was in the capital of Chettinad, the land of the Chettiyars, ready to experience the legendary culinary skills of the people of this region.

 I soon enter The Bangala, a pleasant retreat for the discerning, where I am greeted by Mrs. George, a serene lady with a ready smile and a composed demeanour. She tells me of the history of this building (it was once a place where gentlemen entertained guests or settled down for a quiet evening of tennis and drinks) and of the Meyyappan family that currently owns it. She speaks with admiration for Mrs. Meyyappan, the director of the establishment. “A remarkable lady,” she says, a sentiment echoed by all her employees.

We are all hungry by this time and Mrs. George invites us to breakfast. Given a choice between a European and a Chettinad spread, I chose the latter. Obviously. What followed next was a gourmet treat that I wouldn’t forget in a hurry. Soft, fluffy idlis with hand-ground coriander chutney followed by crispy rava dosas and tomato chutney began the proceedings. Then there was ’kulipaniyaram’ with sambar before we ended the morning meal with another local specialty ‘kavani arsi’, a sweet dish made with rice, coconut, sugar and ghee. Full as full can be, and bursting with glee, I settle down on a sofa in a living room, eager to know more of the community that made such a spectacle of an activity as mundane as breakfast.      

Fortunately for me, I am introduced to the housekeeper, Mrs. Annapoorna, a local Chettiyar.  An amiable young woman, the housekeeper narrates stories of her ancestors with relish. She speaks of their stay under the Chola kings, when their reputation for being shrewd tradesmen spread far and wide. She describes a flood which left them penniless (ten times as big as the recent tsunami, in her words) and tells me of their subsequent patronage by the Pandya kings. Thanking her for her time and patience, I ask around for more information. I gather that the Chettiyars were originally vegetarians who learnt of meat during their travels to South East Asian nations and carried back the recipes with them. The architecture is also said to be influenced by the Italian style of construction during those days.

Considering the conversation sufficient exercise to merit me my second feast for the day, I tuck in for lunch. Trying valiantly to match up to the expectations set by the earlier meal, Raman (the chef) serves up one dish after another. It is a glorious presentation, filled with colour and variety. Deep fried vadai shares space with boiled potato while Vendakay mandi (lady finger curry) and mango pickle jostle for attention. I loosen my belt and ask for more rice, with lots of ghee, of course. It’s now time to resume the age old battle between chicken chettinad and uppu kari (mutton). Numerous succulent bites and lip smacking morsels later, the jury was still out. Gently brushing aside my protests, a beaming Raman presents his trademark desserts, ilaneer (coconut) pudding and homemade vanilla ice cream. I put my hands up and clean up the plate.

I have often ordered Chettinad Chicken at restaurants only to be greeted by a swirling mass of red, filled with chili powder and gallons of oil. The real deal proved to be something else. The sumptuous treats of Chettinad rely on substance rather than style to satisfy the palate of their patrons. The delectable variety of flavours is meant to be experienced and not seen. I believe the cuisine reflects the lifestyle of the people here. Fine, restrained and soothing and yet exhilarating in an inexplicable manner.     

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017