The Authentic Flavors of Chettinad Cuisine

posted in: Asia, Culture, India, Tamil Nadu | 30

It is no surprise that you equate the Chettinad region to its food. Honestly speaking, these flavors of Chettinad Cuisine are the reason this region on a traveler’s map. So far my posts have been largely on travel to the offbeat Chettinad area of Tamil Nadu. However, once you are there, you will find that there is no escape from the tantalizing taste of Chettinad food. Why – it even converted a non-foodie like me into a complete foodie! So much that I could not wait for my meal times when in Karaikudi.

So, What is it about this Chettinad Cuisine that ensnares people and gets them addicted to all things Chettinad! This post attempts to unravel this secret and take you through a virtual culinary journey of Chettinad.

Delights of the famous Chettinad Cuisine
Delights of the famous Chettinad Cuisine                                                                              Image Credits: Yashima via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA

Roots of the Chettinad Cuisine

If you think that Chettinad food is best enjoyed by non-vegetarians, then you need to think again. The cuisine of the Chettinad region has a plethora of options for vegetarians. In fact, if you trace the history of the wealthy Nattukottai Chettiars or the Nagarathars, then you will be surprised to know that surrounded by Tamilan Brahmins, their base ingredients were largely vegetarian. Owing to the proximity to the ocean (their first homes were in Poompuhar which was lost to the Tsunami), their first inclusion of non-vegetarian items included sea-food.

Read about the history of Chettinad. Discover how the name Nattukottai Chettiars came about. What made them move from their original abode to Karaikudi and why they were so respected. Click through this post to know more.

Spices that are used to create the base for Chettinad Cuisine
Spices that are used to create the base for Chettinad Cuisine                                                          Image credits: Pixabay

After they moved to the high-lands, the community introduced chicken, turkey, rabbit, and other non-vegetarian items into their menu. With their frequent business trips overseas, came in new flavors and dishes – most popular being Sri Lanka and Burma. The base ingredients remained the same. In fact, these still form the bulk of any Chettinad dish. The foreign flavors have just been seamlessly blended to create a new and unique signature dish of Chettinad.

For quite some time, I believed that the Chettinad fare was all about spicy food. Blame it on the commercial restaurants who tend to add their personal touch to it and alter the authentic tangy flavors of the land. It was only during my Karaikudi trip that I actually got the true taste of Chettinad.

Secret ingredients of the Chettinad Food

The Chettiars have mastered the use of Tomatoes and Tamarinds for their tangy dishes. The spices that are used in any Chettinad cuisine are freshly pounded, after a fair bit of sun-drying. In fact, their meats and vegetables are also, sundried. Brined vegetables and fresh pickles are pretty much a norm for any Chettinad meal and are prepared regularly by the Chettiars. The spicy reputation of the cuisine of Chettinad comes from ground pepper. Chilies too contribute to the savory flavors.

Secret ingredients of Chettinad Cuisine
Secret ingredients of Chettinad Cuisine

The other common spices include cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and Star Anise. The unique ones include types of dried flower pods like Maratti Mokku and Kalpasi (Stone Flowers). The Chettinad dishes are not very heavy on coconut. It is used in moderation for various gravies.

With that, you now know what goes into that secret recipe. 😉

A typical Chettinad kitchen

Fire pits in the cooking area of a Chettinad house
Fire pits in the cooking area of a Chettinad house

Where you have such exclusive meals, then you can expect some special Kitchen equipment too. The old Chettiar homes had a complete courtyard or Valavu dedicated to a kitchen. The Moonamkattu as it is called is divided into two parts. The actual cooking area called Adukala and the preparation area called the Irandankattu. The Adukala has lines of firepits and that gives you an idea of how the ancient cooking took place over firewood.

Kitchen corridor of the Raja's palace in Karaikudi
Kitchen corridor – Irandankattu in Karaikudi

The Irandankattu has a lot of rooms used as storage. Along the corridors, sat the women cutting and grinding the raw materials required for the dish of the day. You will often find huge hand pounders and stone grinders lurking around. These were used for pounding and grinding the sun-dried spices. In fact, the same open-to-sky courtyard was used for sun-drying various ingredients. For chopping, you would often find a huge iron blade called Aruamanai.

The grinding stone used in a typical Chettinad kitchen
The grinding stone used in a typical Chettinad kitchen

The modern era has long replaced these elaborate kitchens. However, certain specialized equipment continues to be in use. Take for example the Idiyappam machines used for making fresh string hoppers and the Paniyarakkal for making the yummy Paniyarams. What is that? – you ask. Ah well, time to unveil the signature dishes of Chettinad.

The Signature dishes of Chettinad

Get ready for a lip-smacking, salivating journey through Chettinad. I will start with the vegetarian ones first. Please excuse me for not having pics for all of these. I just could not wait to dive in, forgetting that I need to click the yummy affair.  P.S: The names can be a tongue twister 😉

Idiyappam

Ragi Dosa and Iddiappam - our favorite Chettinad Breakfast
Ragi Dosa and Iddiappam – our favorite Chettinad Breakfast

My breakfast favorite. Every morning, I would love this simple dish of string hoppers with a variety of chutneys. The chutneys ranged from coconut to tamarind, drumstick and tomato. Each one lends a different taste to these steamed idiyappams. If that is not enough, you should club the dish with the tangy sambhar or the coconut-based stew (Vellai Kurma). Or maybe, add a certain sweetness with the jaggery syrup.

Dosai

Dosai or Dosa is popular in India but what makes the Chettinad ones special are the accompaniments. The same chutneys that go with the Idiyappam are served with the Dosai as are the curries and sambhar. One special variety that I tried was the sweet Ragi Dosa. This was made using jaggery and milk and trust me, they were YUM!

Kuzhi Paniyaram

Kuzhi Paniyaram - perfect with the Chettinad chutneys
Kuzhi Paniyaram – perfect with the Chettinad chutneys

These mini – idli like dish is quite popular across South India. In Karnataka, they are called Guliyappa while in the rest of Tamil Nadu, they are called Paddus.  Paniyarams require a special vessel called Paniyarakkal. There are different varieties of it. The savory ones have different fillings like onions and vegetables. The sweet ones include jaggery and coconut fillings. I even managed to taste Paniyarams made using Ragi flour.

Paruppu Urundai Kuzhambu

Balls made from dal or lentils dipped in a tangy curry made from Tamarind. This one caught me by surprise as I expected those balls to be something like the idlis. This dish can be had by itself or you can team it with steamed rice.

Vendakkai Varuval

The deep fried okra - an interesting side dish
The deep fried okra – an interesting side dish

This is almost like a side dish. Simply put – Vendakkai Varuval is a Chettinad dish consisting of crispy, deep-fried ladyfingers. In a lot of ways, it is like the Kurkuri Bhindi served in Rajasthan and North India.

Vazhaipoo Kuzhambu

A vegetarian’s fish meal. And how you may ask? Well, it includes banana flowers fried in a batter and added to the tangy Chettinad gravy. Perfect with rice.

Kaikari Pirattal

This Chettinad curry is almost like stir-fried vegetables. Kaikari Pirattal includes a dash of coconut with the typical Chettinad spices sprinkled over it. Not only can you have it with rice but it tastes good even with chapatis.

Ennai Kathirikai

Ennai Kathrikai is one of those tangy Chettinad preparations that goes really well with Idiyappams, Appams, Dosai, Chapattis, or even steamed rice. It consists of brinjals that are deep-fried and added to the tangy tamarind gravy.

Cabbage & Carrot Poriyal

Shredded carrots and cabbage that is sauteed and mixed with mild spices, the Poriyal is a popular side dish that is almost, every time, served as a part of the grand Chettinad meal.

Meen Kuzhanbu

The sweet and sour gravy concoction with fresh fish makes an excellent accompaniment with rice or Rotis. If there is one signature dish that seems to have come from Poompuhar times, this must be it.

Chettinad Chicken (Milagu Kozhi Varuval)

The Chettinad Chicken served in the commercial hotels is definitely different from what is served in Karaikudi or the Chettinad region. The natives consider the pepper chicken preparation called Milagu Kozhi Varuval as the authentic Chettinad Chicken dish. Normally, this is dry but some wet variants are available for accompaniments with rice or rotis.

Mutton Chukka

This is a lamb preparation is a highly recommended Chettinad dish. In fact, I remember one lady in our heritage stay feeling disappointed that we were vegetarians and could not taste it. The only thing that made her happy was when I asked her to describe it. The lamb is marinated in an aromatic mix of cardamom, cinnamon, curry leaves and chillis and just listening to that mix, made my mouth water! I did ask her if she could make mushroom with that marination – but well, 🙁

Karaikudi Eral Masala

Chettinad Prawn Masala
Chettinad Prawn Masala                                                                                                  Image Credits: Seethabharathi via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA

Karaikudi Eral Masala is a must-try for sea-food lovers. The prawn dish is laced with a paste of spices and is best enjoyed with a dash of lemon freshly squeezed over it.

Kada Fry

Quail is quite a staple in the Chettinad menu and if you want to sample it, then the Kada Fry is a recommended Chettinad dish. It is marinated in the Chettinad spices and is deep-fried.

Nandu Masala

The famous spicy crab affair is one of the key signature dishes of Chettinad. The dish is renowned across destinations in South East Asia as well as India. They say that the Chettinad flavors add a zest to the crab meat.

Paal Payasam

After all that spicy, tangy affair, you must cool down with the simple Chettinad dessert – the Paal Payaram. Rice boiled in milk and garnished with nuts and cardamom is bound to appeal to almost anyone.

Kozhukattai

I actually, thought these were the savory momos and almost did not taste them. However, the kind lady insisted I bite into one. The one I tasted had a mix of coconut and jaggery. The Kozhukattai did seem like a perfect way to end a Chettinad meal.

The Chettinad Meals

A full meal with odd number of food items - one of the cultural aspects of Chettinad Food
A full meal with odd number of food items – one of the cultural aspects of Chettinad Food

The Chettinad breakfast and dinners generally include Dosai, Paniyarams and Idiyappam. In fact, these are all-day meals.  However, lunch is generally an elaborate affair. A typical Chettinad meal is had on a banana leaf and over the three days that I was there, that is something I looked forward to. The plantain leaf Chettinad meal is an important part of the Chettinad culture. It does not include random dishes but follows certain norms.

My limited Plaintain meal lunch
My limited Plaintain meal lunch

For one, it will always have odd number of dishes included. The Chettinad items are served in a particular order and each dish has a place. It starts with the salt and pickles that are placed on the right and are followed by the chutneys and vegetables and finally the curries. Rice is generally piled in the center. My favorite part of this meal was always the assortment of curries – starting with the Chettinad sambhar, the special rasam and the curd based gravy. Ooh boy! I cannot stop salivating right now!

Where to find good Chettinad Food in Karaikudi?

Finally, if you are in Karaikudi and are looking for an authentic taste of the Chettinad cuisine, you need to head to these places

  • The Bangala
  • Karaikudi Annapoorna
  • Jainica

Let me know what you think of this culinary journey with deep culture. And if you loved it, you got to bookmark it with this pin – just so that you remember to taste it whenever you get a chance.

 

Booking resources

  • If you are looking for a Chettinad stay, try through Booking.com . They have tons of heritage homes listed.
  • For any household or travel needs that you want to purchase through Amazon, do consider clicking through from this link. 
Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.

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30 Responses

  1. Linda (LD Holland)

    I must admit that I am far less adventurous with trying new foods. Good thing that hubby will try most things. But spice for us is salt and pepper. So often we find the tangier spiced food just too hard for us. But I do love the presentation on a banana leaf. As long as I learned how to say “no spice” I might be ok. That worked just fine when we visited China 🙂

    • Ami

      When it comes to less spice or no spice, just go with the Dosai, Paniyaram and Iddiyappam . The chutneys are generally not that spicy so you will be safe.

  2. Roving Jay

    The Paniyarim look interesting snack food … especially the vegetarian ones, paired with a sweet and spicy chutney. There’s such a diverse range of regional food that it can get confusing or overwhelming to get to know it, so thanks for introducing me to the authentic flavors of Chettinad.

    • Ami

      Yes, it does get a little overwhelming but trust me, you will love it anyway. I hope you get a chance to try the real flavors

  3. Nanchi

    Chettinad food is full of flavours, textures and spices. A complete Indian feel. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Nish

    Gosh! You have me drooling over here. I love Chettinad food. People are always amazed to hear that because i am a vegetarian, and i keep telling that there are plenty of veg options here. I especially love the kuzhi paniyarams. Simply mouth watering!

    • Ami

      Every time I read the post, I find myself salivating. Chettinad food has that effect on people.

  5. Chloé Arnold

    Ahhh this looks DIVINE! I’ve never had Chettinad food, but as a vegetarian I would imagine the flavorings of those sauces would be amazing. I know what I’m ordering for dinner tonight!

  6. Paula

    This was very interesting to read. I am slowly getting more and more familiar with Indian dishes thanks to my awesome Indian neighborg. I am learning how versatile it is and how different regions have their own flavors. It is so facinating. I must say I didn’t know much about Chettinad before this but foods look delicious. Some of them I recognise too. I would love to visit someday to experience all the tastes and smells locally.

    • Ami

      The best place to experience this is actually Chettinad. I so hope you can get here to taste the divine cooking.

  7. Arnav Mathur

    OMG, all that food just made me drool. I too had that misconception that Chettinad cuisine is on the spicier side, but I was so so wrong. It is one of the most delectable cuisines, and quite unique when it comes to the flavours. If the food turned a non foodie like you into a foodie, I might just end up going in a food coma.
    TBH – I would love to try out the Mutton Chukka first, because the way you described it, that too without eating it, is making my mouth water now.

  8. The Untourists

    What an interesting way to look at a cuisine. One day after the pandemic I hope to go experi nice the real thing. I am sure what we eat at urban restaurants is not even close.

  9. Debjani lahiri

    The dishes name are really a tongue twister, also for the fact that I am already salivating thinking about all of them. For me the only familiarity with Chettinad cuisine is the Chettinad Chicken I had till now and honestly, I found it little spicy and hot to my taste palette. But its interesting to know so much detail about the ingredient used and the cooking techniques for the same. Also thank god that i read this and I got to know that flower spice from the south is known as Kalpasi, never could remember what it was called actually. Idiyappam although is one of my favorite and didn’t know its also part of Chettinad cuisine.

    • Ami

      Iddiyappam has been my favorite through Kerala and Sri Lanka too. But the combination in Chettinad with its pickles and gravies is just something else.

  10. Raksha

    I love eating on a banana leaf. Something that I miss so much. One of my favourite cuisines is Chettinadu and I try to explore the restaurants that have Chettinadu cuisine here in Sydney. It’s not the same but at least something better than nothing. By the way look at that Sambar and papadum .

  11. Val

    I’m not a huge fan of spices, but the cuisine of the Chettinad region sounds really interesting! The Kuzhi Paniyarams with coconut filling look very similar to what I once had for breakfast in a Thai b&b and I bet they are super delicious! Also, I love the banana leaf meal setting, so petty!

    • Ami

      Paniyarams is perfect for those who have a low spice tolerance and they have a variety. You should definitely attempt that.

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