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Most of us know South Indian cuisine to consist of the basic rice idli, sambar, dosa and medu vada (Indian deep-fried fritter) – described as some of the mildest foods. Yet what the Chettiars of the South bring to the table is quite the delectable spicy feast.
At the mouth-watering spread put together by JW Marriott Juhu for a 10 day food festival entitled 'Taste of Chettinad,' I stood witness to this cuisine of the small community of the Chettiars. Heaps of flavourful spices and chutneys in circular brown clay pots lay alongside humongous jars of pickled garlic, jambul (plum), mango among other fruits and vegetables that were strategically placed at the forefront of the main Chettinad cuisine meat and fish courses. The arrangement made it clear that the food served needed to be paired with more than just a dash of spice.
South Indians have traditionally been a clan endorsing vegetarianism, however, this isn’t the case with Chettinad cuisine. Absorbing non-vegetarian influences along the way the Chettiars entrenched a host of fiery spices as well to inculcate in their food.
I got lost in the language – with dishes like Meen Kolumbu (rawas fish cubes), Beetroot Kootu (chutney), Yerra Manga Puli curry (prawn cooked with mango in a tangy sauce) – and just pointed to the dish that appealed to me. Even the drink suggested to be paired with my meal – apart from the obvious choice of filter coffee at the end of the meal – had some funny but familiar sounding ingredients like karuvepillai (curry leaves) soaking in a rum and coconut water bath and presented in a coconut shell.
Taking expert advice from the Masterchef of the evening, Jineesh Joseph, whose recommendations were always mixed with “a special masala”. Originally from the state of Kerala, Joseph now lives in Chennai and has also worked abroad. Though he was not from the Chettiar community, Joseph developed a liking for the cuisine that offered non-vegetarian and extra hot spices along with the traditional South Indian ingredients. “A lot of South Indians prefer Chettinad cuisine and so I decided to pledge my allegiance,” he proudly asserts.
The special type of spices used in this vibrant and spicy cuisine are kalpasi (stone flower) and marathi mookh (dried flower pods), which gives the dishes a more spicy edge. The Chettinad biryani, Joseph argues, is considerably different from any other kind of biryani in India because of the addition of these two spices.
Shooting with gunpowder chutney
Be it the florets of batter-fried cauliflower pakodas (Kavipoo varuval) or the rice flour noodles (idiyappam or nool puttu) and steamed rice cakes (sannas), what compliments the dishes best are a side order of gunpowder chutney. Even the meat and fish dishes rely on the heavily spiced chutney and tangy flavours of pickle to complement them. And to eat the gunpowder chutney, a well-like shape must be created at the centre of the powdered heap in which a mix of sesame oil and ghee must be poured and mixed for enhanced flavour.
One ‘meen’ dish
Although the masses may favour the popular Chettinad Chicken or Maasi (fish) curry, my favourite is the ‘Meen Roast’, a thick slice of boneless baked and roasted seer fish served on a silver platter, whose succulent flesh falls apart with ease. Atop the flavourful fish lay a green sauce so tasty and brimming with flavours like chilli, coriander powder and ginger. Among the vast sea of curries at the Marriott was the Yerra Manga Puli curry (prawn and mango curry) – another personal favourite.
After the night of exotic Chettinad cuisine Chef Joseph’s go-to comfort food dish will always remain the traditional sambar, something, he reminisces, was a legacy from his mother. “My signature dish is the sambar, with a special homemade masala mix infused with byadgi chilli (a special spice found in Karnataka).”
Immediately after my meal I made a beeline for the dessert counter where Chef Joseph directed me to the bite-sized sweets. Among them was Ellu Undu (sesame ladoos), resembling the Maharashtrian Til Gud ladoos, only black in colour and topped with a dollop of fresh cream to end the evening on a sweet note.
Sat, 12 May 2018-10:07pm
Saturday, 12 May 2018 – 10:23pm
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