Crab Rasam to Mandi: The History of Tamil Nadu’s Chettinad Cuisine
Chettinad cuisine combines hyper local flavours with a global palate.
Chettinad cuisine combines hyper local flavours with a global palate.(Photo: Aroop Mishra / The Quint)

Crab Rasam to Mandi: The History of Tamil Nadu’s Chettinad Cuisine

Chettinad cuisine is a genre by itself. I say genre because it's like a supermarket for the senses. Let me explain.

Consider this – Gujarati cuisine is on the sweeter end of the flavour spectrum. Andhra cuisine is typically high on red chilly heat, Bengali food is unmistakably laced with mustard and poppy, Tamil cuisine in general has a turmeric and dhania base. Kerala cuisine is all about the coconut.

Chettinad cuisine is too varied to be summarised with broad strokes. It’s got recipes that would sit well in a desert in Rajasthan. But also, some of the finest versions of fish gravies and prawn curries. You could dedicate a complete section to its offal menu, like brain masala and stomach sambols or drool over the legendary pepper chicken and prawn gravy.

Yet, an elaborate vegetarian feast replete with baby potato fry will make the table groan. You'd think Chettinad cuisine is all about the hyper-local flavours, cooked in ancient, traditional methods. Until you taste the stodgy bread and butter putting, that's part of the 'Butler Cuisine' of the 'Chettinad Bangalas' aka bungalows.

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What is Chettinad?

Chettinad is a cluster of 76 villages in south Tamil Nadu.
Chettinad is a cluster of 76 villages in south Tamil Nadu.
(Photo Courtesy: PATRICK / iStock)

Chettinad is a cluster of about 76 villages large in southern Tamil Nadu spanning over 1,500 square kilometres. A part of this cluster - of about thirty villages - finds itself in the UNESCO nominations for its Outstanding Universal Value. In other words, everything in the area, from the palatial old world houses, to the culture and habits as well as the food and cuisine is of historic and cultural value.

The ‘Chettiars’ of Tamil Nadu have historically been richer than the kings who ruled over them. And their feasts, equally magnificent!

And those who belong to this cluster, whose roots are here, are called Nagaraththars or town-folk since it was they who transformed the villages into something more. They are also called the Naattukkottai Chettiars, or simply, Chettiars.

Traditionally, the Chettiars are mercantile bankers, and traders of salt and spices. And this reflects wonderfully, in the flavours of their food.

For a community who live in villages that are deep inland, far away from the oceans, their cuisine offers up some exceptional seafood recipes. And that, is because they've been maritime traders from even before the 8th century.

A number of them emigrated to Ceylon and Burma in the 19th and 20th centuries. Because they're traders who travel the world, their palate does too. This explains the global influences in their recipes, ingredients and cooking methods.

Chettinad Cuisine and It's Architectural Influences

Chettinad cuisine is like its bungalows; traditional but with global influences.
Chettinad cuisine is like its bungalows; traditional but with global influences.
(Photo Courtesy: ANIL A DAVE / iStock)
Between the 1850s and the 1940s, the majority of the Chettiars hung up their sea-legs and came home.

And with them they brought the wealth of the world, and an aesthetic that was rooted in Tamil tradition, but touched by their wanderlust.

The palatial houses of the Chettiars feature pillars of Burma teak, Belgian mirrors, Bohemian Crystal Chandeliers, Burma teak pillars, Italian marble, and nuanced woodcarving, frescoes and egg-plastering from the UK and Germany. All of this, within village style multi-layer tiled roofs, the typical Tamil temple style flourishes.

Makes you want to check out the houses? You must!

But the tastier point I'm making, is that Chettinad cuisine is like its architecture.

Take for example the crab rasam, which is traditional, and at least twelve centuries old, but comes from the faraway ocean.

Or the uppu-kari - mutton fry, that's a more ancient rural hand-me-down, which peasants and the zamindars cook alike.

Then there's the 'Mandi', the quintessential Chettiar curry dish in gravy. It's an accompaniment, intense in falvour but mild enough to eat as is, even without rice.

It's a combination of Malaysian influences, Indian spices and that inimitable Chettiar knack of combining heady spices in a way that leaves the final dish with subtle flavours that don't make you gasp for water.

The Chettiar Story

The term Chettiar comes from the 3,000 year old honoric from the Sangam era; Etti, which was bestowed on select merchants, by the monarchs. The Chettiars, it is said, were originally from a land named Naganadu. It was from there that they migrated to what is known as Chettinadu today, with Kaaraikudi as its financial hub.

Legend goes that they fled continual floods and drought, and that is why all of their homes are built upon elevated platforms, much higher than ground level. But that's not the most interesting part. The interesting thing about the houses, is the sheer size, and the fact that they're always well stocked with food.

There's this oft repeated story and it goes like this;

Once, a thief broke in to a Chettiar’s mansion, and promptly got lost in it. Unable to find his way out, he wanders deeper, finds ration and utensils, cooks for himself, eats and sleeps. And after spending about a month inside the mansion, he finally comes out!

The truly affluent Chettiars are quite philanthropic. But even within the mud walls of the simplest homes, you will find warm welcome, and unbelievable tasty food. Because Chettinad cuisine tends to go subtle on flavours despite not compromising on spices, it's not easy to replicate the taste in a different setting.

So, cold pressed sesame oil in the tradition oil mill, chutneys ground using the mortar and pestle, and rice flour ground in the 'yanthiram' are all central to recreating the authentic taste.

But worry not. There is some weight to the mix of spices, and the combination of flavours in each recipe that'll come through even in a microwave kitchen.

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