Guts and Glory: On a Chettinad Food Pilgrimage in South India

A trip to Madurai and Karaikudi reveals the dramatic tale of a community and the truth behind its spirited cuisine.  
Madurai’s towering temples are feats of the imagination, filled with deities and demons draped in jewellery, armed with weapons, and often,
bearing more limbs than usual. Photo: Ayan Ghosh
Madurai’s towering temples are feats of the imagination, filled with deities and demons draped in jewellery, armed with weapons, and often, bearing more limbs than usual. Photo: Ayan Ghosh

There are two reasons people visit Madurai: Meenakshi and mutton. Meenakshi is Madurai’s feared and revered temple deity, the three-breasted consort of Shiva, who presides over the scorching city from the cool, stone sanctum of the Meenakshi Amman kovil. The temple is an arresting sight, its gopuram crowded with candy-coloured angels and demons that seem crafted from fondant. Like a gaudy, tiered confection of mythical proportions. But I am more interested in the mutton. Madurai’s no-nonsense Chettinad messes, I am told, serve every part of the goat—brain, intestine, liver, lung, tongue, hooves, and head—and I intend on sampling each one.

My hankering for the peppery flavours of Chettinad food dates back to my schooling in Madras. Thanks to generous neighbours, classmates’ dabbas, and a mother who is both curious and a wonderful cook, I am well acquainted with the powers of traditional Tamil cooking. I know, for instance, that a good rasam delivers not just potency but also clarity of thought. That there is no better way to start the day than with a tumbler of filter coffee, and no better way to end it than with a steel plate of sambhar, rice, and ghee, preferably with pappadums. But my most treasured food memories of Madras are dinners at Chettinad restaurants. Decades later, recollections of that feisty mutton pepper fry flecked with curry leaves and glistening with pure coconut oil, still make me quiver.

Geographically, Chettinad is part of the districts of Sivaganga and Pudukkottai in Tamil Nadu, spread over some 1,500-odd kilometres of arid scrubland. Today, the region is known for its cotton saris, heritage hotels, and antique markets. But before India became independent, and even before the British colonised our ports, spices, and princely states, Chettinad was part of the ancient Tamil Pandyan Kingdom. Its capital was Madurai.

The one thing that has remained constant from the 13th century is the city’s blistering weather. Our auto weaves past rickety cycle rickshaws, ambassador cars, and ladies on mopeds, hair neatly plaited and gleaming with oil. We’re headed to Amma Mess, one the city’s most popular restaurants, known for its delicious, inexpensive fare. Within minutes of scoring a table, we’re faced with seven shiny steel plates piled with food: rabbit roast, pepper quail, dosa layered with keema and eggs, parotta mashed with mutton, a neat mound of pigeon biryani, fish curry, and an omelette stuffed with bone marrow. As my fiancé and I lock eyes across the table like soldiers before battle, a waiter appears. “Madam” he says, smiling. “Ghee?”

Later that day, we meet Praveena and Mukunthan, a chatty couple who conduct food trails, introducing travellers to Madurai’s markets and lesser-known culinary gems. Within minutes, we see the merits of walking with a local. Madurai’s Old Town seems like a warren of rickety lanes, but Praveena tells us it’s actually remarkably well planned. The streets are laid out in concentric squares around the Meenakshi temple. Each has a different focus: jewellery, flowers, spices, saris, kitchenware. The layout instantly becomes easier to grasp.

It’s past 9 p.m. but the market buzzes like a Mumbai railway station at peak hour. It’s warm and terribly crowded and yet, I can’t wipe the smile off my face. The scent of jasmine, the snatches of Tamil, the roly-poly script on store-fronts, like a queue of plump ladies waiting for a bus: Like an incantation, these sights and sounds invoke long-forgotten memories of Madras. It’s strange, the things our brains choose to save. With every recollection, the dust clears a little more, my confidence is boosted, and soon I tentatively ask for a bottle of water—in Tamil.

The market of Madurai’s Old Town stays open till the wee hours of the morning, when it’s aarti time. Photo: Ayan Ghosh

The market of Madurai’s Old Town stays open till the wee hours of the morning, when it’s aarti time. Photo: Ayan Ghosh

As we eat our way through the market, we learn about Madurai’s earliest association with food. Madurai is named after maduram, which means nectar in Tamil, and according to Hindu scriptures, the city was birthed when a drop of ambrosia fell to Earth from Shiva’s dreadlocks. This is why “God and food are Madurai’s favourite pastimes,” Praveena says grinning. Egged on by our charming and enthusiastic guides, we devour ungodly amounts of meat: chicken parottas, goat’s trotters, uttappam and mutton keema, idli and fish curry.

And yet, it’s the vegetarian flavours that have me scribbling in my food diary. From street carts we have slices of tender coconut tree bark, cottonseed and jaggery payasam, and adirasam, a decadent cross between a doughnut and a puff pastry that’s deep-fried in ghee. The cottonseed payasam, Mukunthan says, helps curb respiratory disorders and was traditionally consumed by workers in Madurai’s cotton mills.

Every plate of food we eat is memorable (pigeon incidentally, tastes like gamier chicken) but it’s not authentic Chettinad food, our hosts inform us. Like the many migrant communities that moved to Madurai for work, regional cuisines too adapt to survive, especially when they’re served in restaurants. Recipes are tweaked for local palates—a little more oil, a little less cooking time, maybe a dash of colour—and before long they barely resemble the original. “You’ll have to go to Karaikudi for the real thing,” emphasizes Mukunthan.

We round off our night with Tirunelveli halwa, a gooey, melt-in-the-mouth dessert made from wheat, just the right amount of sugar, and far too much ghee. Served warm, on a dried peepul leaf, it is the closest thing to maduram I have tasted.

Burma Idiyappam shop in Madurai has just one thing on the menu: pillow-soft string hoppers with a sprinkling of coconut and sugar. Photo: Vahishta Mistry

Burma Idiyappam shop in Madurai has just one thing on the menu: pillow-soft string hoppers with a sprinkling of coconut and sugar. Photo: Vahishta Mistry

***

Oddly enough for a community that loves meat, the Chettiars were originally vegetarians from Kanchipuram in northern Tamil Nadu. They lived there for thousands of years before moving to a place called Kaveripoompattinam, a small thriving Chola port town in the marshy Kaveri delta. Here, they began trading in plump Kaveri rice and salt from the Coromandel Coast but before long, they were travelling with fleets to Malacca, Sumatra, and Java. Their zeal for commerce grew, and with it, their appetite for the Southeast Asian food they encountered on their voyages. Seafood entered the Chettiar kitchen, and soon pots of crab rasam were gently simmering in their handsome homes.

We get to sample these delicate flavours at The Bangala, a boutique heritage hotel in Karaikudi. The elegant stay is run by Mrs. Meenakshi Meyyappan, the author of the gorgeous Chettinad cookbook, The Bangala Table, and a member of the family that owns the property. She shuffles around its tiled corridors in crisp cotton saris, straightening photo frames, picking dried leaves from plants, and whispering orders to staff. Hospitality at The Bangala is superlative, surpassed only by its food. Our first meal here includes a delicate prawn biryani, green pepper chutney, crab rasam, and almond halwa served with filter-coffee ice cream. But there is also a spinach stir-fry, beetroot raita, and a tart-sweet pumpkin curry.

Bangala’s kitchen is run by two men: Sixty-something Karuppiah, the semi-retired head cook, who spends most of his time sipping filter coffee and tying and untying his mundu, and middle-aged Pandey who does most of the cooking. I introduce myself after lunch, explaining that I am here to learn about Chettinad food. They seem amused, and I cannot tell if it’s because of my wonky Tamil or my request to cook with them. Nevertheless, Pandey graciously offers to teach me to make pepper quail later in the day, a classic dish that he insists is remarkably simple to prepare.

Mrs. Meenakshi Meyappen (left) in a traditional Chettiar home, vast and elaborately decorated in the Chettinad baroque style; The facades of most Chettinad mansions are crumbling, but the stately homes are still filled with vintage treasures. Occasionally, some of these make it to Karaikudi’s antique markets. This enamel coated kitchenware (top right) is originally from Sweden and was once an essential part of a Chettiar bride’s trousseau; Contrary to popular belief, Chettinad food is not terribly spicy; Red chillies are used frequently in the kitchen, but for colour and flavour more than spice. Photos: Aleisa Tyler/Contributor/Getty Images (woman); Neha Sumitran (utensils); Simon Reddy/Shuterstock (curry)

Mrs. Meenakshi Meyappen (left) in a traditional Chettiar home, vast and elaborately decorated in the Chettinad baroque style; The facades of most Chettinad mansions are crumbling, but the stately homes are still filled with vintage treasures. Occasionally, some of these make it to Karaikudi’s antique markets. This enamel coated kitchenware (top right) is originally from Sweden and was once an essential part of a Chettiar bride’s trousseau; Contrary to popular belief, Chettinad food is not terribly spicy; Red chillies are used frequently in the kitchen, but for colour and flavour more than spice. Photos: Aleisa Tyler/Contributor/Getty Images (woman); Neha Sumitran (utensils); Simon Reddy/Shuterstock (curry)

Once the afternoon heat tempers down, we explore Karaikudi’s mishmash of old and new. Along its main road, we see sari shops, stalls with brass coffee filters anointed with vibhuti and kumkum, and garages with Hayabusa bikes on their signboards and only mopeds to fix. Like many towns in India, the residents of Karaikudi have a healthy love for colour: homes are blue, pink, and orange, just like the figures on the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. We stop by the Monday market selling dried fish, live chickens, and local white chillies. “Romba kaaram,” very spicy, the lady warns me when I buy a bag. In no time, it’s 6 p.m.: time to go back for my first cooking class.

Along the black stone platform in the kitchen, staff chop onions, puree tomatoes, and peel ginger and garlic, while Pandey, in his crisp white shirt and mundu, watches on. I feel the heat within minutes of getting to work. My eyes water, hair sticks to the side of my face, and my arms are on fire from the athletic stirring that preparation of the pepper masala requires. The secret to Chettiar cooking it appears, is to beat the ingredients into submission. “Mix, ma,” Pandey directs when my pace slackens, and I nod my head, silently cursing my lack of strength. Outside, lightning courses through the sky, erratically lighting up a neem tree near the kitchen window.

After what feels like eternity, my mentor signals me to stop. “Ready,” he says, giving me the thumbs-up. We add the quail, then a cup of hot water, and cover the vessel so the meat can cook. I set the heavy, steel ladle down just as rain clouds burst, mixing the heady fragrance of pepper masala with the scent of wet earth.

The Chettiars were happy in Kaveripoompattinam, loved by their Chola king for the wealth they brought to his shores. Until one of the rulers took a shine to a young Chettiar girl and expressed his desire to marry her. The girl’s parents declined but the king persisted and set up a wedding pandal. When he arrived the next day, draped in gold and rubies, he found the house empty, save for a dog tied to a pillar in the courtyard as a message to the raja. Other versions of why the Chettiars moved are even more arresting. A striking narrative claims the women of the community were so distraught with the situation that they killed themselves en masse, the night before the wedding. When dawn broke over Kaveripoompattinam the following day, the blood-soaked streets matched the crimson sky. Today, the ruins of Kaveripoompattinam lie submerged under the Bay of Bengal; archaeologists believe it might have been swallowed by a tsunami.

The day I hear these stories, we are cooking ratha kootu, a dal curry made with goat’s blood, and thalai maas, a dish made of the animal’s head: brains, eyeballs, tongue, and all. We make an early trip to the butcher to score the ingredients we need and I spend the rest of the morning with a stack of history books, reading up on the Chettiar community in The Bangala’s handsome living room. Between chapters, I scrutinise the sepia-toned photos on the walls: solemn-faced Chettiar men with handsome noses and thick black eyebrows pose next to uniformed Europeans and women in silk saris.

Kanadukathan Chettinad

Once the heart of the Chettiar community, Kanadukathan village remains hauntingly beautiful, its streets lined with mansions. Photo: Vahishta Mistry

Following the incident in Kaveripoompattinam, the Chettiars knew they had to leave Chola territory. Recognising the potential, the Pandyan raja from the neighbouring kingdom offered them land near his capital Madurai. It was a fresh start the Chettiars accepted. Despite their new home being landlocked, their ties with the ocean strengthened. The men embarked on long sea voyages returning with trunks of textiles, spices, and kitchenware. They began dealing in pearls from the Gulf of Munnar and diamonds from Golconda, and eventually set up financing firms in Calcutta, Ceylon, and Burma. (Records say the Chettiars owned three million acres of Burmese paddy fields by 1930.) They poured their wealth into their new homeland building majestic temples, mansions, and schools, and throwing lavish gatherings. The golden era continued, until the Great Depression, which ultimately led to their downfall.

Ironically, it was in Chettinad, the region named after them, that the community adopted the name they prefer: Nagarathar, people of the nagarams or urban settlements. It was also in Chettinad that meat entered their kitchens. Some say travel thawed the Chettiars’ culinary taboos. Others claim it was simply because vegetables were hard to grow in the region. Perhaps it was both, but once it did, the Chettiar women approached meat with the same efficiency their men were known for in trade. It is this nose-to-tail cooking philosophy that fascinates me, not only because it minimises waste but also because it presents the chance to sample unusual textures. In traditional Chettiar kitchens, every part of the goat is consumed, except for the teeth, which I realise when we start prepping for the thalai curry and the blood kootu.

I am cooking with Karuppiah, which is vastly different from my earlier kitchen class. Where Pandey’s movements are measured, Karuppiah prances around the kitchen, flinging spices into ghee with the flair of a bullfighter. He laughs deeply and often, with the ease that comes from spending over 40 years with these ingredients. I’m keen to get cracking on the head curry—a first for me—but Karuppiah says we must attend to the ratha first. We wait until the blood coagulates, then cook the near-solid block in salt water, and chop it into even cubes that look like raspberry jelly.

This cooking class isn’t as physically demanding as the last so I have time to laugh with Karuppiah and Pandey. There’s nothing like working in the kitchen together to forge a bond between people, never mind if they are worlds, languages, and generations apart. We joke about the size of the goat’s brain as we make preparations for the dish. Our comfort with these otherwise maligned bits of offal might seem grisly to some, but to me it’s just plain sensible. Like using the leaves of the radish in a salad, rather than discarding it for waste. We prepare the base for the curry and, less than an hour later, both dishes are slow-cooking on the steel stove.

Pandey (left) and Karuppaiyah (right) goofing off with the writer (centre) after a sweaty cooking class (top left); Traditional Chettiar mansions have at least four courtyards that are usually large, tiled, and open to sky. On festive occasions, the women of the house decorate the floor with rangolis (bottom left) made with rice powder; Lunch and dinner at The Bangala are served on banana leaves (right). Photos: Vahishta Mistry (people); Cornfield/Shutterstock (women); Leisa Tyler/Contributor/Getty Images

Pandey (left) and Karuppaiyah (right) goofing off with the writer (centre) after a sweaty cooking class (top left); Traditional Chettiar mansions have at least four courtyards that are usually large, tiled, and open to sky. On festive occasions, the women of the house decorate the floor with rangolis (bottom left) made with rice powder; Lunch and dinner at The Bangala are served on banana leaves (right). Photos: Vahishta Mistry (people); Cornfield/Shutterstock (women); Leisa Tyler/Contributor/Getty Images

Our final meal at Bangala is a spread befitting the gods: Pineapple rasam, crisp-fried yam, green banana chips, prawn biryani, pomegranate raita tempered with mustard and curry leaves. The food just keeps coming, each course more fragrant and robust than the next. We sample the blood curry (tastes like liver), chicken Chettinad, and shamelessly gnaw on crab pincers for every last morsel of crabmeat.

Then, a vessel of steamy, dreamy thalai curry arrives. The pieces aren’t particularly meaty, but the gravy is exceptionally flavourful. Throwing caution to the wind, I serve myself a mound of rice, mutton, and ghee, with one last serving of the chicken Chettinad and a drumstick fry, crisped in red chilli powder and coconut oil. As we plough through the courses, it occurs to me that these dishes and flavours are the most authentic reflection of the community’s history, of their journey from simple, vegetarian traders in Kanchipuram to affluent, seafood-loving merchants who travelled the world.

When I am about to throw in the towel, Pandey arrives with a small bowl and a big grin, while Karuppiah watches from the kitchen door. It’s the eyeball that he’s saved specially for me. I shake his hand with my clean one, and pop the harmless looking piece into my mouth—the only part of the goat I haven’t yet tasted. It’s not the least bit icky as some might imagine, and quite creamy and delicious.

Packing my bags in my room, I come across a packet of black rice that I first encountered in a sweet pongal a few days ago. Mrs. Meyyappan had said the rice was brought to Tamil Nadu from Malaysia over a century ago by a Chettiar trader who developed a fondness for its nutty flavour. It is now grown locally, and often on the hotel’s breakfast menu. That’s another thing I love about Chettinad cuisine: it is as much of a revelation for vegetarians as it is for meat eaters. I examine the rest of the stash I’ve acquired on my journey through this region: plump Madurai chillies, enamel-coated spoons, a heavy kal chatti (stone pot), and more packets of masala than I can use in a year. My favourite souvenir is a cotton handloom sari I bought from a weaver near Karaikudi. It has neither embroidery, nor motifs, nor zari. Instead, the turmeric yellow sari has pepper-black and chilli-red lines that meet in the pallu to form the classic Chettinad check. A subtle memento of Chettinad’s fiery cuisine and its generous people.


 

The Guide

Map: Dmity Kaminsky/Shutterstock

Map: Dmity Kaminsky/Shutterstock

Orientation

Madurai city is on the banks of the River Vaigai in Tamil Nadu. The Chettinad region is spread over the state’s Sivaganga and Pudukottai districts. The region’s principal town is Karaikudi, which is 87 km/2 hr east of Madurai, 450 km/8 hr southwest of Chennai, and 420 km/8 hr southeast of Bengaluru. Roads from Chennai and Bengaluru are in good condition.

Getting There & Around

Madurai is the closest airport to Karaikudi. Direct flights connect Madurai to Chennai and Bengaluru, while one-stop flights operate from Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and other cities. Madurai is a prominent station on the Southern Railway network and well connected to cities like Kochi, Chennai, and Hyderabad.
Private taxis (₹2,000 approx) can be hired from the airport or station to travel to Karaikudi. Regular buses and overnight trains run from Trichy and Chennai to Karaikudi. To travel around the Chettinad region it’s best to hire a car.

Stay

Among the Chettiar mansions that have been converted into boutique hotels is The Bangala in Karaikudi (www.thebangala.com; doubles from₹7,050). It has well-appointed rooms, courteous staff, and a swimming pool, which is ideal for a dip after a sweaty day of exploring. The food is fantastic. The Bangala is open to visitors coming in just for lunch; call in advance to make a reservation.

The nearby town of Kanadukathan (15 km/ 30 min north of Karaikudi) has some more heritage properties: Visalam (www.cghearth.com/visalam; doubles from₹8,000) and Chettinadu Mansion (www.chettinadmansion.com; doubles from₹7,300) are recommended.

Eat

In addition to the hotels listed above, Hotel President in Karaikudi serves delicious vegetarian fare through the day. In Madurai, don’t miss Amma Mess, Konar Kadai, and Kumar Mess for their memorable carnivorous fare. Amma Mess does a fine bone marrow omelette, fish curry, and rabbit roast; Konar serves up the best kottu parotta (parotta mashed with mutton) and mutton chukka in town, and Kumar Mess is known for its delicate biryani. To make the most of Madurai’s street food, sign up for an evening walking tour with Foodies Day Out. Tours last about three hours and cost₹2,000 per head for a minimum of two people, including bottled water and all food (www.foodiesdayout.com).

Seasons

The sun is always shining in Madurai and the rest of Chettinad. The peak of summer (March-May) is particularly unforgiving with day temperatures often hitting 40°C. Between June and August, the region receives light rainfall, rarely enough to dampen travel plans. It’s warm again in October, but the weather improves between November and early March, when evening temperatures hover around 25°C.

Appeared in the July 2016 issue as “Guts and Glory”.

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    Neha Sumitran is Nat Geo Traveller India's perpetually hungry Web Editor. She loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.

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