Heritage Stay: Chettinad Cuisine and Tamil Heritage at the Bangala

Getting to know the Chettiar community, one meal at a time in Karaikudi.  
Bangala, Karaikudi, Tamila Nadu, cover, photo courtesy The Bangala
Bangala in Karaikudi is a handicraft hunter's dream. Its rooms are furnished with traditional Chettiar crafts, many of which are available at markets around Karaikudi. The stay also offers lessons in cooking traditional Chettinad food. Photo courtesy The Bangala

The Bangala introduces guests to the illustrious Chettiar community of Tamil Nadu, one meal at a time. Erstwhile traders and bankers, the Chettiars were known for their wealth, generosity, and appreciation of the finer things in life, especially food. At breakfast, sweet pongal is served, made from black rice that was first brought to Tamil Nadu from Malaysia over a century ago by a Chettiar trader. Crab rasam is a lunch favourite, a melange of Tamil and Southeast Asian flavours inspired by the community’s trade ties with Malacca and Java. And at dinner, guests at The Bangala’s heavy, wooden dining tables can be heard exalting the quail pepper fry, or the almond tart with filter coffee ice cream.

Food takes centre stage at the elegant heritage boutique hotel, but The Bangala has many other charms as well. Nestled in a leafy corner of dusty Karaikudi, it is run by the hawk-eyed Mrs. Meyappan, author of the Chettinad cookbook, The Bangala Table, and a member of the Chettiar family that owns the property.

Accommodations are both traditional and refined, designed to highlight the Chettinad region’s rich heritage. The floors of my room were inlaid with turquoise Athangudi tiles, made by hand in a village 30 minutes away. The fourposter bed was an antique, similar to those in the crumbling Chettinad mansions of Kanadukathan, also a short drive away. On the walls were framed sepia photos of Mrs. Meyappan’s family, lending my room an intimate feel.

For me, one of the highlights of The Bangala was its open kitchen, where cooking classes are conducted. It is a pantry nut’s dream, lined with lacquerware from Burma, enamel-coated pots from Europe, and my personal favourite, the kal chattis: heavy stoneware used in traditional Tamil kitchens. These vessels were once an essential part of a Chettiar bride’s trousseau, proof that the family was wealthy and well travelled.

I spent my mornings feasting on pongal, ghee-soaked dosas, and fluffy idlis, and the rest of the day exploring the heritage and crafts of the Chettinad region. Kanadukathan, for instance, remains hauntingly beautiful, lined with mansions with high ceilings, teak pillars, and immense Belgian glass chandeliers. Accompanied by a guide from The Bangala, I also visited Athangudi to see how the tiles in my room were made, a metalwork school where students were learning to make brass figurines, and a handloom weaver from whom I purchased classic Chettinad cotton saris at throwaway prices. But I always made it back by evening, so I could cool off with a dip in the hotel’s pool and get into my loosest pants before dinner.

Appeared in the January 2017 issue as “A Matter of Taste”. 

The Guide

Accommodation The Bangala has 30 air-conditioned rooms, each tastefully furnished with antique wooden furniture and brass fittings. Its restaurant is open to non-residents for lunch, but prior reservations are necessary (www.thebangala.com; doubles ₹8,600, including breakfast. Lunch and dinner are ₹800 per head). The Bangala does not serve alcohol, though beer and wine can be organized.
Getting There The Bangala is in the town of Karaikudi, 420 km/ 7 hr southwest of Chennai and 90 km/ 2 hr northeast of Madurai, which has the closest airport. Taxis charge about 1,500 one-way from Madurai. The Bangala can organize a taxi pick-up from Madurai airport.

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    Neha Sumitran 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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