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Chettinad Sojourn A culinary, culture and recipe travelogue

Spice Parable

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES | Friday, 14 March 2014 | Views [1622]

Chettinad Egg Curry

Slow Roasted spices for Chettinad Masala

Open Air Market selling organic produce

Traditional Chettinad HousePerhaps the best cooking lesson during hotel school, Raja Anna the kitchen assistant, his passion for food and cooking techniques re instilled the love of cooking in me. He is a man of few words, his movements during cooking were calculated, just like an orchestra, the food pure symphony.

The toasting of spices, he would ask me to feel the smell and listen to the pop and change in color, this till day has resonate when I cook with spice. “Cooking is a feel” he would say,” you have to be a part of it”. Each and every step was so well explained that every time I make it I have a feel that he is around guiding me to do it.

Chettinad egg curry  is rich in spices, a floral and warm curry that requires slow cooking for the flavors to build.

Chettinad Egg Curry

Serves- 5-6

Time: 2 hours

Ingredients:

Masala (spice blend)

coriander seeds- 2 tbsp

star anise- 3 flowers

black peppercorns- 1 tsp

white peppercorns- 1 tsp

Java long pepper- 5-6 pieces

all spice- 5-6 pieces

clove- 3-4 pieces

cinnamon- 1" piece

cardamom green- 3-4 pods

urad dal- 2 tbsp

curry leaves - 10-15 leaves

 

Gravy

 

vegetable oil- 4-5 tbsp

fennel seeds- 2tsp

pathar ka phool (lichen)- 3-4 pieces

ginger garlic paste- 1 tbsp

curry leaves- 10-15 leaves

red onion- 500g

tomato- 150g

water- 500-600ml

eggs- 5-6 each

salt- to taste

hard boiled eggs- 5-6 each

 

 

 

 

Method:

Masala (spice blend)

1. Use a thick bottomed pan over a slow flame start with the coriander seeds and continue toasting the spices by adding them one by one as they bloom, add the urad dal and toast them till just golden, remove from the heat and add the curry leaves and allow them to wilt. Cool the spice blend completely before blending it in a spice mill.

 

Gravy

2. Hard boil the eggs, peel and set aside.

3. Thinly slice the onions and chop the tomatoes into small cubes.

4. In a thick bottomed pan, add oil, place the pathar ka phool(lichen)allow them to bloom, pop the fennel seeds and allow them to crackle, a tablespoon of ginger garlic paste and cook over slow flame till the paste turns golden. (keep stirring to avoid sticking to the bottom of the pan)

5. Add curry leaves and give it a quick stir, continue with the sliced red onion and add a pinch of salt as this will help the onions to brown quickly.

6. Once the onions are golden brown, add the chopped tomatoes and continue stirring till the tomatoes soften and the oil starts to show up in the corners of the pan.

7. Add the masala (spice blend) 1-2 tbsp according your spice level tolerance cook for 3-5 minutes, add water and simmer for 20-30 minutes till the flavor of the spices blend into the curry.

8. Place the hard boiled eggs and cook and simmer for 3-5 minutes. Garnish with fresh curry leaves and serve.

 

The food bug bit me quite early. The love for food, culture and people has taken me to places in Asia , Americas and Middle East. The love for food brings in a sense of humility, for the people, the culture and produce.

The famous Chettinad Masala is quintessential to the South Indian cuisine and has an array of 16 or more spices carefully selected and blended in perfect harmony. A little synopsis about Chettinad- Karaikudi ,the capital belongs to the Sivagangai District of Tamil Nadu state in India. Home to the Chettiars, a caste based society; they are predominantly traders who are known for their voyages across the seas all across Asia and the Far- East.

They brought home the finest spices, teak wood, silk and other essentials. The Chettinad cuisine has influences from Malaysia, Burma and Indonesia. The curries have underlining spices such as star anise, java long pepper, black pepper corns and cassia.

The Houses and temples of Chettinad are architectural marvel with ornate wood carved doors, filled with Italian dome shape colored chandeliers and intricate ceramic patterns. The flooring which is also made of ceramic has lasted for a few centuries, to their present day pristine beauty.

During my second year of culinary school we were taught about the various regional cuisines of India. Every region has its own unique identity, the produce, the spices, the people, culture, festivals etc… That fascination took me on a trip to experience the culture, people, food and hospitality at first hand.

I borrowed some money from my father who is also an avid traveler and a discerning foodie, marked them on my map from his suggestions, back packed and set out on an 8 hour journey from Chennai to Karaikudi.

The early morning hustle and bustle of the bus stand, with the fresh smell on incenses and classics on the radio, I ordered for a glass of stretch tea in a local tea stall, which was served fragrant and frothy. Will slurping I had a quick chat with the owner on the authentic eateries where I can find some of the breakfast delicacies such as Vellai Appam ( a sweet and savory steamed cake made with rice flour and coconut) and  Kal Dosai (rice crepes made on stones) served along with chutneys native to the area.

After walking for a kilometer of old Chettinad row houses welcoming you with fresh Kolam (beautiful patterns made with rice flour, for good luck) I enter into Dhanalakshmi Mess (a Mess is a small eatery it could be a part of a house) pictures of god’s and ancestors adorn the walls, the sun rays trickle in through terracotta tiles. The smell of incense and sacred chants make you feel at home. You are welcomed with a warm smile as the owner lays banana leaves ,sprinkles water and asks you to clean the leaf . A steel tumbler is filled with water and steaming hot Vellai Appam’s are served along with a coconut and chili, garlic chutney. The flavors so subtle, that it leaves you wanting for more. I went through the daily special board and ask asked for the Kal Dosai and Kelviragu Kali (a savory porridge made with finger millet) served along with fresh green chilies, shallots and butter milk. The meal was finger licking good. My inquisitive and outgoing nature, I started a chat with the owner who has been running the business for the fifth generation. The ladies of the house cook and the gents serve making this a family affair.

‘Chettiars’, he said with a gleam in his eyes are one of the finest cooks and gourmands. ‘We live to eat’ he proclaimed and with a smile opened the door which lead us through a long ally towards the kitchen. The ladies were going about their daily routine of preparing lunch.

Most of the ingredients we use at our Mess (eatery) is from a 100 Kilometer radius. Rice is the staple of South Indian food and there are many native varieties to this area. The Land is quite arid and all the produce is seasonal. The vegetables and fruits come from the farms nearby, and so are the dairy products and meats. We live in one with nature by respecting the laws, we eat vegetarian food for one month of a year thought this carries religious reasons, the period is the gestation and spawning for animals.

 I get introduced to the Valli Amma the grandmother and head chef. She is clad in a white cotton saree and sacred ash in her forehead. In her fragile voice and a sparkle in her eyes she shows me her spice chest. This she says is the legacy of her family. I tell her that I’m a food lover and a culinary student and she slowly shares all her little secrets, the next three days were the most life changing experience…

Every morning she starts at 5 O’ clock milking the cows and cleaning the eatery area which has huge tables clad with Italian marble. The place is stacked with banana leaves, tumblers etc… She picks flowers from the garden when the other women of the family her daughters- in- laws’ join her. Coconuts get broken and grated in wooden hand graters and are placed with fresh green chili, cilantro and curry leaves from the garden and they go for a grind, she smells and says this is real flavor; you have to grind it slowly.

The wood fired stoves are lit with the chant of a hymn. There are two people who only do the chutneys and wet masala’s. I spent a whole day with them learning the nuances of grinding these blends to perfection. The women allow me to try and chuckle as I struggle my way through. Finally I had a go at it after a few minutes of struggling and realized that the rhythm is the secret to pounding and grinding spices.

The secret behind the spice mix for Kara Kozhambu (A concoction of black pepper, red chili, cumin, coriander seeds and coconut) is that , it is ground raw into a wet mixture and slow cooked in earthy sesame oil till the raw flavor fades away when it is finished with fresh seasonal vegetables, turmeric paste and stewed in tamarind and served on fragrant Ponni (a local variety of rice).

Valli Amma as she is called with love and affection by everyone in the neighborhood is a moving encyclopedia of Chettinad Cuisine. She shares her recipes with everyone with so much love and affection. As we progressed to day two she took me to the wide open verandah in the center of the house and picked some sun dried pieces of mutton and asked me to smell it. I was intrigued and she held those pieces nestled in her wrinkled palms gently crushed and smelled and I followed her actions and was on to a revelation ‘uppu kandam’ a technique of preserving meat salted and sundried, it can be stored for up to a year in ambient room temperature.

She walked quickly on to the spice box pulled out quite close to 16 spices including black pepper corns, white peppercorns, fennel, Java long pepper, cinnamon swirls, bay leaf, chilli, stone flower (a lichen used to impart a peculiar flavor) etc… toasted them in a particular order just to release their essential oils, allowed them to cool and pounded in rhythmic action murmuring folk songs.

Collecting the masala and the dried pieces of meat on a tray she takes me along with her a few houses away and after a winding ally on to the backyard of a house to me Alamelu a friend of her to show me most difficult yet tasty recipe of Mutton Kolla Urundai (Mutton meat balls cooked in Chettinad Masala)

This is the best Kolla Urundai you would have ever tasted in Chettinad she asserts with a smile. The process involves pounding the dried mutton pieces with fat and binding them into small balls and cooking them in the spice rich gravy. (This requires tremendous amount of expertise as the meat and fat have to bind perfectly and the spices should just complement the whole dish and allow the meat to stand on its own.)

“The culture and food habits play an important role in a person’s life. Food becomes the central part of life and we all revolve around it” said Alamelu who has only cooked all her life to make a living. Her son’s and daughters have chosen other jobs and she feels that her recipes have to be passed on to as many people as possible.

As I bid adieu to both the Grande dames of Chettinad cuisine, Valli Amma presents me with some Chettinad snacks and wishes me luck. She tells me “respect to food, to produce and to farmers and the love to share what you have learnt the most humane act”.

With those profound words in mind I visit some of the famous street food stalls in the smaller villages where they make staples like Kothu Parotta ( Layered bread smashed on a big iron griddle with a spicy gravy, eggs and meat, the vendor bangs the metal spatula to create a rhythm and attract more customers)  Idiyappam and Paya (String hoppers thin angel haired rice noodles, steamed and served along  piping hot lamb trotters gently simmered in spices, a soul satisfying meal to gently suck the wiggly warm trotters slide through, as you dip the string hoppers in the subtly spiced broth and slurp, such a heavenly feeling.)

My last stop before winding up was at a tiny hole in the wall eatery and people were queuing up for the parcel of rice and curry, packed in banana leaf and wrapped in newspaper, the place specialized in the famous Chettinad Chicken (or) Egg Curry, As I slid myself into the queue memories of culinary school gushed back , on how we were taught the nuances of making Chettinad Masala.There were two granite slabs fixed to the wall, you collect the pouches unwrap the parcel of rice, pour the curry and mix, gently with your fingers and eat with your hands which is customary in South India. I start to talk to the owner about the preparation of the famous Chettinad Chicken curry and he takes me through the entire process, step by step as I jot down in my tiny scribble pad, he says you have to be a part of the process and enjoy the whole experience. I promised him that I will get back as there is so much to learn.

As the scented air from the farms swayed on my face while the bus passed through lush green paddy fields, memories of the entire trip started to trickle, these artisans, who do the same thing day to day for a living and they do it with so much love and affection as true ambassadors of a cuisine, culture and tradition. They live in one with nature and adhere to the laws which is intertwined in the society and has been passed on to them through the generations. All of them were happy to share their knowledge with a stranger and made me feel a part of their family.

As the Sanskrit saying “Athithi Devo Bhava” which translates to “guests are god” or “guests become god” befits the purpose of their living. A heart filled with gratitude, I had returned back to learn more about the food, culture and their way of living.  

 

About Me

I’m a Culinary Institute of America Alumni, and have honed my skills by training under some of the finest chefs and dining establishments. A wine aficionado and associate with some of the premier vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties in their taste panel. In my quest to learn and explore new culture, cuisine and produce I have travelled across Asia, Middle East and the Americas.

 This trip would add value to my culinary repertoire for a much deeper and hands on understanding of Italian culture and cuisine. Currently I work in the Middle East based in Sharjah, the neighboring Emirate to Dubai. I head culinary product research and innovations for the leading food product manufacturing company in the GCC. I use my free time to blog about food and have started to explore the world of food photography and food styling. In a nut shell I live and love food and travel. (www.foodnflavors.com)

I can go on this tour as an Anthropologist, a Culinarian and a pilgrim…  I’m ready leave on a jet plane and explore the best that Italy has to offer!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Short eats-Raw mango and Tapioca chips with redchili and salt sprinkle

Short eats-Raw mango and Tapioca chips with redchili and salt sprinkle

Tags: chettinad, culinary, culture, india, spice, tamil nadu, tradition, travel

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