Karaikudi: Chettinad Charm

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It all started with my fetish for cast iron pots and pans. A friend mentioned in passing that   cast iron cookware – usually elusive and expensive – was available cheap, and in abundance, at a place called Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu. Within a week, I was headed to Karaikudi with a single-minded mission: to buy a cast iron soup pot. Or two. Or maybe even three.

Setting out, I knew nothing at all about Karaikudi, other than that it was the home of Chettinad cuisine. I am a member of a vibrant Facebook group called Foodies in Bangalore; the biggest perk of membership is the ability to tap into the collective knowledge of over 6000 members at any given time. My fellow Foodies informed me that Tuticorin macaroons were a must-try; I also received recommendations on traditional dishes to try during my visit.

Heritage hospitality at The Bangala

I decided to drag friends along for the ride (as in: I wanted them to give me a ride). My food-obsessed buddies Gita Rao and Mathew Eapen were dragooned into  accompanying me on my cast iron-hunting adventure. We opted to stay at The Bangala, a century-old heritage bungalow that has received accolades from Condé Nast Traveller and the New York Times, among other well-known publications. The Bangala is luxurious without being opulent – it harks back to a simpler, more gracious era. Modern amenities like air-conditioning and a swimming pool sit comfortably cheek by jowl with Athangudi tiles, solid teak wood pillars, and old-fashioned red-oxide flooring.

Leave Your Preconceptions At The Door

Although I couldn’t wait to begin my pot-and-pan adventure, I agreed to postpone our visit to the market until we had done a bit of sightseeing. Quite honestly, I couldn’t see it taking very long – Karaikudi didn’t seem very big, nor did it seem like it had much to offer. I figured we would go see a temple, take a couple of “I-was-here” photos, and then get to the real reason I was here. It didn’t quite work out that way.

This shelf represents three years’ worth of labor

First, we visited the weaver’s colony just outside Karaikudi. Traditionally, Karaikudi saris were hand-woven in cotton, and colored with black, red and yellow vegetable dyes. They featured a coarse texture, wide borders, and either checked or striped designs. Today, the weavers are trying to keep their livelihood alive by incorporating more contemporary motifs and a wider color palette. It takes one whole day to weave each sari. Tucked away in the rear courtyard of the home of one particular weaver we visited was a tiny room containing a mesmerizing rainbow of saris – all woven by hand. A quick calculation told me that the shelf along one wall contained over 900 saris – three years’ worth of weaving. Whether or not you wear saris (I don’t), the weaver’s colony is a must-visit for the dedication of the weavers and the sheer beauty of the fabrics.

Mansions – And How!

Frontage of a Chettiar mansion

Next, I was told, we were going to see “an old Chettiar mansion“; I braced myself for a cobwebby, dilapidated ruin and resigned myself to trudging through it in the blazing afternoon heat. We found ourselves driving down narrow unpaved lanes with the crumbling facades of abandoned homes on either side of us. “Just another dusty, decrepit semi-rural desi small town”, I sighed to myself. We soon pulled up outside a house. A big massive house. Its facade was timeworn and a little shabby, so I was totally unprepared to be greeted by a magnificent, intricately-carved teak door and glazed ceramic ceiling as soon as we stepped in. A peek through the doorway revealed a huge courtyard with a door at the far end. I could see another large courtyard beyond that, and third one beyond the second. The sheer scale was enough to take my breath away – but there was more. As we wandered through the many rooms (over 50 of them) I gawked in amazement at Carerra marble, Belgian stained glass, teak pillars fashioned from whole tree trunks, and gigantic chandeliers.

Teak doorways and pillars

Open courtyard #1

The Nagarathar Chettiars are a prosperous banking and business community who originally hailed from Poompuhar – capital of the early Chola dynasty, and a thriving port that attracted salt, silk, and gem traders from the Roman Empire and China. The city was thought to be have been wiped out by a tsunami in 500 AD; the region’s survivors migrated inland to what is now known as the Chettinad region. They continued their trade links with other countries; in the 19th and 20th century, under the patronage of the British empire, they traded with and emigrated to Southeast Asia – notably Burma, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Singapore. That explains their immense wealth and their penchant for all things “phoren”.

A modestly-sized dining room

Front door key as big as my arm!

A Nagarathar Chettiar’s home was a measure of his prosperity;  thus, the predominant school of thought seemed to be “the bigger, the better”. Most homes seem to be structured in an identical way – a sheltered, exterior verandah leading to a large, open courtyard surrounded by private rooms, with a door at the far end leading to an opulent high-ceilinged dining hall the size of a football field, which in turn leads to a third, smaller “kitchen” courtyard. Each of these homes extends across an entire block, with the front door on one street, and the rear door on a parallel street. Like this:

Side view of a Nagarathar Chettiar mansion

Cookware Heaven

Touring these abandoned mansions, I pretty much forgot about my pots and pans – until our gracious guide informed us that we needed to hurry to the market before it closed. And what a revelation that was. Cramped little warehouses housed the treasures of a bygone era – ancient dowries that are being disposed of as antiques.

This was cookware heaven! Every size, shape, and color you could think of. Enameled cast iron and tin-alloy cookware from England, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Switzerland, and France; ancient wooden spice boxes, huge copper boilers, tall ceramic storage jars… all of which were once part of a Chettiar bride’s trousseau (many pieces even have the bride’s name engraved on them). Here’s what one floor in one shop looked like:

Pot-and-pan heaven!

Here, I found the CI pot of my dreams, and added on a couple of enamelware roasting tins, saucepans, pie plates, stock pots, frying pans, and an enameled CI kadhai  for good measure.

Chettinad Cuisine

Karuppiah (L) and gang preparing for a day in the kitchen

Tired and happy, we could finally focus on the food. The phrase “Chettinad cuisine” conjures up the image of black-pepper and chilli-loaded preparations that cause your lips and face to go numb with shock. I bullied Karuppiah, The Bangala’s cook of over four decades, into letting me into the kitchen to poke around and watch him cook. This involved waking up at 6am (NOT my thing) to watch the menfolk peeling mountains of garlic and dicing what seemed like thousands of onions in preparation for the day’s meals.

Gundu Mozhagu yields a mild, yellow chilli powder when ground

I had made a special request to be shown how to make a Karaikudi crab curry and a dish called Rattha Kootu (blood curry). To my immense surprise, not a single grain of black pepper went into either of these preparations. Instead, Karrupiah used a moderate quantity of Gundu Mozhagu, a mild, berry-like yellow chilli (its varietal name, Ramnad Mundu S9, gave us giggle fits).

Crab curry with a side of crab rasam – ssslurrp!

Karrupiah’s Karaikudi Crab Curry was interesting, because unlike the Goan and Mangalorean preparations with which I am familiar, the crustaceans were first boiled with water, onions, garlic, ginger, cumin, turmeric and chilli powder. It was then strained, the water reserved, and the crab stir-fried into a separately-prepared masala. The water was then seasoned with salt and served alongside the crab curry as a “rasam“, which turned out to be as addictive as crack cocaine.

Coagulated blood, ready for the pan

The Rattha Kootu, recommended by FinB member Shrrine Mohammed, was a revelation. I have only ever tasted Goan blood curries. These involve the addition of blood to thicken, color, and enrich a gravy. Here, however, the blood is poured into a pan of simmering water and poached until it coagulates into a gelatinous block. It is then diced, and prepared like a liver fry… except it has a very, very neutral taste, almost like soy granules. I was also surprised by the addition of soaked dal –  never seen that before!

Eating the meal I had watched being prepared was supremely satisfying. My banana leaf was licked clean!

Later, at a nondescript little place called Friends Mess, we sat in an air-conditioned “private room” the size of a large dining table, and sampled crisp dosas with Naati Kozhi Curry and Mutton Chukka – one of the few Chettinad dishes that does cotain black pepper. We also tried a disgusting thing called Kotthu Parotta, which is essentialy egg burji with a paratha and some leftover fried chicken chopped into it.

Black rice. Fabulous.

And finally, a word about sweet endings. The Bangala dished out two very special desserts – a genuine, dripping-with-ghee baadam halwaand a sticky black rice pudding. Black rice? Yes. I brought some back with me. In ancient China, black rice was known as “Forbidden Rice” because it was so rare and nutritious that only emperors were permitted to eat it. The Bangala’s pudding married the nutty flavor of the rice with the delicate sweetness of coconut milk and jaggery. I loved it.

Cream-colored Tuticorin macaroons

Tuticorin macaroons are very unlike Mangalore macaroons. For a start, they do not contain cardamom or bits of broken cashew. These are more like meringues made with the addition of powdered cashew nut. They are distinctively shaped, and as light as air. I made the mistake of taking them home – The Spouse, Giant Vacuum Cleaner, and Mr. Not-So-Small-Anymore inhaled an entire kilo in approximately 36 hours. And that, of course, gave me the perfect reason to visit Karaikudi again. This time around, I bought three kilos of macaroons, and one of those is still hidden away in a larder cupboard. Sshhh – don’t tell them!

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