East Indies, in Eight Bastion, Fort Kochi, provides a taste of authentic Chettinad food with their ongoing food fest

Kochi: Food wise nowadays the exotic is more easily available than the authentic. So when an offer to taste the authentic cuisine of Chettinad pops up, it’s an exciting proposition. Johny Peter, GM of Eight Bastion is convinced about the authenticity because he has personally tracked down 55-year-old Sholai Aachi of Poo Chettiar Veedu, Karaikudi, after following popular word of mouth references. She is training in-house chefs and hosting a Chettinad food fest at East Indies, the hotel restaurant.

Sholai says that traditional food originates from the terrain of the land. She speaks of big stately mansions, the homes of Chettiar business families, where the kitchen was the domain of the woman of the house- the aachi. She speaks of courtyards bathed in bright sunlight drying colourful spices, of stone pounded fresh masalas, of 40 to 50 cooks preparing a celebratory spread and of the quick change that’s entering traditional Chettinad cuisine.

It is said that the Chettiar community moved inland, from the sea side town of Chidambaram, when a tsunami hit the place in the past. Seventy five villages make up present day Chettinad, where houses are still made with a metre high foundation. The fear of being ravaged by water still runs high. But Chettinad is waterless, without rivers and lakes. It sources most of its vegetables and spices, rice and grains from surrounding regions. The thriving business community finds the men travelling and the big homes left in charge of the capable hands of the aachi. It was business that brought in wealth and know-how of architecture, lifestyle and continental cuisine.

“The idli is the star of Chettinadu cuisine,” says Sholai in her matronly tone. “We have idlis any time of the day and the sambar too is had for breakfast lunch and dinner. These fermented delicacies are accompanied with six types of chutneys – coconut, tomato, mint, fiery chilli, beetroot and curry leaf chutney!”

A varied spread

Though food served at most community doings is vegetarian, Chetinadu food is rich in the non-veg variety. At the festival Sholai is presenting different kinds of meats like quail, lamb, chicken, crab and fish. The starters range from banana flower cutlets, mutton mince balls to quail and chicken strips – all done in spice and with ‘kalpasi’, a fungus that grows on tree barks. Kalpasi gives the dishes its distinct taste and flavour, says Sholai.

Koli rasam, Aattinkal soup and Nattu thakali soup are the different options for appetizers. The aattinkal (mutton leg) soup is comparable to the Hyderabadi paya shorba. Chettinad rasam has a very special flavour and is a must-try. The curryleaf rice is a curiosity that accompanies the mutton varuval. Its fluffy grains, flavoured with fried and crushed curry leaves make it one of the most scrumptious rice dishes on the menu. Sholai tells you about the Burmese rice- Kavani, which is found in the shops in Chettinad. Trade with Myanmar brought this variety onto the plates in Chettinad and continues to do so.

“We make a sweet dessert with this rice and jaggery. It is on the menu,” says Sholai with pride, showcasing the best of her cuisine. A country chicken dish, spicy crabs, dry mutton (varuval) and a vegetarian biriyani are the other dishes on offer. For the desserts, adi kummayam, made from urud dal, jaggery and ghee and the kavani rice sweet dish are the two desserts to relish at the festival. Our tip- try both.

The festival is on till October 6.

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