Park Plaza provides a spread steeped in the rich history of the Chettiars

Chettiar history is the stuff of magnificent travels. Beginning from when they migrated to Karaikudi eight centuries ago, to their later explorations for trade across South East Asia, their lives have gathered a colourful narrative.

These journeys were reflected in their distinctive architecture marked by opulent homes with global influences, as well as in their rich and intense cuisine. Nanjappa Babu, executive sous chef at Park Plaza, recreates some of that grandeur at the hotel’s Karaikudi Chettinad food festival.

His spread is primarily an attempt at clarifying misconceptions. “People believe Chettinad cuisine is just very spicy food. But it’s actually a complex blend of many well-balanced flavours. Chilli is just one of those ingredients,” says Babu.

A mouthful of the naattu kozhi biryani proves that. The flavours have seeped into meat cooked soft enough to fall off the bone and mix with the rice. The kozhi palakottai perattel (chicken with jackfruit seeds) and the poricha kaadai (deep-fried quail) further his expert juggling of spices.

Babu ups the chilli quotient though with the fish curry in tamarind base, made the day before for the spices to soak in. To close the non-vegetarian section, it’s all out hell-fire on your tongue with the deadly crab masala.

Babu also turns on its head the popular belief that Chettinad cooking is partial to the non-vegetarian. There are far more vegetarian offerings at this buffet and they showcase not just the variety of cooking possibilities but also Babu’s knack with experimentation. The Chettiars were calorie and nutrition conscious in their vegetarian fare, he explains, and that’s evident in the modest manga sadham, red cabbage poriyal and vegetable stew with appam. The restraint is also visible in the healthy salads with the karamani sundal and carrot kosumalli. Don’t skip the maanga vella pachadi here; it’s the classic, cold burst of raw mango flavour.

Experiment food

An absolute must-have in the vegetarian section is the saiva eeral puli kozhambhu - essentially a vegetarian reincarnation of liver curry made from moong dal which is ground and textured to resemble chicken liver. For a little more of the whacky, try the pakoda kuruma (fried pakodas in yellow gravy), pudhina noodles and the chaat-like chicken salad with papad pieces. To keep traditionalists happy, there’s the staple Chettinad vazhapoo vadai and vatha kozhambhu.

Dining at this festival is a little like being at a hectic Chettiar wedding minus the thronging crowd. There’s temple music blaring from the speakers, kolam at the doorsteps and portraits of deep corridors with Burma teak pillars on the walls.

The piping hot sakkarai pongal and aval payasam make the experience all the more real. There’s also the powdery goodness of thenga barfi, pori urundai held together with jaggery and the live counters making fresh boli and suiyam. It’s all a little too oily for good health but we’ve learnt counting calories at dessert sections is truly a punishable offense!

The festival is on at Park Plaza for dinner (7 p.m. to 11 p.m.) till June 2. It is priced at Rs. 777 for adults and Rs. 399 for children. Call: 95009-89756, 0422-2626030, 4523030.