How about some meen thoppi fry, straight from Kanyakumari? Head to the newly-opened Ayyanar for cuisines from the rural pockets of Tamil Nadu

As it turns out, the city doesn’t have all the answers. Bright lights might be deliciously dazzling for a while. However, you can’t live on razzmatazz alone. Even with food. In fact, especially with food.

Rediscovering the roots

In a classic case of humble village earthiness turning slick, loud and flashy, Chettinad food has been transformed over the years as it’s gained in popularity. Gradually becoming a representative for all Tamil Nadu non-vegetarian food, it changed from honest fare with refreshingly brusque flavours into an alarming medley of flaming spices and sizzling oil. However, even as it gradually loses personality, blending into a world of multi-cuisine and Indian-Chinese, various chefs are working on rediscovering its roots. Another more interesting trend is chefs travelling to find alternative cuisines. (After all, considering how food styles change every few kilometres in India, and every single family has its own distinct recipes, it’s ludicrous to believe that one cuisine — no matter how fabulous — can define a State!)

Chef Jacob Aruni, a restaurant consultant, for instance, makes use of his passion for chasing down village recipes, spices and techniques by weaving in these elements into the food and menus of the restaurants he works with.

In recently opened Ayyanar, he’s based the entire menu on village food from across the State. Unapologetically non-vegetarian, the restaurant is in the basement of Hotel Chennai Gate, a hotel set in a picturesquely dodgy area, bustling with vehicles and vendors, opposite Egmore railway station. As far from fine dining as caviar on blinis with crème fraîche is from molaga bhajis wrapped in torn newspaper. Perhaps, that’s appropriate. It does feel a tad insincere to eat hearty fisherman’s biriyani off fussy French porcelain, after all.

Nevertheless, this venue is more suited to a culinary Indiana Jones than a Paris Hilton, for sure. You enter through an unprepossessing lobby and then dive into the bowels of the hotel in true Phantom of The Opera style. The route in is lit with those bizarre hanging lamps covered in flaming red paper, resulting in a strangely orange corridor. Inside, Ayyanar is neat and no-nonsense, with the conventional large tables and squeaky music.

Since the food attempts to be authentic village fare, it’s cooked in the traditional way with firewood, smoke and mud pots. Chef Jacob says most of it comes from his research into Nanjinadu and Chettinad cuisine. Following the example of the villages, this is Indian slow food — local ingredients, patient marination and unhurried cooking. Some of the ingredients are quite surprising. For instance, meat is marinated with the help of coconut shells, which are apparently great tenderisers.

We try the kozhi varuval, fried chicken cubes twanging with ginger. Also the fiery, fried seer fish slices. Representing Kanyakumari, there’s the meen thoppi fry, which is startlingly cute. Consisting of fish flakes shaped into small caps (hence the name), it’s juicy inside and crisp outside. Thankfully, the kitchen’s restrained with spice, and most dishes taste and look different, unlike the admittedly tasty, but uniform, flavours of most mass non-vegetarian restaurants. Unfortunately, this restraint isn’t uniformly applied. The mutton soup, for instance, is intimidatingly spicy, thanks to chillies which shout down every other flavour.

Unusual food includes a meen varutha curry with a nice rounded flavour created by marrying sharp tamarind with sweet, mellow coconut water. There’s also vazhaipoo nandu, an interesting combination of banana flower with crab. And, then there’s kaatu kambu halwa to end with, made with bajra.

A challenge

An interesting experiment on the whole. Though, it’s probably going to be a challenge to stay true to this cuisine once the restaurant starts filling up. The descent from painstaking and ambitious to busy and run-of-the-mill can be remarkably swift.

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Shonali MuthalalyMay 11, 2012

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