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Updated: May 27, 2011 15:27 IST

Spice and all things nice

Nita Sathyendran
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Chef Thyagarajan. Photo: S.Gopakumar
The Hindu Chef Thyagarajan. Photo: S.Gopakumar

The beauty of Chettinad cuisine is in the spices used says Chef Thyagarajan. A Chettinad food fete is on at Vivanta by Taj, Kovalam

We're sitting in the alfresco dining area of the poolside restaurant at Vivanta by Taj, Kovalam, when Chef Thyagarajan, who specialises in Chettinad cuisine, brings out dish after dish piled high with food. As if right on cue, the pre-monsoon sea breeze wafts across a whiff of the tantalisingly spicy aromas and we can smell cinnamon, cloves, star anise, bay leaves, pepper, and a host of other spices. We find out soon enough that these very spices give Chettinad cuisine its distinctive flavour.

Over a refreshing cup of Vasanthaneer (a drink made of coconut water mixed with lime juice, honey and mint) and bites of delectable Vazhapoo vadai (a starter made of banana blossoms) Chef Thyagarajan waxes lyrical about this cuisine that's unique to the Nattukottai Chettairs of Sivaganga district in Tamil Nadu. The chef first learnt the nuances of Chettinad cuisine from his mother Venkiteswari, and perfected it over the years while working at Raintree, Chennai's signature restaurant at Taj Connemara.

“It's all in the spices. For example, a simple curry will have about 19 spices such as aniseed, poppy seed, nutmeg...and, of course, kalpasi – a kind of a sun-dried flower. In a perfect Chettinadan dish you should be able to identify the flavour of each spice,” says the chef.

Sun-dried flavours

Chettinad cuisine also uses quite a number of sun-dried items and a lot of the dishes are dry curries. “ In fact, dishes using sun-dried items are a delicacy. One such special dish, mostly served during special occasions, is Uppukandam, made of sun-dried marinated mutton.”

We were pleasantly surprised to discover that not all the dishes are spicy. “The spiciness comes from the use of milagu (black pepper) and red chilli. Most of the poriyals (stir fry), kootus (lentil-based curries) and kuzhambus (gravy), are not that spicy,” says chef Thyagarajan urging us to try out the Manathakali vathal kuzhambu (a rather sour gravy made with sun-dried berries) and Vendakkai poriyal (stir-fried okra). Meanwhile spicy foods such as Kozhi milagu (pepper chicken) and Kariveppilai Yera (prawns with pepper and curry leaves) pack a real punch, cautions chef Thyagarajan. Then again, it's not that spicy for those who grew up on Kerala cuisine.

Most of the popular desserts are made of milk, wheat or rice/rice flour such as Pal Paniyaram (rice and lentil dumpling in sweetened milk, Karunarasi halwa (red rice halwa), Elaneer payasam, and so on.

Chettinad calling

The Chettinad food fete is on at Vivanta by Taj, Kovalam, till June 5, 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Every evening the special buffet will have five non-vegetarian dishes and six vegetarian dishes apart from soups, salads, starters and desserts. The buffet costs Rs. 750 +tax. Says Sonu Koithara, executive chef of the hotel: “The Chettinad food fete is the first of a series that we plan to hold this year. Fetes that celebrate Syrian-Christian cuisine, Maldivian cuisine, Sri Lankan cuisine, and so on are in the works.” Contact: 2487733

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