Solachi and Vadivu bring their expertise in Chettinadu cuisine to The Residency

Back home in Kaanadukaathan, Solachi’s life revolves around food. Once she prepares a breakfast of idli and sambar, it is time to start work on an elaborate lunch — rice with sambar, kathirikkai or vendaikai masala (vegetables cooked in a gravy), poriyal cooked with dal, rasam and curd.

She does something very similar at The Residency as part of the Karaikudi food festival, on at the hotel, till December 1. Joining her is Vadivudaya Nayaki, who hails from Karaikudi, but now resides in Coimbatore.

Between the two of them, they clean, cut, grind and cook a veritable feast, with help from the regular kitchen staff. Their efforts show in the buffet. It is far from the typical hotel fare. The sambar is aromatic, the pudavalangai kootu is full of flavour, the vendaikai mandi is crunchy with a hint of tamarind, and everyone looks longingly at the roasted red snapper. As we speak, Solachi, 55, brings in a fresh batch of paniyaaram and inippu suiyyam that she has made.

“It is very nice to cook here,” says Solachi. She has been cooking during festival in hotels for some years now. It all started, she says, when she did a food demo in Hotel Visalam back home.

Vadivu has been catering from home for some years now. She says the speciality of Chettinad food is its spices (primarily pepper, cumin, fennel and garlic) and the use of gingelly oil for cooking.

The two are in the hotel at 8.30 a.m. They take a look at the menu, and start sorting out ingredients for the masalas — some ground kuruna kurunaya (coarsely) and some maiya pola (paste). Chef Ashok of the hotel says it has been a huge learning experience for them. “For instance, they make different masalas for different meats. Everything is customised.” Their mutton kola urundai is granular and has bite. Hotels, says Ashok, usually make a smooth urundai.

Vadivu points out to their specialities. “Our paniyaaram batter is different. That’s why it’s so airy.” The maavu for the thaenkuzhal has come from Karaikudi. Adhirasam has been made the traditional way — pounded rice and molten jaggery are mixed, covered with cloth and allowed to rest for four days. Then, they are shaped and fried. “Appa thaan, arumaya irukkum,” smiles Vadivu.

They also freely share tips. “If you cover and cook beans, it will turn grey. Cook it uncovered over a high flame, after adding some salt; it will stay nice and green.”

What we eat should be healthy, says Solachi. Vadivu agrees and points to the kariverpilai saadham. Perfectly cooked grains of rice are tossed in a fragrant powder of curry leaves and spices. “It’s very good for children,” she says. This aspect reflects in the chutneys too — beetroot, pudhina and vengayam. Also in the dessert. The kumayam, made of roasted and ground uzhutham paruppu, is silken smooth and full of ghee. “If served warm, you can’t stop with one spoon,” smiles Vadivu.

How different is it cooking in a hotel? “Not much,” says Solachi. “The food is the same. Only the people are different.”

The guests have been happy with the spread too. Solachi’s happiest moment was when a guest told the chef he felt he had gone home for food. He hailed from Solachi’s neighbouring village!