Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Chettinad way

Every time I crib about how I didn't get something I wanted badly, my aunt says, the theatrical intonation of her speech reminiscent of her days on the stage , "you didn't wish hard enough". In response I usually roll my eyes and say, in a tone befitting hers, “as if”. Somehow I can never come up with a fitting rejoinder. And every time a wish comes true I can’t help thinking about her words, and I quietly tell myself that I had wished hard enough. A recent instance? A  week go I had been craving a good Chicken Chettinad. Yes, I could always whip it up in my kitchen, I have a brilliant recipe a good friend had shared years ago, but  it’s not the same. You don’t always want to work hard to satiate a humble hankering. And it was not just Chicken Chettinad, after watching a particular show on a certain cookery channel sometime during the week, I had been obsessing over what to me is Tamil Nadu’s best contribution to the world of gastronomy, Chettinad cuisine. And I am eternally grateful to the Nattukothai Chettiars, a prosperous trading and banking community who settled in the present Chettinad region in the 13th century, where the sophisticated and intricate Chettinad cuisine evolved.  

And guess what? A couple of days later I find in my inbox an invitation for a preview of Chettinad Food Festival, at Durbari, Swissôtel Kolkata, along with my fellow KFB members! Seems like this time I had wished hard enough.  

So the news was, Chef Aswin Kumar. S had brought his expertise in the Chettinad culinary art to Calcutta, all the way from Chennai, and he was whipping up some wicked dishes in the Durbari Kitchen. And I was going to get a taste of it. When the day arrived, I went ahead, braving rain, a pesky dust allergy and killer traffic, making my way across the city, to savour the spicy gala that is Chettinad cuisine, and boy, am I glad I did.

The afternoon at Durbari, began with polite conversation and cooling cocktails that did wonders for my nerves, now tattered, having dealt with the lunacy that is Calcutta during rains. Chef Aswin, a polite, soft-spoken gentleman with a distinct southern accent, was only too keen to answer our animated queries about the spicy, fiery and largely non vegetarian Chettinad food, my mind, however, kept wandering, towards the assortment of chutneys and a bucket of papad sitting pretty on the table. I do not know if he had noticed my eyes returning to the chutneys every few seconds, but to my delight chef Aswin suggested we try the chutneys. Then on, I operated at lightning speed.  Waiting to be sampled was an assortment of five different chutneys – Capsicum and peanut chutney with shallots and tamarind, Beetroot Tovail with roasted moong dal, Ingipulli, a fiery tangy concoction of tamarind, ginger and red chilies (my favourite), a chunky Tomato Toku and the more common Coconut chutney with clinatro, ginger and green chilies. So engrossed was I in dunking poppadums in chutneys that I hadn’t noticed chef Aswin leave the table. Trust me these were addictive and I would have polished it all off on my own if not for good manners. 

Finally the food, mostly tossed up by Chef Aswin himself, arrived. And what followed was a joy ride on the spice trail. Spicy batter-fried cauliflower florets, Aachi Varuval and pillowy Kuzhi Paniyaram, (shallow fried fermented rice and lentil dumplings tempered with finely chopped chilies, ginger and curry leaves), soft and fluffy inside and a beautiful crusty golden on the outside, made for a delightful start to the meal.  And though we were served traditional paniyaram, in his kitchen chef Aswin also turns out innovative, contemporary avatars of this delightful dish, like the Olive and Basil Pesto Paniyaram and Schezuan chicken stuffed paniyaram. But that’s another story. For now I concentrated on the scrumptious dumpling on my plate, tore it apart with tender affection, salivating profusely all the while, and popped it in my mouth. 


The Lamb Chukka was another delightful appetizer.  Chukka means “dry curry” and in this version of the Chettinad-style lamb chukka the lamb is cooked in its own juices with tomatoes until tender and is then tossed in a  mix of aromatic Chettinad spices. I looked left, and right, at people engrossed in polite conversation, tore off a portion of soft, flaky Porota, scooped up a chunk of spiced meat and into my mouth it went. And then, struggling to stay calm, I relished the explosion of flavours in my mouth, until the final fiery kick in my throat shook me back to reality. Yes the lamb chukka was by far one of the highlights of the meal. As chef Aswin later pointed out, one thing that sets Chettinad food apart is that unlike various other Indian regional cuisines, in which spices are fried and cooked through (bhuna), in Chettinad cuisine the rawness of the spices is retained. The Lamb Chukka is a fine example. 

Kozhi Varuval

However, the dish that followed – Kozhi Varuval – was no less delicious. These piquant morsels of tender, juicy boneless chicken, dipped in a spicy batter made of gram flour, rice flour and eggs, then deep fried and finished off with a tempering of  curry leaves, would make for some wicked treats for cocktail nights I think. I still regret not asking for a second helping. I almost asked you know, but then I remembered executive chef Pranay Kumar Singh's warning earlier that afternoon “Eat less so you can eat more”. Yes Swissotel has this way with baffling you with variety. In retrospect I think I grossly underestimated my appetite. Another couple of morsels of chicken wouldn’t have hurt, would it now?

Up next was the Nandu Wada, crab cakes. The dish is one of chef Aswin’s highly recommended specialties. Unfortunately I am allergic to crabs too, so I had to pass. In the past, on a couple of occasions, I have thrown caution to the wind and chomped on crab cakes anyway. But only to regret, the subsequent itch in my throat is unbearable. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the Nandu Wadas  the whole time and the expression on my fellow diners’ faces, as they took their first bite of the soft cakes, made me... well let’s say crabby.  I tried to ignore them all, the crab cakes, the people; their ecstatic gestures, but it was rather difficult.  We’re talking about melt-in-the-mouth, pan seared crab cakes made with a special Chettinad Masala which is a mix of as many as 18 different spices including patthar ka phool, star anise and maratimokul, the inner bark of the cinnamon tree used extensively in Chettinad cuisine. Chef Aswin was kind enough to share the recipe for this masala with me, and I didn’t even have to wheedle! I’ll share it with you guys in another post, soon!

Nandu Wada

What came next has officially made to the top slot of my favourite comfort food list – the Kotthu Paratha. This unique paratha literally translates to minced paratha and is usually made with leftover parathas and curries. So, the parathas are shredded and tossed onto an iron griddle  along with curries, chicken in this case, and then comes the interesting part. What ne has to do is repeatedly pound them with two steel glasses until the paratha, infused with flavours from the curry, soften and the curry dries up and what you get in the end is a delicious muddle of minced parathas and meat (or eggs, vegetables even). I could almost imagine the sound of steel glasses clobbering on an iron griddle in a Chettiar Kitchen in a Tamil village, culinary music I tell you. In this connection let me tell you that the huge Chettiar Kitchens are exclusively designed and their cooking utensils are sought-after vintage collectibles.

The Kotthu Paratha, however, reminded me of a certain paratha made in highway shacks in and around Bengal, the petai paratha. Basically, you beat the daylights out of the parathas right on the skillet, with your bare fists. Petai is the Bengali word for beating up. Anyway for me Kotthu Paratha was a revelation I am going to cherish.

Sutta Kathrikka Thokku

Truth be told, I was quite full by the time our table was cleared of the now empty appetizer platters, full and enervated from the relentless flavour carnival in my mouth . But I was not sated yet. My heart, my mind and my stomach were on completely different pages. Next up were the main courses and I was ready to take them on. First up was a creamy mildly spiced vegetable curry served with piping hot steamed rice. The dish, Kalkari Kurma, is basically an assortment of seasonal vegetables in a subtly spiced coconut and cashew nut gravy. Sutta Kathrikka Thokku , was a sharp contrast to the milder Kurma. Baby brinjal cooked with an assortment of spices in a onion and tomato gravy, the Sutta Kathrikka Thokku is perhaps one of the spiciest face lift the humble brinjal can get.

But before the meat there were the prawns. Of course, I had to say no to the prawns too. The Yera Manga Charu is basically prawns cooked in creamy, subtly spiced raw mango gravy. It looked delicious but alas. Yes there have been times in the past when a dish has tempted me enough to pop anti-allergy pills and dig in, but this time I wasn’t carrying any. Sigh.The Vanjaram Meen, King Fish marinated with Chettinad spices and pan fried, was not much to talk about. The fish was fresh, but I would have liked it better seasoned. And I thought the flavours hadn't penetrated enough!

(Left to right) Chicken Chettinad, Kalakari Kurma, Yera Manga Charu 

Anyway, I was determined to make up with the next dish on the menu, my absolute favourite, Chicken Chettinad,served with soft Kal Dosai, fermented rice pancakes. Chicken Chettinad, the mouthwatering complexity of spices the dish involves, its drool-worthy aroma that spells rapture and the fiery kick the dish delivers, is one dish I will always choose over every other option. My Punjabi boyfriend, a diehard Butter Chicken loyalist, loses his mind over my irrevocable, and obsessive love for Chicken Chettinad. To me this is the dish that should be the face of Indian curries! And chef Aswin’s version is turned out to be a winner. It was a pity that by the time the Chicken Chettinad reached the table we were all struggling to breathe from overeating. But the tender pieces of chicken in a medley of delectable spices, was not to be missed. You see, my capacity to stuff myself is stuff of legends.I had my share alright. 

Chicken Chettinad
 I had lapped up the last vestiges of the Chicken Chettinad, and was telling a fellow diner how I had stuffed myself enough to last me a good 48 hours without another morsel of food. It was at this point that the desserts arrived – Sakkari Pongal and Elaneer Payasam.  48 hours? What 48 hours? I didn’t as much as flinch before I dug into the Sakkari Pongal, a rice and jaggery pudding crammed with nuts and dripping fragrant ghee. 48 seconds later, the bowl was empty. And then I let the Elanner Payasam, a cardamom flavoured coconut kheer, runny and extremely soothing, calm my palate. It had had too much excitement for the day.

Ready Reckoner
What: Chettinad Food Festival, (À  la carte)
Where: Durbari, level 2, Swissotel Kolkata Neotia Vista 
When: 1900 hrs to 2300 hrs ( Tue to Sunday) and 1230 hrs to 1530 hrs (Friday to Sunday).

The Dessert Platter: Elaneer Payasam and Sakkari Pongal

The Awesome chef Aswin

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