A journey to Chettinad with Alfred Prasad

A journey to Chettinad with Alfred Prasad

by Nancy Anne Harbord 8 October 2015

We discover more about Indian regional cuisine with Michelin-starred Indian chef, Alfred Prasad, as he describes the unique history and remarkable cuisine born of the isolated region of Chettinad, south-east India.

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Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

Specialising in high quality vegetarian food, Nancy has worked in Vanilla Black in London, as well as other kitchens scattered around Europe. Most recently, Nancy trained under Gabriele Bonci in Rome, learning to make his famous take on pizza al taglio, before taking the knowledge back to Stockholm to help open and run The Artisan pizzeria. She also writes vegetarian and vegan food blog, Delicious from Scratch, and is now a full time food writer.

The variety of cuisines and micro cuisines across India's many regions is extensive, and for the most part under-appreciated by Britain's diners. Alfred Prasad – who at twenty-nine became the youngest Indian chef to receive a Michelin star for his work at Tamarind – is keen to change that. Having retained the star at Tamarind for twelve years he is now working to build his own restaurant group, showcasing the lesser-known regional dishes and ingredients of his native India. He talked to us about Chettinad, an isolated region of India, whose culinary achievements he is particularly proud of, painting a picture of the history, people and food of this remarkable locality.

Chettinad is an area covering around seventy-five villages in the heartland of Tamil Nadu in south-eastern India. Alfred Prasad told us: 'I remember my first time in Chettinad and being blown away by everything I experienced. It is not a simple journey from any of the neighbouring big cities; you need to be physically present in this remote part of India to understand how special it feels. To think that enterprising Chettiars set off as traders from this remoteness to Southeast Asia as early as 1790.'

'This region is packed with history and grandeur. It is home to an extraordinary heritage of temples, mansions, customs, rituals, arts, crafts, hospitality and cuisine. Its most glorious 150 years began when the Chettiars ventured into Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1796 and Burma in 1824, leaving their home to work as traders and moneylenders there and later in other south-east Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. The region is very creative thanks to their exposure to other countries and cultures. Their athangudi tiles are beautiful as well as ingeniously designed to suit their climate; the kottans (baskets), though utilitarian, add beautiful colour to households; there are vibrant checked patterns on the Chettinad cotton saris; incredible architecture and wood work (using material such as Burma teak); all add up to make Chettinad a powerhouse of culture and aesthetics.’

Kannathal Temple. Photograph courtesy of The Chettiar Heritage.
Interior of a mansion. Photograph courtesy of Bharath Ramamrutham.

These international influences left a distinct mark on the cuisine. Alfred Prasad continues: 'These experiences brought about an exotic exchange of spices, techniques and ideas that became major milestones in the Chettinad culinary evolution. The prosperous Chettiar families also entertained the British Raj extensively, which brought Western influence to their repertoire. The indigenous cooks learnt to cook British classics to please their guests, which added another facet to this eclectic cuisine. Their exposure to new ideas makes them naturally more creative with food, so their cuisine is continually evolving.'

The dry, arid environment of the region has also shaped the food of the Chettiar people and an array of sun-dried or salted ingredients feature in their dishes. Alfred Prasad told us: 'They work with very little and try to be imaginative with methods of preservation such as sun-drying and pickling. Fruits, vegetables, even meats are dried in the sun, and rice and lentils are made into crisps. Ingredients like garlic, onions, chillies and gooseberries are pickled. These techniques are for preservation, but also to make the available produce more exciting.'

Alfred Prasad says that it is an exception to see Chettiars go out to restaurants to enjoy local cuisine: 'It is very much an eat-at-home (or each other's homes) culture. They take great pride in traditional (and creative) home cooking.’ But it is this home cooking – for the everyday needs of family and friends, as well as for life events and celebrations – that is so special. Alfred Prasad adds: 'Weddings and other life events, which are celebrated over a few days, would be managed masterfully by the Aachis (Chettiars ladies) who would ensure incredible detail in the menu planning and food, even the decor. They would almost never repeat a dish during the set of festivities. These celebrations are a great time to experience the expansiveness of this gastronomy and culture.'

Aiyanar Temple. Photograph courtesy of The Chettiar Heritage

Chettinad cuisine is known as one of the spiciest wake-up in India. Alfred Prasad says: ‘The blend of flavours and textures makes it robust and heady, aromatic and exotic. But the spices are so well-balanced that while it is complex and spicy, it is not necessarily hot. As with most regional Indian cuisines, all perceptible flavour senses are tested.' Freshly ground masalas (the spice mixes that form the flavour base of most dishes) are a feature of Chettinad dishes. Alfred Prasad told us: 'It renewed my faith in the roasting/grinding technique. The Chettinad cuisine has a masala blend unique to almost every dish. It adds to the time of cooking, but roasting or frying the spices, then grinding them manually in large grinding stones, elevates the dish from good to great.' Aromatics such as shallots and garlic, as well as fennel, coriander and poppy seeds are common flavour enhancers, with spice coming from black peppercorns and dried red chilies, and tang from ingredients like tamarind.

Southern India is well-known for its vegetarian food and while many meat-free dishes can be found in Chettinad cuisine, meat is unusually prominent. Alfred Prasad continues: 'In most Indian micro cuisines, non-vegetarian dishes are limited to chicken, mutton, pork and seafood. The array of meats that Chettiars consume is very unique – they eat game such as partridge, pigeon, rabbit, pheasant and quail, as well as the usual fare.’

The Chettinad cuisine has a masala blend unique to almost every dish.

‘The variety in this cuisine is quite incredible – my advice is to try as many different things as possible. A Chettinad chicken or lamb curry, crab masala, prawns in black pepper, uppu kari (a unique lamb preparation), sundakkai vathal kozhambu (curry made with sun-dried berries, whole shallots and garlic), idimee (string hoppers scrambled with vegetables) and kulipaniyaram (a savoury snack). For the adventurous, try the goat blood poriyal – it looks like a beetroot stir fry!’

Alfred Prasad told us about one unforgettable meal he enjoyed during his time in Chettinad, put on by the elderly proprietor of a hotel he stayed in with his wife: 'Mrs Meiyappan was the pioneer behind The Bangala Hotel, possibly in her mid-eighties, running this incredible place with passion, perseverance and pride. Her unbridled hospitality and affection was truly heart-warming. The dinner I had with her on my last day in Chettinad would turn out to be one of the best ever meals of my life. I remember the non-stop array of delicious food that I couldn’t possibly do justice to in one sitting. There must have been at least twenty different dishes so it’s very hard to pick favourites, but a few I remember were kulipaniyaram, kola urundai, uppu kari, nandu (crab) masala and black rice pudding . . . There is an old adage in the region: ‘You have to be lucky to eat like a Chettiar.’ Needless to say, I left Chettinad feeling very, very lucky.’

Alfred Prasad’s enthusiasm for this isolated region, ‘off the beaten track even for Indians living in India’, is infectious. The urge to hop on a plane and journey across land to try its culinary delights – its legendary masalas and the unique sun-dried ingredients of the area – is overwhelming. He concludes: 'Chettinad is a complete feast for the senses, just waiting to be discovered. I hope this cuisine can be presented in a more refined setting, staying true to its intrinsic flavours and techniques, and get the recognition it truly deserves.'