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The Chettinad Fantasy

(This photo by Gireesh G.V)

The place where reality and illusion clandestinely meet
(Click on it to enlarge. Photographs by Minu Ittyipe)

In the middle of a parched nowhere, I traverse the collective fantasy of the Nattukottai Chettiars- mazes of monumental mansions in village after village. Even as I wander through this fantastic dreamscape I find I am still tethered to reality, you could say to the sweating banality of everyday life. I am soon convinced that it is the point of convergence, the place where reality and illusion clandestinely meet.
We have travelled far in pursuit of gastronomical pleasures, relishing the sensations of one cuisine before moving to the ephemeral joys of the next. We left behind the coolness of Coorg and Bangalore, flew over two dry river beds, long and sad, to reach Kanadukathan about eighty kilometers from Tiruchirapalli.

The Raja's Palace in Kanadukathan

Inside of the Palace

And the illusion of a sophisticated township in the barren village of Kanadukathan, beautifully designed, does not cease to amaze us. (Let’s live like kings and queens must have been the idea.)

There are about hundred and fifty ornate, ostentatious, palatial mansions in Kanadukathan laid out on a grid plan and interestingly the wide streets all gravitate to that ineluctable feature of a village scene: the village pond. The only source of drinking water, the shallow pond, is not exactly the source of flipping fish. And we soon stumble upon the illusion of the fish.

We expect the cuisine of Chettinad to be governed by the potent red chilly. It is quite the contrary. Though the red chilly is an essential ingredient of Chettinad cuisine its aggressive nature is subdued. And our fiery expectations are soon mellowed by the well blended tones of the authentic Chettinad cuisine. As in the other regions of the South, in Chettinad too, we succumb to the seductions of rice in its varied forms.

I am in the first inner courtyard of the 100 year old Chettinadu Mansion in Kanadukathan, listening to the carnatic ragas winding their way around the numerous pillars of the house. Either side of me the succession of doorways seems to stretch endlessly. The main entrance of the house and the secondary entrances lie on the same axis, framed by the inner pillared corridors, creating the illusion of infinite entrances.

The Illusion of Infinite Entrances

I sit there delighting in the sweet and glutinous kavunarasi (black rice pudding) that hostess Sivakami Chandramouli insists I try. I must admit I love the elusive bite of the grated coconut that I seek in the midst of that delicious purple stickiness. The Chettiars acquired a penchant for black rice during their prosperous trading and banking ventures in South East Asia that peaked during the British Raj. Teak from Burma, Italian tiles for the floor, copper- zinc plates for the ceiling from England, black rice from Indonesia etc.., the flavours of abundant wealth were brought back to embellish their homes in the Chettinad villages. (There are seventy five such villages.) And the Chettiar inclination for non-vegetarian food too is said to have been cultivated during those days.

A day slowly dies in Kanadukathan

Here the rice flour dough twists and turns into savouries and sweetmeats- the deep fried crispy kai murrukkus, cheedas and manaholam are famous Chettinad snacks. The manaholam is a mixture of rice and lentil dough, fried and coated with just a whisper of jaggery, while the rice flour steeped in jaggery syrup and then deep fried turns into lovely brown cakes called the athiresam. For me athiresam has the aroma of nostalgia. Sifting through my childhood memories, I find that athiresam and kai murrukku with its three circles of twists were always present in large Britannia biscuit tins to comfort my growing pains.
Sivakami enlightens me about the “chootte” or concentric circles of the murrukku- it kind of indicates the wealth of the person during the marriage ceremonies. “It is customary for the bride’s people to take snacks to the bridegroom’s house. The richer the person, the more the snacks and the number of concentric circles of the kai murrukku too increase proportionately.”

And it is always to the Chettinad villages that the Nattukottai Chettiars return for the wedding ceremonies. Each mansion has many locked up rooms or “houses” that are filled with things of the relatives, waiting for the big occasion.

The vegetable biriyani with curd pachadi is one of the numerous dishes served during the usually vegetarian wedding feasts. In this classic dish, the ascendant flavour is that of the marathi mokku- just a few pods of the spice and its delicate flavour spreads through the rice. But for us it is the vegetable biriyani with the famous Chettinad chicken. The chicken imbibes the generous helping of spices and masala that is combined perfectly with the milk of the coconut and cashew paste. It goes without saying that the softest iddilis and the crispiest dosais are made in this state. Our host Chandramouli stresses with pride that the hard iddilis found elsewhere will not be touched by the people here.

Women pounding spices in Chettinadu Mansion

The Chettinad iddiappam (string hoppers), a derivative of the Kerala iddiappam is surprisingly very soft too. The regular hoppers are secretly subjected to a softening process here. After the hoppers are steamed, water is sprinkled on them and immediately squeezed dry. The string hoppers are then soaked in butter milk and seasoned with mustard seeds and curry leaves. It is deliciously soft. If I have to get technical and employ the atavistic foodie lingo, that is at present only tele-comprehensible, it would be an “Mmmmmmm….Ahhhh”.
One particular dish that captures the essence of the place and fascinates me is a kolumbu (curry) with brown fishes floating in it. A bite reveals that it is not fish but fish shaped pakodas. Hot pakodas dropped into the curry is referred to simply as the pakoda kolambu. But I prefer to call it the illusion of the fish.
(Chettinadu Mansion Apr to Sep tariff: Rs.5300/- Double/ Full board. For further information contact 04565-273080 or email:
Extract of the culinary tour published in Spice (India Today Group). The full text in July 2007 issue

I was fascinated by this village and went snap, snap.

Caretakers of this crumbling mansion

Near the Village pond. People gather at the end of the day

A decaying facade

The disinterested sentinel

One of the few shops in Kanadukathan

Man at work


Kyrene said…
Good words.
Anonymous said…
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Anonymous said…
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Kannan said…
Your blog is very good.

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