Chemistry was a terrifying subject for me. Like all Bongo shontans (decent Bengali boys), growing up in 90’s meant taking up science in Senior Secondary and starting tutions from CKD (profs were called by their initials). Chef Praveen Anand reminded me of CKD. As he discussed about the Mudaliars and Nattukottai Chettiyars with much patience and care – I thought how easily at any point of time I could walk upto him with an unsolved Organic Chemistry Equation – and he would solve it.
There is nothing called Chicken Chettinad –
Chef Praveen Anand, with immense patience started explaining the basics first. Tamil cuisine can be classified in community based cooking and places based. Natukottai Chettiyars were basically Chettys and were originally vegetarians, who by the virtue of their accounting and numerical capabilities, became money lenders. In the process, they became so powerful that the head of the community would crown the Chola King. They were travelers and hence long journeys, sea faring, protracted time of travelling, interaction with local people away from your roots definitely translated into local food.
Chettiyar food is not very spicy as commonly perceived and is rather nuanced as Chef Praveen Anand said. He stressed on ‘ nuanced’ as there are different spices for different dishes and also they have a host of soups. Soups whose stocks are sometimes made from meat and bones etc . A community which has been vegetarian originally, the food pattern and preferences changed over travelling.
“I have never eaten Chicken Chettinad in any Chettiyars house” – Chef Praveen Anand lights a noiseless explosive with a smile. As per him, someone would have had some chicken dish in some house and then improvised and introduced Chicken Chettinad. The name is coined and as he says, if you go ask for chicken Chettinad – you will be looked at. To support this, he refers Tamil Historian S Muttaiah who himself is a Chettiyar.
Who has got Money? The Mudaliars – the farmer who has the money
Mudaliars are jokingly known as brinjal people as they can mix up with any community. They were originally farmers and came from Tulu Naads where Tulus used to stay(present Karnataka). They were invited by one of the Chola kings to look after one of the arid lands which he got as a reward. Vellalers or farmers as they were known soon became a rich clan. The specialty of their food is – enough of everything to cook both veg and non veg items. The spices are same but tweaking of taste as well as proportions and technique which makes a different style of cooking – Chef Praveen Anand explained to us when we asked for the characteristics of the Mudaliar dishes.
Why Tamarind is the main souring agent and also not the only one for Tamil Cuisine
Availability makes Tamarind the main souring agent but there are others also, eg Kokum in certain section, Bilimbi a fruit which is similar to jackfruit – Chef Praveen Anand insisted – no English names please, same texture as gooseberry and grows in the trunk. It’s a souring agent which goes excellently with Sea food and prawns as well as vegetarian dishes. The drawback of this fruit is the shelf life and it ferments within two hours of plucking from a tree.
Did you know there is something called Gooseberry Payasam ?
When Chef Praveen Anand said a Goosebery Payasam – all of us tried to figure out how that would be made.The Gooseberries are boiled in Calcium, then they again boil it in lime water. The process removes all astringency and then it can be used in the payasam.
If it’s Mustard oil for Bengalis – then in Tamil Nadu it’s gingelly oil
Gingerly oil is a cold pressed oil which gives a sweetish flavour and taste and combines brilliantly with tamarind and the outcome is something pickley in flavour.
Chef Praveen Anand, Dakshin and Local Love
While Chef Praveen Anand has been associated with Dakshin since the inception 30 years back – his initial efforts to do trials for the restaurant was nightmarish as no two people would agree on the taste of food. in order to standardize, he would visit a lot of homes, meet the housewives to collect the heirloom recipes and standardize them with his continental cuisine expertise. One can see a glow in his face when he says that Dakshin is the next biggest brand after Bukhara in ITC Hotels today. Chef never forgets to humbly mention that it has taken almost 30 years to reach a stage where he can speak on the cuisine like this.
We were at ITC Sonar Kolkata as a part of the Tamil Virundhu which was a part of their Kitchens of India. Chef Praveen Anand calls this as a Kaleidoscope of Tamil cuisine where for 10 days he showcased various community based cuisines of Tamil Nadu to the city. We tasted Tamil Sahibu or the Tamil Muslim cuisine. Amongst many, Kozhi varuval is a chicken dish with nuggets of chicken deep fried with a light batter and other spices– was a very addictive dish meant to please the soul. Some Ghee bhaat with a small bowl of gunpowder mixed with additional ghee was a blessing. The soft Veechu Paratha dunked in a bowl of spicy Chillah Dal made with butterbeans and potatoes or some Poricha Kari which is simply a very lush Mutton Curry were the perfect combinations. A dish of whole roasted tomato tossed with green chilies, garlic and onion called Thakkali Bhurta was unique in its own way and was a savoury and salty yet a soul-satisfying dish. How is the dessert always the best part of any meal? Here too, Harira Paal, a payasam made with poppy seed, cashew paste, coconut milk and milk created a beautiful nutty texture with the creaminess from the cashew paste and the thickened milk was the best way to end the meal. I bet anyone having this would delightfully go for a second helping.
In Chef Praveen Anand’s words – he has transformed from a rebel to a believer. Many nudges didn’t divulge his rebellious side but the takeaway from the entire afternoon was the subtle differences between community based cuisines of Tamil Nadu, some history and some great food. Just as CKD would solve the differences between Benzene, Ethylene and polypropylene and make us believe that Organic chemistry is easy, Chef Praveen Anand made us believe that there is more to the name and taste of a food.
Noted food writer Saurish Bhattacharya had written this wonderful article on Chef Praveen Anand from where I have taken some of the references. Read the article here