Chettinad Cuisine: A South Indian Secret

A family-run hotel is one of the only places to sample legendary Chettinad cuisine.
Chettinad cuisine
Jill Donenfeld explores Chettinad cuisine.
Courtesy of Jill Donenfeld

In India’s southeastern region of Tamil Nadu, food pilgrims like me come to experience a cuisine that’s renowned across the country— and returning from near extinction.

In the 19th century and until the Second World War, Chettinad was a wealthy area in Tamil Nadu. The patriarchs were money-lenders who traveled all over Southeast Asia, returning with spices. They created unique blends, called podis, which add incredible depth to their rich soups, called sambars.

Business dried up in the 1940s and the Chettiar people scattered, leaving behind mansions with brightly colored marble courtyards and doors made of carved Burmese wood. But the few who remained, such as the Meyyappan family, kept cooking. In 1999, Meenakshi Meyyappan turned her father’s long-closed gentlemen’s club, The Bangala, into a 24-room hotel surrounded by gardens. A powerhouse at 80, Meyyappan offers classes in the Chettiar way of cooking and organizes tours through the abandoned mansions.

—Jill Donenfeld, co-author of The Bangala Table (out in October 2012)

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