Over the years, we have been watching the India pavilion at the World Travel Martshow in London. Some states never got the deserved footfall of tourists in spite of having so much history, natural beauty, incredible temples and fabulous cuisine. Kerala has been an exception in the recent past, thanks to brilliant officers like Amitabh Kant and Venu and their contribution to the tourism industry.
A journey to understand the true history of south Indian culture was always a plan in waiting. The requirement to source kitchen utensils for our cooking school created this opportunity to make a trip to Tamil Nadu’s prominent spot of glory, the treasure land of the Chettiar community.
I started a long drive under the sweltering sun from Coimbatore with two companions, Basant and Unni. We saw flourishing farmlands on both sides of the road. At dusk, as the heat mellowed down and the moon appeared behind us, we reached a small town called Karakudy.
Pushing through the busy town centre and falling darkness, and guided by helpful local people, we reached a gorgeous old house-turned-hotel called The Bangala, owned by a lady called Mrs. Meyyappen. It was the first sign of Chettinad glory and incredible hospitality of a team led by Aliamma George.
It was dinner time and the aroma of a much-awaited Chettinad cooking was already floating in the air. Freshness of the ingredients and untiring passion of their chef, who has been there for almost 50 years, was evident even before experiencing the taste.
Just before enjoying our fabulous dinner comprising many of the community’s delicacies, we had a look around the property and found their display kitchen for cooking demonstrations decorated with so many vessels and jars from the old Chettinad homes.
The night sky looked splendid as we sat by the lawn and enjoyed the lucid presentation of the history around the property. We slowly walked to our room that was decorated with antique furniture and locally made tiles with
warm shades of green and gold. We fell comfortably into a much-needed sleep in the homely surroundings of the Bangala.
We were up early and ready for the shopping visit to the old markets. Aliamma greeted us with a welcome smile and invited for an elaborate breakfast with some familiar south Indian dishes and more of the region’s specialities. We met the popular Tamil actor Vivek, who was sitting next to us. He has a unique mission of planting a million trees across Tamil Nadu. Aliamma introduced us to Julie Wayne, an American photographer who lives with her French partner in Paris. Being a regular to this hotel for many years, she agreed to be our guide for the local market tour.
We walked along the crowded Karakudy town in search of the old antique market. We found huge collections of utensils made of copper, brass, stones and colourful enamelware. Julie explained the story of Chettinad weddings and the tradition of gifting cooking vessels along with gold and silver as part of dowry given to the boy’s family. Usually they get too many of the same things, which are stored somewhere unused, until they reach this market after so many decades.
We had a wonderful experience of visiting Athankudy tiles factory and saw the process of tiles making by local artisans. It was an incredible experience to watch their talent and skill. Chettinad was familiar to us from the famously talked about meat dishes in many south Indian menus. As we completed this whirlwind tour, we were full of fascination for the culture in Chettiar houses: architecture, hospitality, and of course, the unique variety of vegetarian food only available in this region.
The author is a London-based restaurateur who owns the Rasa chain of restaurants