Some regions of India are synonymous with their food. Say the words Lucknow and I think dum biryani (biryani cooked in a sealed pot), say Malabar and parotta (layered flatbread) comes to mind, say Chettinad and the classic chicken Chettinad it is! These regions have their own rich history, but their cuisine is what I most strongly associate these regions with. Chettinad, a region in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is so well known for its distinctive and evolved cuisine, however, has been somewhat typecast as the region known for its excessive use of red chillies in its cuisine. Nothing could be further from the truth...
The Chettiar community were merchants and traders by occupation and had close ties to the British rulers in India. The community played a key role in the spice trade between India and countries such as Burma, Sri Lanka, etc. Some of the regional food, such as string hoppers or Iddiyapams, have been influenced by the cuisine from these regions. Although the Chettiyars were originally vegetarian, they adapted their tastes to include a plethora of non-vegetarian dishes to their menus, thus doing us all a great service!
The cuisine of Chettinad is known for the use of spices that set it apart. A spice box with classic Chettinad spices would typically include black peppercorns, fennel, mustard seeds, star anise, fenugreek seeds, etc. There is a misconception about Chettinad food being too fiery, doused liberally with red chillies when in fact the use of black pepper is what adds a subtle and restrained heat to many a Chettiar dish. Masalas are often freshly ground, and the use of coconut and curry leaves lend a unique flavour to many dishes.
Coming back to the flagbearer of Chettinad food - the wildly popular Chicken Chettinad. The curry paste is made with coconut and ground spices and is the perfect example of how freshly ground pepper can really elevate the flavour of a dish. This dish is perfect for a leisurely Sunday lunch, make it if you are in the mood for an aromatic and indulgent meal, and pair it with some basmati rice, and get ready to be transported to the palm groves and verdant paddy fields of Chettinad!
- 1.5 Kg chicken use chicken thighs and legs for the best flavour
- Salt to taste
- 1 inch piece of cinnamon
- 5 cloves
- 5 green cardamom pods
- 1.5 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1.5 teaspoon fennel
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 4 red chillies this can be omitted, based on your spice tolerance
- 1 cup grated fresh coconut as a substitute, use desiccated coconut which is easily available in all Swiss supermarkets
- 5 cashew kernels
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 cup chopped medium red onion
- 1 teaspoon Kashmiri chilli powder for colour not heat, or substitute with paprika powder
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 teaspoon ginger-garlic paste
- 1 diced tomato
- 1 teaspoon chopped coriander leaves + 1 more for garnishing
- 5-6 curry leaves curry leaves can be found at an Indian or Sri Lankan store. They add a unique flavour, but can be omitted if unavailable
- In a mixing bowl, clean the chicken pieces, run the salt all over and let it sit for a while.
- In a large pan, on medium heat, heat the cinnamon, cloves, cardamom pods, star anise, peppercorns, fennel, coriander seeds, red chillies for a minute or so, until fragrant. Then add the grated coconut, and cashew kernels and heat for another minute.
- In a coffee or spice grinder, grind the dry roasted spices (without adding water). This is the masala blend which will be used to make the gravy for the dish.
- In the same pan, on medium heat, add some oil and add the bay leaves and onions. Saute for a minute and then add the Kashmiri chilli powder, turmeric powder and ginger garlic paste. Saute for another minute.
- Now add the tomato, and give it a stir. Cook for a minute or so untill the tomato begins to soften.
- Add the curry leaves, coriander leaves and the ground masala that you just prepared.
- Give it all a good stir and then add the chicken, stirring it well, so that the chicken is well coated with all the spices. Add 1 cup of water to the pan, cover it with a lid and let it cook on medium heat for around 25 minutes, giving the curry a good stir occasionally.
- Once done, garnish with the reserved chopped coriander and serve with basmati rice.