Saying that Chettinad cooking is the South Indian alternative to Tandoori is a mere understatement. For the uninitiated, Chettinad(u) is a region in Tamil Nadu, native to Natukottai Chettiars, a sect of Tamil-speaking people, primarily (wealthy) entrepreneurs. Chettinad is famous for its cuisine amongst other beautiful things like art, architecture and sarees.
Contrary to popular belief that meat rules Chettinad cuisine; garlic, eggplant (knows as brinjal in India) and a vegetable knows simply as drumstick back home also form a major part of Chettinad food. This cuisine is specifically spicy and every dish that comes out of a Karaikudi kitchen bursts with flavor. Needless to say, many cities all over India have Chettinad restaurants that serve dishes like Chettinad Chicken, Kara Kuzhambu (spicy gravy) and Paniyaram (little pancake rounds) and people throng these establishments.
I am not from Chettinad. I have never been there. But I have read about it, I have friends who are Chettiars and most importantly, I am a huge connoisseur of Chettinad food. I love the food so much that I strongly wish Antony Bourdain had visited this part of the world before he decided to bid his good-bye to No Reservations. Ah well, his loss.
So, I have collected a lot of vegetarian Chettinad recipes in the past two years but my favorite will always be the garlic Kara Kuzhambu. No matter what, I always come back to in when I need a Chettinad fix. Disclaimer: This recipe has been picked off the internet, modified for spices and flavoring over the past two years. The end-result may not be an authentic, straight from a Chettinad kitchen gravy but it is close enough.
Spicy Chettinad Garlic Gravy
Ten small shallots (plus two to grind into paste)
Ten garlic pods (plus two to grind into paste)
One huge tomato, chopped
3/4 Tbsp Tamarind paste dissolved in three cups of water (add more tamarind if you like more tang)
One tsp salt
One Tbsp sesame/vegetable oil
Half tsp mustard seeds
Half tsp Channa Dal
A few curry leaves
To be dry roasted:
One tsp Channa Dal
One tsp Tuar Dal
A few peppercorns
Two dried red chilies (the kind you get in Indian/Mexican stores)
1 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
One tsp cumin seeds
(you could replace coriander and cumin seeds with one tsp each of coriander and cumin powders. Just add them after roasting the rest)
Two puffs of Asafoetida (optional)
Method: Dry roast the spices. Mix the shallots and garlic reserved for grinding and give it a whirl in the food processor.
In a pan, add the oil, mustard seeds, Channa Dal and curry powder. Let it splutter. Add the shallots and the garlic and saute for a few minutes. When they start getting soft, add the tomato and saute for a few more minutes. When the tomato begins to turn mushy, add the ground mixture and fry. Now add the tamarind water and let it come to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover the pan and let the gravy create magic. It is done when the gravy loses its raw tamarind taste and condenses into a semi-solid mixture. At this stage, you can check for seasoning. If it is too tangy, add a little more water. We eat this with rice and a curry on the side.
My mother’s secret weapon is jaggery. This is an Indian sweetener, made from sugarcane. We use jaggery extensively in our sweets and wherever recipes call for sweeteners. My mother adds a tsp of this ingredient to any spicy gravy she makes. You could do that. If you don’t find jaggery, use brown sugar. It is a great substitute.
The beauty of this gravy is that it is so thick that you can use this as a sauce. No kidding. I wonder how it tastes with biscuits…