Book review: A perpetual feast in Chettinad

  • Manjula Narayan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 13, 2014 11:27 IST

There’s nothing quite like the seduction of a sumptuous cookbook. It makes you salivate as you turn the pages, propels you to muck around in slushy fish markets, to smile beguilingly at vegetable


as you haggle over, say, the season’s first sweet potatoes, to haunt supermarket aisles for this or that elusive ingredient – saffron from Kashmir, sweet limes from Andhra Pradesh, chow chow from Kodaikanal… You aren’t an adventurous cook so you didn’t even know of the existence of this last squash before you stumbled upon it in The Bangala Table; Flavors and Recipes from Chettinad by Sumeet Nair, Meenakshi Meyyappan and Jill Donenfeld.

A quick google reveals it is native to Mexico but has been enthusiastically adapted by southern Indian cuisines. The information intensifies your incipient sense of being a failed south Indian – "You’ve never heard of seema kathrikka curry?" "No Amma, I haven’t, forgivez moi" – but does nothing to diminish your enthusiasm for this superb cookbook with mouthwatering photographs by Rohit Chawla.

Really, just flipping through The Bangala Table makes you want to set off for Chettinad in Tamil Nadu to check out The Bangala, a boutique hotel that serves the gems of Chettiar and Anglo Indian cuisine collated in this volume. Thus far your knowledge of Chettiar dishes was restricted to chicken Chettinad which, like idlis, dosas, pao bhaji and chicken tikka has leapt from its regional niche to become part of a popular pan-Indian cuisine, the sort of preparation that features on menus at regular eateries across the country. But The Bangala Table introduces you to bell pepper peanut and paneer poriyal, the quail 65, chicken rasam and kavanarisi, a breakfast dish using black rice that, the book tells you, was brought back by the Chettiars, a rich merchant caste of Tamil Nadu, from their travels to Malaysia and South East Asia in the 19th century.

Chettiar mansions often incorporated Burmese teak, Sri Lankan satinwood and Italian marble. (Photo courtesy: The Bangala Table)

Each of India’s communities, its numerous castes and subcastes, has evolved a rich cuisine of its own. As we become more mobile, travelling across the nation for work and pleasure, as we befriend each other and intermarry, our tastes are becoming more eclectic and as family menus incorporate ingredients and preparations an earlier less adventurous generation might have rejected, we assume we are part of a still-new wave of cosmopolitanism. But the Chettiars, who began to have business interests in Indo- China and Sri Lanka in the 18th century, were perhaps the original cosmopolitan Indians and an interesting potted history of the community by S Muthiah along with impressive old pictures of people and their magnificent homes or nattukottai (land fort) gives the reader a sense of who the Chettiars are.

Many of the preparations featured here like idli, uppuma and mutton biryani aren’t exclusive to Chettinad; others like the bread pudding and the roast chicken are products of the Raj; still others like the meen moilee and the steamed green masala fish have found their way to the Bangala table from the Syrian Christian and Parsi board. All the recipes and the accompanying pictures, however, make you ravenous. They also make you want to rush into the kitchen and whip up a potato karuvattu poriyal and the amazingly easy pomegranate thayir pachadi.

Right: Beetroot poriyal; Left: Aapam. (Photo courtesy: The Bangala Table)

A good cookbook makes you think about how a people experimented with ingredients, about colonialism and its varied fruit, about foods as talisman and taboo, about culture and history. A good cookbook almost manages to satisfy the gourmand just by how it looks. An exemplary cookbook also pushes her to wreak havoc in the kitchen. The Bangala Table is an exemplary one.

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