Queen bee of Chettinad food: Bringing the aromas of Aachi’s courtyard into our kitchen

Meyyammai Murugappan’s ‘The Chettinad Cookbook’ made the endearing home-cook an Indian masterchef. But for her, cooking and serving food is all about one simple emotion – joy.
Queen bee of Chettinad food: Bringing the aromas of Aachi’s courtyard into our kitchen
Queen bee of Chettinad food: Bringing the aromas of Aachi’s courtyard into our kitchen
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Nearly half a century ago, when Meyyammai Murugappan was just 24 years old, she packed up and left for Malaysia with her husband, to look after the family business. Having grown up with all the luxury one could imagine, being sent far away from the comforts of home was challenging for her. “They just asked me to find a person there who could help me out. I could find someone of course, but how was I going to teach her Chettinad cooking? I didn’t even know how to cook rice, I had to buck up and learn!” Meyyammai exclaims, throwing her head back in laughter as she recalls her culinary journey.

“My husband and I could eat anything, but the real challenge was when my father-in-law came to meet us, and he was used to be the best Chettinad food in the world,” Meyyammai says. “I only carried with me a notebook in which my mother had quickly scribbled some recipes. Experimenting with even the simplest of cookery was a disaster,” she recollects. “After a few frantic phone calls to my mother back home, I managed to serve him Chettinad food, gaining confidence. The patience, appreciation and encouragement of my husband, Mr. Murugappan, gave me the confidence to experiment,” she says.

Another time, when her husband’s cousin came visiting, her husband suggested that she make crab masala – his cousin’s favourite. She made the dish all by herself, for the first time in her life. “Now, I am an expert in crab masala,” she declares with pride, but her expertise comes from decades of perfecting the dish, and more importantly, following a recipe which has stood the test of time. “The recipe was given to me by Amma Kannamma, a cook who lived with my husband’s uncle and aunt, Valliammai Achi,” she recounts.

Now 73 years old, Meyyammai has devoted the past two decades of her life to bringing the flavours and aromas of Chettinad from aachis’ courtyards into our modern kitchens. “I realised that the younger generation, especially the ones living abroad, think it is hard and cumbersome to cook Chettinad food at home. I did not want our heritage to be lost,” she says. So for 10 years, she traveled back and forth from one place to another, did meticulous research, interviewed several home-cooks, aachis (the elderly women of Chettinad) and caterers, and wrote The Chettinad Cookbook with her sister Visalakshi Ramaswamy. The book has become the Bible of Chettinad cuisine, with over 400 pages of recipes, making it simple and easy for younger people to cook. “When young people send me pictures of what they have cooked, I am overcome with joy. That is what cooking is all about for me, joy. And I want all youngsters to enjoy cooking, it is not difficult at all!” she says.

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What makes a curry Chettinad

Many of us can put together a chicken or mutton curry with south Indian spices, but what flavours make for an authentic Chettinad curry?

“I would say jeera and saunf, they give it a very distinct flavour. And, of course, gingelly oil,” Meyyammai says as she stirs a pot of aromatic mutton curry at her home in Chennai.

“Most Indian curries use very similar spices, but the tastes are different. For example, in Chettinad-style mutton curry or chicken curry, the spices are the same, but the quantities are different." she points out, and adds, "We use whole red chillies. And when we use coriander seeds, we use the full seeds. Now, this can be made into powder, with a proportion of jeera and saunf. Both of them are just a teeny, weeny bit in the chilli and coriander mixture, but they give a different flavour altogether."

The other important aspect of Chettinad cuisine is slow-cooking meat, and here is a pro-tip from her: add hot water when you are cooking meat. “When you add cold water, you are stopping the cooking for a few minutes, and that hardens the meat. Chettinad cooks know this very well, that is why you will see that in our cooking, the meat is always tender,” she explains, as the aroma of her mutton curry takes over the kitchen.

Chettinad-style Mutton Curry at Meyyammai Murugappan's house.

Meyyammai says that true Chettinad food is not very high on masala, and not rich at all – and that’s why it is simple to make. “You will usually only find chillies and coriander, and saunf and jeera. To make kurmas and thicker curries, we use khus khus, a bit of coconut or cashew nuts. Everybody thinks Chettinad is full of masala, full of spice. I don’t think so. It is flavourful, it has got masalas, but it is not rich. I would even say that it is one of the healthiest foods you can eat,” she says.

The meat dishes of Chettinad

There are several hundred meat dishes which can be made Chettinad-style, beyond the usual paaya, mutton kola urundai or naatu kozhi kozhambu which all of us know and love. “We have the fried items, and the curries. We can make a rasam out of everything, and we have masalas for every type of meat,” she says. “We have a lot of mutton dishes. There is no part of the goat that is spared, we have cooked every single part. In fact, there are several dishes I left out of my cookbook, you know,” she says and laughs out loud.

In her cookbook, she has put down the recipes of 14 types of kuzhambu, ranging from egg curry to mutton curries and seafood curries. The list of side dishes is a lot bigger, including dishes like goat brain fry, dried mutton and spicy fried fish. For the soup and rasam lovers, there are at least six varieties - trotters soup, liver and kidney soup, bone soup, chicken soup, chicken rasam and crab rasam.

Her favourite dish is kari sundiya – you probably haven’t heard of it. These are mutton balls like the kola urundai, but have turmeric, dried red chilli, coconut, chana dal, cashews, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and khus khus, among other things, as well. Onions and garlic are the main flavours. These balls are then tied together, like a gift wrap, with strings of banana fibre, and then deep fried. “You have to take out the strings before eating, but its flavour settles into the balls,” she says.

Dishes made of naatu kozhi, or country-bred chicken, perhaps epitomise why meat from organically and ethically raised animals can make the dishes even better. “When you cook with naatu kozhi, if you make the rasam or soup out in the kitchen, your entire house will have the aroma, you see. The meat itself is firmer, unlike the fleshy, squashy, fibrous things you get otherwise,” she says.

“These days, people have a habit of storing meat for a long time after they buy it. I believe that meat should be cooked soon after it arrives. The freshness and quality of the meat and seafood, and the quicker you cook, it really enhances the taste of your food," she says.

The article was created by TNM Brand Studio in association with Licious, and not by TNM Editorial.

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