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The Culinary Magic of Chettinad

July 21, 2018 13:16 IST

'In one mansion we visited, I was told the doors in the back courtyard had to be kept closed because to have the front and back doors open at the same time would result in Chettiar wealth flowing away,' notes Rahul Jacob after a memorable visit to Karaikudi.

Two hours from Madurai in Chettinad is the gracious hotel The Bangala at Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

It is six months since I stayed at The Bangala, a small boutique hotel in Chettinad, and yet I remember it as if I had just awoken from a dream.

The memories are of dining tables with silver cutlery, surrounded by staff, in white shirts and white lungis, carrying salvers and pressing more food upon hotel guests.

Quail curry one moment, crab the next; The Bangala felt akin to being at the home of my Tamil grandmother, who awoke at dawn to prepare enormous feasts of idlis and chicken curry if we were visiting.

A major reason for visiting The Bangala is to stuff your face with double meals of divine Chettinad food. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

The first dinner I ate at the Bangala with a group of friends began with a carrot soup, which was followed by two helpings of a delicious red cabbage and orange salad.

After that, we had exceptionally light appams served with fish curry, cashew curry and a sambol.

 

Between meals swimming in the hotel pool is key to building up an appetite for the next lip-smacking platter of Chettinad food at The Bangala. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

I ate with the abandon of a teenager on parole from boarding school.

The plates were cleared and another waiter arrived offering us a Chettinad Chicken Biryani.

One becomes quickly acclimatised to this strange custom at The Bangala of serving two dinners for the price of one, all the while feebly protesting and promising to eat less at the next meal.

The Bangala is just one of the grand mansions in Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu, and the only hotel till The Park opens a Chettinad bungalow hotel next year in this town. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

And, so it went at breakfast, lunch and dinner for three days of unrestrained gluttony.

Every meal was like being at an old-world Indian wedding rooted in the best of a local cuisine before 'live' pasta/dosa/galouti counters took hold.

The hotel has one of India's better collection of books, procured from the iconic bookshop that used to be at the Connemara in Chennai. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

I have never accomplished less on a holiday than I did at The Bangala.

We visited no temples and did very little sightseeing except to view the fantastically grand jumble of styles of nearby Chettinad mansions.

Houses in Tudor, Victorian, Art Nouveau and Indo -- crumbling chic all sit side by side as if the town were a large-scale model for an accelerated course in architecture.

I swam in the pool regularly, but largely to work up an appetite for the next meal.

Can you miss tucking into The Bangala's Egg Appam? Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

By day three, the octogenarian spirit behind The Bangala, Meenakshi Meyyappan, whose family owns it, had a quiet word with me.

She was worried that I and "the boys" (my friend's sons in their 20s) weren't enjoying ourselves because we had done so little.

Cookbook writer-actor Madhur Jaffrey learns about the storms cooked up in the kitchens of The Bangala. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

But erratic Wi-Fi in our wing of the 25-room hotel and epic dinners meant we had more time for conversation; I came to admire the eclectic interests of my friend's sons.

One of them was interested in hilarious British Indian words from Hobson Jobson, the colonial-era dictionary that is a reminder of the khichdi that English is, with words like shampoo and indeed bungalow and kedgeree having Indian origins.

Our favourite phrase was 'darwaza bandh' used by the major-domo when the memsahib and sahib did not wish to be disturbed.

Tea time matches the dreamy pace of this laidback hotel. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

Meyyappan, 84, is a much more energetic memsahib than her colonial counterparts. She embarked on her career as a hotelier two decades ago when she was in her 60s, an age when the rest of us are winding down.

She and a relative by marriage, Visalakshi Ramaswamy, who is responsible for the understated design of the property, were worried that Chettiars with ties to Karaikudi and the means to maintain 85-room villas were dwindling.

Two decades on, their project to revive the region as a tourism destination seems about half complete.

The octogenarian spirit behind The Bangala is Meenakshi Meyyappan, right, who owns it. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

'My son tells me to take things day by day, but that is impossible for me. There is too much at stake,' Meyyappan told The New York Times last year.

Even if you are a laidback underachiever as I am, witnessing the work ethic of this octogenarian, who now doubles as manager of the hotel after her long-time manager retired, is reason enough to visit.

When I suggested a sturdy orthopaedic quadri-pronged walking stick was what she needed after hip surgery last year, she dismissed the idea with the vehement impatience of someone in a hurry.

If you can get off your full bellies to go strolling in Karaikudi do visit the town's quaint Chettinad bungalows. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

On our last evening, I asked if she ever felt lonely living away from her family in Chennai. Her reply was matter-of-fact.

After overseeing dinner at the hotel -- or rather ensuring that her guests had wildly overeaten while she dined on a small plate of curd rice -- she returned home tired to her family's stunning Art Nouveau mansion, with checker floors that look like they have been made for a chess game; she only had time for reading "biographies".

I doubt there is a hotel in the country with a better collection of books, procured from the iconic bookshop that used to be at the Connemara in Chennai.

Born in Bangalore and raised in colonial Ceylon, Meyyappan could probably run Chennai if she were younger.

There is the melancholy of a town that looks to the past rather than to the future. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

Instead, she has focused her energies on helping put Karaikudi, an unremarkable two-hour drive from Madurai mostly through a harsh landscape of dry shrub, on the map by opening The Bangala and publicising its cuisine through an exceptional cookbook, The Bangala Table, published in 2014.

A cast of international chefs have been visitors to the property. I was travelling with a Kiwi friend, a well-known chef, and soon got used to her tendency to lapse into a reverential silence at meal-times at The Bangala.

Naptime and sleep are important at The Bangala to recover from the sumptuous meals. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

Still, helping India and the world discover Chettinad remains an uphill battle.

The Chettiar community had a great run as bankers in colonial times in places such as Burma and Malaysia, but their genius as the equivalent of Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs of the 150-year colonial era now seems a mere historical curiosity.

The Chettiars became celebrated carnivores on their long sojourns overseas; a barbecued fish recipe in the cookbook uses garlic chilli sauce, recalling the Nyonya cuisine of Malaysia rather than southern India.

A revival of a sort is underway.

The Chettiar community who built this town had a great run as bankers in colonial times, but their genius as the equivalent of Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs of the 150-year colonial era now seems a mere historical curiosity. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

A childhood friend of mine, Priya Paul of the Park Hotel group, piled suggestions upon me of what to do in and around Karaikudi.

The Park is restoring a house that will be made into a 21-room and suites hotel and open in 2019. The group will open a large café there next month.

But get lost, as we did one morning wandering the streets, and Karaikudi does not feel like a place about to pole-vault onto a list of '100 places to visit before you die' as, say, Fort Cochin did a couple of decades ago.

This is part of Chettinad's charm. The guides tell you stories shot full of nostalgia and lost fortunes.

I took no notes so may have this wrong but in one of the mansions we visited, I was told that the doors in the back courtyard had to be kept closed because to have the front and back doors open at the same time would result in even more Chettiar wealth flowing away.

A slice of Chettinad charm. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

There is the melancholy of a town that looks to the past rather than to the future.

Sidhpur in Gujarat, where the Bohra Muslims, a similarly globe-trotting trading community, built mansions in a very Italian style has much the same feeling.

In Chettinad, one sees many wonders: Murano glass chandeliers brought from Italy, teak imported from Burma and used as handsome doors with carvings venerating Shiva and Vishnu.

The tiling on the floors is one of a kind, like carpeting. The tile factory in Athangudi will leave most visitors fantasising about importing a truckload to redo their living room floors.

The Bangala is packed with lovely moments of leisure and grace. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

But one also often sees large mansions that are darkened by soot, black mould and dust.

We walked into one by mistake. The lady of the house had made a paltry business selling savoury snacks to tourists.

In the gloom and squalor, I could see her husband understandably scowling at the intruders.

What was once a grand mansion felt like a rundown house, like India in microcosm.

The sights of Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

The other problem is that Karaikudi is a thoroughly mofussil town, bypassed by industry and prospects.

In such a setting, the grand mansions sometimes seemed a reminder, to paraphrase Joan Didion writing about grand houses in Newport built in the early 20th century by America's robber baron industrialists, of 'how prettily money can be spent', but also 'of how harshly money is made'.

An irresistible breakfast. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

As admirable as the Chettiar community is today, there is a moral ambiguity to the narrative of Chettinad: Being financial intermediaries for the British in dealing with the small trader and farmer in places such as Burma, India and Malaysia must often have required being the very opposite of Robin Hood.

Back at The Bangala, the ceaseless bustle of a kitchen out of a myth keeps such thoughts at bay.

Return from sightseeing and you are rewarded with lunches on banana leaf that include crab curry, crab rasam, mutton apu kari, a pomegranate raita and several vegetable dishes. When I looked at my bill as I left, I thought I had been under-charged; lunch and dinner cost just Rs 1,000 each.

After a day of sightseeing you are rewarded with lunches on banana leaf that include crab curry, crab rasam, mutton apu kari, a pomegranate raita and several vegetable dishes. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Bangala/Facebook

We met families who had been coming back every year to The Bangala for more than a decade.

My friends and I have already spoken about returning. It is an unusual hotelier who leaves guests with the illusion they are reclaiming an ancestral home.

Against considerable odds, that is what Meenakshi Meyyapan's generosity has accomplished at The Bangala.

Rahul Jacob
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