TO CONCENTRATE on the food while sitting between two legends is a tough choice. One of them is Meenakshi Meyappan, who has single-handedly put her hotel, The Bangala, at Karaikudi, on the map of the intrepid traveller. The other is the photographer, Bharath Ramamrutham. His photographs in the book, Mansions of Chettinad, with text by George Michell and published by Meyyapan, celebrates the extraordinary architectural richness of the stately homes built by the Nattukottai Chettiars. “We took the opportunity of the book launch to showcase the Chettiar culinary heritage at the Madras Pavilion,” explains Ajit Bangera, the Executive Chef at the ITC Grand Chola, as he steers the conversation very gently back to the food.
Of soups and syrups
Tiny opium-bulb shaped glasses are placed before us with a clear syrup for us to sip. “It’s nannari syrup,” explains Meyappan, “very cooling for the summer.” How about a nannari-vodka cocktail, we wonder aloud. Nannari, we are told, is the root of the Sarsaparilla plant. Instead we are given alternate glasses of a warm rasam type drink, one made from a broth of curry leaves and the other a thick heavily spiced chicken soup. “This is what we take when we get a cold – chicken soup with a little hot rice,” says Meyappan. This leads us to ask whether this is the grandmother of the Anglo-Indian Mulligatawny. No one can agree on the subject. Mulligatawny is a soup stirred by many dubious cooks. As Chef Bangera tells Meyappan, his version adds green apples. She is suitably impressed as she exclaims, “Apples in Mulligatawny!”
Tiny cluster beans vadais are served along with two types of chutney and a deliciously fresh and crunchy stir-fry of shredded cabbage and sprouts tossed with the lightest of dressings. Meyappan, who tastes each one of the dishes, acts as a guide. She is happy to share her Bangala chefs with ITC Grand Chola for the festival. We eat our way through the tender “uppukari” or mutton, the chicken pepper fry and the silken fish curry along with a superb prawn biryani to follow. For vegetarians, there’s mashed dhal with rice, mushroom and baby corn, coriander rice and soya biryani. For dessert, badam halwa and milky rice puddings arrive on individual trays. It’s a grand salute to a grand tradition.
The dinner buffet, Chettinad Samayal (part of the Kitchens of India series) is from today, till August 21. Rs 2,200++. Details: 22200000
— Geeta Doctor