Chettinad Extravaganza at ITC Sonar

While I was frolicking away in Kashmir in the second week of July, I had received, as part of the Kolkata Food Bloggers team, an email invite by one of the leading hotels in Calcutta for a Chettinad food festival. I did not have phone/Internet connection there, so I got to see the mail after I had landed in Delhi, and more importantly after the event was already over. Now I'm a huge fan of Chettinad cuisine, basically any South Indian non-vegetarian fare. I've said here how I swear by the combined flavours of curry leaves, mustard seeds, coconut milk and tamarind, and I couldn't curse my luck more when I realised that I had missed this grand event.
Maybe somebody heard it, and the very next day I found another mail invite in my inbox for yet another Chettinad festival, this time by ITC Sonar. Of course I wasn't a fool to even think twice about it, and started counting days for that dream experience to unfold.
Bang at 1 on Friday afternoon I found myself at the Eden Pavilion of ITC Sonar, where Arundhati greeted me very graciously. Soon I was joined by fellow bloggers Manjari and Priyadarshini and as we busied ourselves chatting about life in general and food in particular, in stepped Chef Praveen Anand. In an extremely conversational, interactive and round-table style, chef told us all about the origin and evolution of Chettinad cuisine. Apparently it dates back to the 2nd century when the Chettiars of Tamil Nadu, a leading trading community, invented and popularised this cuisine. South Indian food, however, was introduced as a fine dining menu not before 1989 in Chennai's Dakshin. Over the last 26 years, the Hyderabad-born chef says, he has been learning and trying to perfect his art. Completely devoid of any North Indian influence, Chettinad food has evolved as a result of southern conquests, and thereby has a lot of bearing with Indonesian, Sri Lankan food, among others.
It was now time for us to sample the plethora of delicacies he had laid before us and, in a way, get lost in translation.
We started with Kuzhi Paniyaram and Sundiah. The former looks like mini idlis - rice and black gram batter seasoned and tempered with mustard, onions and green chillies and deep fried in moulds. I had heard about this dish a zillion times from my roommate in Delhi, Sneha, who had spent a considerable part of her life in Chennai. It was finally my time to taste it and the result was nothing short of brilliant. The Sundiah, one of the hands down winners of the day, was shredded pieces of lamb cooked in a blend of special masala, rolled in banana stem threads and deep fried, As you bite into those little balls of wonder, the meat melts in your mouth and the rush of flavours is too much for a weak soul to handle. We required a good 5 minutes to recover from the mesmerising brilliance that the sundiah was.
Before we graduated to the main course, we were offered the Settu Soup which is basically a vegetable soup made of dal water, tomatoes and cauliflower tempered with aniseed and peppercorns. The broth was light and cleansed our palates well before the onslaught of the entrees.


For mains, plain rice was accompanied by Keerai Kadayal (spinach tempered with red chillies and mustard), Parpu Urundai Kozhmabu (dumplings of lentil in a gravy of chillies, tomatoes and coconut), Cauliflower Masala Porial (cauliflower, tempered with garlic and aniseed). Of these, my personal favourite was the spinach dish, which completely titillated my tastebuds with its sweet and tangy freshness. In fact, I'm planning to try that at home sometime soon.



Now came the part that I had been waiting for with bated breath — the round of fish and meat. First up was Meen Kozhambu (fish in a tangy and fiery gravy of tamarind and chillies). This was a dish which looked incredibly simple but the complexity of flavours completely bowled me. The brush of the tamarind against the chillies imparted into the dish a subtlety that you only have to taste to believe. The Kola Urundai Kolambu (dumplings of minced meat in gravy of chillies, tomato and coconut) was another piece of deliciousness drenched in the goodness of coconut milk, and since you know how much in love I am with that one particular ingredient, you can also guess all the rave reviews I'm going to have for this dish. Next up came the Kozhi Uppukari (tender pieces of chicken cooked in a masala of chillies, onions and tomatoes). Now apparently the masala combination sounds very commonplace, but as Chef said, it is an Indian uniqueness to use the same masalas to create completely divergent dishes. And after getting a taste of that chicken, I couldn't agree with him more! All these were served with Podi Sadam (rice tossed in spice mix), a quintessential Chettinad delicacy.
The meal ended on a sweet note with Paal Paniaram (lentil dumplings in sweetened coconut milk), Rosapoo Gulkhand (a confection of bottle gourd with rose petal compote) and Arisi Payasam (rice kheer), of which my personal pick was the Gulkhand. A dessert made of bottle gourd is something I never thought all the while that I would ever have, or better still, like. So yeah, that was a pleasant surprise. 
As a lover of Chettinad food, whose admiration for the cuisine has gone up by leaps and bounds after this particular meal, I'd absolutely recommend this celebration of Chettinad cuisine, which is on in Eden Pavilion, ITC Sonar from July 26-August 2 (7.30-11.45pm) and is priced at Rs 1,850+taxes per person. This one is going to be worth your every penny!

PS: This was an invited review and the post is completely a personal account of the blogger based on her experience. No monetary compensation was involved.

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