Famed Chettinad cuisine caterer, America Natesan, will be taking over the Sangamithirai kitchen at Feathers next week. Natesan who fondly came to be known as America Natesan because he left his village, Nedungudi, to work as a home cook for a renowned Chettiar family in the US back in the '60s, has since become something of a Chettinad food evangelist, teaching the techniques he grew up with and over the years has become a much sought after man during the wedding season, with influential names on the guest list like Rajiv Gandhi and P Chidambaram. All the more reason to make a reservation for Karikalan Virunthu, a 10-day long festival which promises to serve up all his signatures from Nedungudi Mutton Chukka to Muyal Kari Gravy. We get chatting:
Give us a taste of the food you ate as a young boy growing up in Nedungudi.
Idli and dosa, along with traditional South Indian dishes like sambhar saadam, were the staples I grew up eating. Chettinad cuisine is renowned for its bold and aromatic flavours, especially its non-vegetarian dishes. My mother and grandmother prepared authentic Chettinad non-veg dishes that I relished as a child -- Nattu Kozhi Podi Masala, Mutton Podimas, Mutton Kola, Mutton Chukka, Chettinad Chicken and Kaadai Masala.
Tell us about the roots of Chettinad cuisine.
I hail from Nedungudi, about 600 km South of Chennai. Nedungudi is a village of chefs and their assistants and Chettinad cuisines traces its roots from this village. The village and some neighbouring villages supply traditionally trained Chettinad cooks and assistants across the country. Only if you get a cook from Nedungudi can you get authentic Chettinad cooking according to me.
We hear there have been some big names including Prime Ministers and Presidents who have enjoyed your flavours.
Yes, Rajiv Gandhi who loved our Kal dosa with mutton curry. We have also cooked for MAM Ramaswamy, Shivaji Ganesan’s son Ramkumar and all of the weddings in P Chidambaram's family were catered for by us, including Karthi Chidambaram's.
What do you have in store for guests at this festival?
This food festival boasts of food from across the state. All these recipes have roots in small villages and are made with native ingredients which are fresh and wholesome. All the masalas will be made in-house and no processed ingredients will be used. We would be using traditional equipment like the ammikkal to make the masalas. While the recipes are traditional and made in the authentic style, the plating is very contemporary. Some of the signature dishes that will be available include Yera Thala paruppu charu, Chinna vengayam karungkozhi uppukari, Kodai milagai kondai masala, Sigapoo elaneer rasam, Anji masala kaadai porichadu, Kadali mundri kosa pattani poriyal, Pala pazham mundri payasam, Kirnee pazham payasam.
Are any stories behind any of these dishes?
There was an interesting incident that took place in 1985 during a Chettiar wedding. Wood fire is used for cooking in all Chettinad weddings. During the wedding food preparation, the kitchen heated up so much owing to the smoke from the wood fire, all his cooks left as they could not manage in the heat. He alone cooked a 1,000 pax lunch and dinner (wedding feast comprising more than 35 dishes) with just helpers.
Talk to us about essential spices and traditions like sun drying vegetables for storage all year round.
In Chettinad households, vegetables like okra (lady's finger), brinjal (eggplant), and sundakkai (turkey berry) are sliced or cut into pieces and sun-dried. This process involves spreading the vegetable pieces on clean, dry surfaces and leaving them in direct sunlight for several days until they are completely dehydrated. Once dried, these vegetables can be stored in airtight containers and used in various dishes throughout the year. Sun-dried vegetables are especially popular in traditional Chettinad curries and side dishes, where they add a unique depth of flavour.
At 90, what are some of the nuances of Chettinad cooking that you want to pass on to the next generation, so the flavours stay as close to their roots as possible?
Chettinad cuisine relies heavily on spice blends, and mastering the art of blending and roasting spices is essential.
I also want to pass on traditional cooking techniques like the use of the 'uruli' (a wide, shallow, cast-iron pan) for certain dishes. Slow cooking and simmering are key to developing the depth of flavours in Chettinad curries and gravies. And finally, treasured family recipes that have been handed down through generations. These are often the heart and soul of Chettinad cooking.
September 20 to 30. Dinner only. A la carte. Rs 2,000++ for veg, Rs 2,500++ for non-veg.