Book Review

‘A Fake Nair’ Puts Real Chettinad Cuisine on North Indian Mind Map & Finds A Heritage Gem

Posted: August 23, 2014 at 5:44 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

SUMEET NAIR first made headlines when he set up the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) and organised the first India Fasion Week in the late 1990s. That was a humongous achievement, for it is hard to get so many creative and opinionated people on to one platform. Nair moved out to pave the way for seasoned professionals — Vinod Kaul and Rathi Vinay Jha — till he was brought back again to stage a rescue act in 2007, for the FDCI was collapsing under the weight of competing egos. Nair (“the fake Nair,” as he calls himself, for he’s a Punjabi born and brought up in Mumbai), as they say, rose to the occasion and rescued the FDCI from certain disintegration.

All the diplomatic skills that this Stanford Economics graduate mastered during his stint with the FDCI must have helped him prise the secrets of the Chettiar table from the grande dame of Karaikudi, Meenakshi Meyyappan, for The Bangala Table: Flavors and Recipes from Chettinad. The effort took him six months and the book, another three years.

Nair, ironically, did not even about The Bangala’s existence some four years ago, when his good friends, hotelier Priya Paul and her husband Sethu Vaidyanathan, urged Nair and his wife, Gitanjali Kashyap, to spend their New Year’s Eve in Tamil Nadu, instead of the usual suspect, Goa. “Sethu drew up my itinerary and The Bangala was on it,” remembers Nair. Befittingly, the book is being released at The Park New Delhi on Tuesday, August 26, at a Chettiar-style sadya (feast) served on banana leaves, and hosted by Priya and Sethu.

A passionate cook (a trait he has inherited from his late parents, Sunny and Saroj Nair) with a personal collection of 400-500 cookbooks, Nair made innumerable trips to Karaikudi to master the combinations of spices and understand the nuances of the goondu maligai (berry-shaped round red chillies), which he now also uses to make kung pao chicken, and mor maligai, green chillies soaked in buttermilk and then dried. He also roped in Atul Sikand, shepherd of Facebook’s most vibrant recipe-sharing community, Sikandalous Cuisine (21,000-plus members, and counting!), to test the recipes and see whether they could be replicated at home. As many as 35 Sikandalous Cuisine members were roped in for the recipe tests and Sikand remembers that his Palam Vihar home was “smelling like heaven” after he made the Chicken Chettinad, which is nothing like what we are condemned to eat up north. “This book will re-define Chettinad cuisine as we understand it,” says Sikand.

When I first heard the name of the book, which is embellished by some fine examples of Rohit Chawla’s photography and has a short introduction to the Chettiar community by the ‘Chronicler of Madras’, S. Muthiah, I thought it was Bangla mis-pronounced. I was wrong.

Dating back to the 1910s, The Bangala is a heritage hotel recreated from an old ‘gentlemen’s club’ in Karaikudi, one of the three main seats (the other being Pudukottai and Sivaganga) of the mercantile, world-travelled and prosperous Chettiar community in Tamil Nadu. The Chettiars, as Guy Trebay of The New York Times recounts in his evocative Foreword, owned magnificent homes that had pillars made out of entire teak logs rafted from Burma via the Bay of Bengal and brackets made with African tusk ivory; Brescia marbles skirted the walls, the English ceramic tiles came from Minton and the crystal chandeliers, of course, could only come from Bohemia. Still, the men, their palatial mansions notwithstanding, had their own getaways for entertainment.

The Bangala, originally called the Senjai Bungalow, was one of them. It was developed by the MSMM family (the initials stand for Meyyappa, Settiappa, Meyyappa & Meyyappa), which had earned its fortunes in Ipoh, Malaysia. The family evidently was very important for Karaikudi — it built the area’s first school for girls, then established the town’s water supply system and was one of the founders of the local electricity supply corporation.

Unsurprisingly, back in 1936, the Senjai Bangala played host to Archibald Nye, the then Governor of Madras Presidency, who started his day with Fish Moley, Mutton Chops, Grilled Chicken, Buttered Eggs, Pears and Cream, Tea or Coffee, and Fruits, and ended it with Pigeon Soup, Fried Fish and Potato, Mutton Cutlet, Kidney Curry, Egg Pilav and Chicken Kurma, Brain Balls, Pudding, Dessert and Coffee, with Johnnie Walker being the tipple of choice!

After World War II, the Senjai Bungalow became the Town Club with its own tennis court and rummy room, but the high noon of socialism did not bode well for the MSMM family. Senjai Bungalow was in a state of utter neglect till, in 1998, two remarkable ladies of the family, Visalakshi Ramaswamy and Meenakshi Meyyappan, started working on its turnaround into a heritage hotel. Their vision was to make Chettinad a heritage tourism destination, showcasing the Chettiar houses and the work of the area’s sari weavers, and in the 15 years since the time The Bangala opened its doors, it has inspired half-a-dozen other heritage hotels to come up in Chettinad. Like so many success stories of the South, though, this one too eluded our attention. Nair has ensured it would no longer be so.