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The Masala Dabba #4, our spice journey“Chili, spice of red Thursday, which is the day of reckoning. Day which invites us to pick up the sack of our existence and shake it inside out. Day of suicide, day of murder.”
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Mistress of Spices

Time for The Masala Dabba #4 & Chettinad Chicken Curry. Both very delayed yet finally here. This time I’m lagging behind royally. Chilies was the pick for the month of April, and we’re well into May now June.  I can’t say I didn’t try because I began writing this in May, but life happened! One month ran into another, time racing at an alarming pace. It was just yesterday, in January 2016, when we began the spice journey. June already! Really? Where did April and May go?Chilies from Karaikudi

Chettinad Chicken Curry Only me to blame even as I thought April was going to be the most explosive spice journey ever as Dolphia picked chilies. Just back refreshed from a very exciting trip from down south in Karaikudi {do read about it here}, chilies was all I had on my mind. The vibrancy of the region we had just visited added to it. Heritage, colour, culture, architecture, art, cuisine, shopping…Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaAs I rather belatedly enter month #4 of our collaborative spice journey exploring or rather ‘shooting’ spices, a fun interaction with Dolphia, Simi, Meeta and me, April was for chilies. I really love the spice journey and the stories it carries with it. Personal tales, heritage recipes, travelogues and all sorts of inspiration that connect us as community. My story this time comes from Karaikudi, a region deep in the heart of South India.Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaOur stay at Chidambara Vilas, then a masterclass on world famous Chettinad Chicken Curry, stops at other heritage properties in the region and local market jaunts,  that included shopping for guntu chilies, inspires this post. Not least, my companions in crime, the two vegetarian bloggers Sanjeeta and Madhuli, who were more than ready to dive into chicken curry as the chef stirred it up, chilies and all!Gundu Chilies from Karaikudi This is just what Chettinad cuisine is all about, freshness and simple local flavour. Pure delight – the aromas of whole spices and shallots hitting hot oil, the curry leaves crackling, the colours, fresh simple ingredients, the location an outdoor heritage courtyard kitchen, the company, the curry! Sunset, Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaThe women of the Chettinad community were instrumental to managing the vast estates and running kitchens, often while the men were away. {More about the region here}. Easily available local spices and ingredients, traditional cooking methods and a deep interest in food led to a vast repertoire of recipes collectively called Chettinad cuisine. Chettinad Chicken Curry, Masterclass @ Chidambara Vilas, KaraikudiChettinad chicken is the regions most popular export to the culinary world, and it was nowhere fiery and spicy as I believed. A traditional recipe, it’s made with very basic ingredients. Spice mixes from roasted spices, ginger, garlic, shallots, tomatoes, curry leaves and coconut paste. Red chilies of course! Chilies from Karaikudi Shooting spices is therapeutic, inspiring and always fun. I mean, can you not fall in love with an ingredient that promises so much colour, character, variety and texture? Consider the fact that there are as many uses as varieties around the world and the charm multiplies! I’m thinking chili chocolate. Mmmm…Chilies from KaraikudiCooking curry is equally therapeutic and fun. You just need a basic recipe in your head, then go about throwing in as much spice, or as little, as you like. Taste as you go. I do loads of North Indian chicken curries at home, so this authentic South Indian one was even more engaging. Chettinad Chicken Curry Of course I deviated here and there. Bay leaves tossed in, fresh mint tossed over. That’s just the charm of curries. Follow your palate.Chettinad Chicken Curry

Chettinad Chicken Curry
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Chettinad Chicken Curry; mildly hot, tangy and finger licking good. Simple basic pantry staples and a coconut paste ​​make for a hearty good curry. This is my rendition of the curry we learnt at the masterclass.
Servings Prep Time
4-6 people 20 minutes
Cook Time
30 minutes
Servings Prep Time
4-6 people 20 minutes
Cook Time
30 minutes
Chettinad Chicken Curry
Print Recipe
Chettinad Chicken Curry; mildly hot, tangy and finger licking good. Simple basic pantry staples and a coconut paste ​​make for a hearty good curry. This is my rendition of the curry we learnt at the masterclass.
Servings Prep Time
4-6 people 20 minutes
Cook Time
30 minutes
Servings Prep Time
4-6 people 20 minutes
Cook Time
30 minutes
Ingredients
750g chicken on the bone, cut into 12 pieces {skinless}
Spice 1 / Dry mix
1 tsp ginger paste
Spice 2 / Coconut paste
Servings: people
Instructions
  1. First make the spice mixes. These can be doubled, and/or made in advance. Store the dry mic=x in a cool place, and the wet mix in the fridge for 2-3 days, else freeze.
  2. Spice mix 1 / Dry mix
  3. Roast the fennel, cumin seeds, red chili, coriander seeds and pepper gently over low heat until fragrant. Dry grind. Reserve in bowl.
  4. Spice mix 2 / Coconut paste
  5. Roast the cashew nuts, coriander seeds, cumin, red chilies, fennel and black pepper gently over low heat until fragrant. Grind to a smooth paste with ginger, garlic and grated coconut. Reserve.
  6. Heat the oil in large heavy bottom pan or wok. Add cinnamon stick, star anise and fennel, followed by curry leaves. Give it a good stir and add the shallots. Sauté until the shallots are golden brown and fragrant.
  7. Add Spice Mix 1 {dry masala mix}, ginger paste, chopped tomatoes, coriander powder and turmeric powder. Stir well and cook until the tomatoes are soft, stirring once in a while.
  8. Add the chicken pieces and stir well to coat them with the spices, followed by crushed garlic. Add a little water, about a cup, stir well, season with salt and simmer until the chicken is cooked.
  9. Now stir in the coconut paste or Spice Mix 2, fresh coriander. Garnish with fresh coriander {or mint as I did}
  10. Serve hot with rice or chapatis, paratha, naan, tandoori roti etc.
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Triple Cheese 'Moozberry' Cheesecake ... Mooz Formaggio, local artisan cheese at its best“Dessert without cheese is like a beauty with only one eye”
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Triple Cheese Moozberry Cheesecake must be one of the best cheesecakes I have made. Ever. And I have made many over the years, almost all with homemade quark, and they’ve all been special. Yet this one turned out to be even better. It baked up perfectly, has a mix of 3 soft cheeses in it, and the most delicious topping of balsamic cherries infused with rosemary and vanilla. If it wasn’t good enough, I topped it with green almonds which are also in season these days. You can imagine, well almost, how wonderful this might have been.Cherries

Green almonds

Triple Cheese 'Moozberry' Cheesecake And of course  I need to explain why it’s called a Triple Cheese Moozberry Cheesecake. Well the guys from Mooz Formaggio were nice enough to send me a huge lot of their cheese range to sample.  Their range has been developed and designed by a fourth generation Italian cheesemaker. Delightfully enough, the Mooz folk are manufacturing all their cheese here locally and it matches up to admirably to imported cheese available.Mooz CheeseFor those who do know me, dairy is my weakness, and fresh cheese even more. For those who don’t know me, well now you do!! Fresh cheese has long held me fascinated. That it is not processed, that is has a million uses other than just eating out of a bowl or tub, that it is healthy as well as healthier than imported/processed cheese are huge pluses for me. I’ve explored and made fresh cheese – mascarpone, ricotta, quark, cottage cheese for really long, and in turn done several desserts with them.Cherries & green almondsSavoury stuff too, but what I really do enjoy is desserts using unripened f soft cheese. When I make quark myself, I just chuck it into a concoction, play around a little and then bake. When Mooz showed up, it was a new level of luxury. Imagine, I didn’t have to make my own cheese, so the mind went into overdrive. The plan was for a mascarpone galette with cherries. A nice batch of cherries recently pitted and frozen seemed just right for a wholegrain galette.Triple Cheese 'Moozberry' Cheesecake The mind is a strange place when creative ideas get buzzing. Just looking at the little tubs suddenly got me thinking further, and I knew it had to be a cheesecake. Time to experiment. I grabbed the ricotta, quark and cream cheese and turned the oven on. The recipe is simple, an experiment on a quark cheesecake I make often. This time I added zest of a Bitter Citron Lemon that Sanjeeta mailed me from Chennai, and also zest from a lime from the garden. They say lime zest cuts out any eggy aromas from a cake, and ‘they’ weren’t wrong!Triple Cheese 'Moozberry' Cheesecake Must admit to a million butterflies in my tummy as the cheesecake baked. I had my fingers crossed on this one. How I wished it would turn out well. It baked up beautifully, water bath and all, the tin size worked just perfect too, no cracks on top, didn’t sink like a crater. I was thrilled. An overnight rest in the fridge and I was up early next morning to do a topping, cherries of course. I infused them with some fresh rosemary, a few sprigs that have turned into a plant ex Switzerland, some bitter citron zest from down south, and some aged balsamic and brown sugar.

Cherries and rosemaryDarned delicious if I may say so myself, and fabulous pairing with cheesecake. The cheesecake itself darned delicious too, and got a standing ovation. You should must try making it. To cut the calories, or maybe extra work, or both, you can even go crust-less. Maybe bake mini cheesecakes.

Triple Cheese 'Moozberry' Cheesecake The entire line from Mooz is really really good, including the sour cream. So many varieties, such great flavour. You are literally spoilt for choice as far as sour cream goes. Lemon, peri peri, jalapeno, chipotle {one of our favourites}, yes they have them all. I did a quick smoked chicken farelle with the chipotle sour cream, flavoured with loads of garlic, with fresh lime and rosemary from the garden. Turned out great. Even crumbed chicken with sour cream is yum!! And nachos of course!!Mooz Pasta Also really good  are the Chili Toasty and Plain Toasty, generous stringy cheese slices for grilled sandwiches. Quite addictive and great quality, your grilled toast might never be the same again. The Chili Toasty especially has a great chili flavour and kick. The only cheese that disappointed was the mozzarella which had a slight bitter aftertaste. Not sure why that happened as all the cheese was perfectly stored and from the same batch.Triple Cheese 'Moozberry' Cheesecake

 

Baking | Triple Cheese 'Moozberry' Cheesecake... local artisan cheese at its best!
Print Recipe
Triple Cheese Moozberry Cheesecake must be one of the best cheesecakes I have made. It baked up perfectly, has a mix of 3 soft cheeses in it, and the most delicious topping of balsamic cherries infused with rosemary and vanilla. If it wasn't good enough, I topped it with green almonds which are also in season these days. The best thing is that this uses locally produced artisan cheese from Mooz.
Servings Prep Time
6-8 people 15 minutes
Cook Time
1 hour
Servings Prep Time
6-8 people 15 minutes
Cook Time
1 hour
Baking | Triple Cheese 'Moozberry' Cheesecake... local artisan cheese at its best!
Print Recipe
Triple Cheese Moozberry Cheesecake must be one of the best cheesecakes I have made. It baked up perfectly, has a mix of 3 soft cheeses in it, and the most delicious topping of balsamic cherries infused with rosemary and vanilla. If it wasn't good enough, I topped it with green almonds which are also in season these days. The best thing is that this uses locally produced artisan cheese from Mooz.
Servings Prep Time
6-8 people 15 minutes
Cook Time
1 hour
Servings Prep Time
6-8 people 15 minutes
Cook Time
1 hour
Ingredients
Crust
Balsamic Rosemary Infused Cherries
Servings: people
Instructions
Crust
  1. Preheat the oven to 200C. Line the base of an 8″ loose bottomed tin with parchment, and lightly grease sides..
  2. Run the biscuits, chilled butter and whole almonds in food processor until ground and a moist crumb forms. {Thermomix: Speed 8, 10 seconds, repeat once}
  3. Turn into the baking tin and press the crumbs into the base, building up the sides a bit if desired. Chill while you preheat the oven, and make the filling.
Filling
  1. Place the quark, ricotta, cream cheese, egg yolks, cornflour, 40g sugar,vanilla, cream and lime zest if using into the bowl of your food processor and run on medium speed till smooth. {Thermomix: Speed 6, 10 seconds}
  2. Beat the whites with the remaining 90g sugar to firm peaks. Gently fold this through the quark cheese mixture and pour over the biscuit base.
  3. Bake at 200C for 15 minutes, and then at 180C for about 45 minutes until firm.
  4. Allow to cool completely in oven, leaving the door ajar.
  5. Cover well and chill before serving, preferably overnight. Serve topped with Balsamic Rosemary Infused Cherries.
Balsamic Rosemary Infused Cherries
  1. Place all ingredients in heavy bottom non reactive pan and simmer gently for 5-7 minutes, until cherries soften. Taste and adjust sweetness if required.
  2. Remove cherries to a bowl, and reduce syrup in pan until nice an thick. Strain over reserved cherries, discarding the vanilla bean and rosemary. Chill completely before topping cheesecake.
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Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India“Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.”
Judith Thurman

This year has been a bit of a travel story. Yet when food meets regional cuisine, it cooks up a charming new story each time not matter which part of the world you go to. India is no different, but it is much more complex. Every city surprises you with so much variety that regional cuisine takes up a new avatar. A trip to Lakshman Sagar in Rajasthan early this year, then a much planned and absolutely exciting trip into Banaras the next month filled my head with stories, the camera with images that would live to tell the tale, and the stomach so full. As if that wasn’t enough, there was one more trip that was surreal.Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India This one. To Karaikudi. What’s that? Where? Huh? Those were the questions folk asked when they heard the 3 of us, Sanjeeta, Madhuli and I were bound for the Chettinad region. It’s not everyday that one would head to Karaikudi, a city buried deep down south, an overnight train journey from Chennai. To be honest, it was a pretty hair-brained plan, a plan to shop, eat, to catch up with each other after we met at the IFBM 2 years ago. Also a plan to explore a region that had long fascinated me, with stories from Sanjeeta who’d been there several times. I had dreamt about it for a few years.Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaNothing prepares you for what you might see, or rather experience in this region. As the train slowed down entering the suburbs of Puddukotai, we got a tiny glimpse – an abandoned mansion, tall pillars, arches, tiled roof, large yard, hidden stories, right in the middle of nowhere! As the train pulled into Chettinad, a neat little almost private station, it’s a different time zone altogether. Alongside the station lies the former resting house of the Raja of Chettinad, and you enter a fascinating part of history.

Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaSlow country life, no one in a hurry, gentle quiet folk, the echo of chai/coffee, sun already sharp 7am, azure blue skies, monkeys bouncing off trees. History greets you as you hit the highway. In the distance the Thirumayam Fort, a fortress built by the Raja of Ramnad in 1687 stands tall. Next to it, a rock cut temple. Thirumayam Fort, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaKaraikudi the biggest city in Sivaganga district is known as the capital of Chettinad, because of the predominance of the ‘Nattu Kottai Chettiars’. This elite business community, a prosperous group of bankers/money lenders, expanded their business to South and South East Asia in the 19th and 20th century, mainly towards Ceylon and Burma. Changing winds of trade and world politics eventually led them backto India, where they made this their traditional base.Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaThis 600 acre region is home to 74 villages. Barren roads, scant traffic, an odd scooter/moped, cattle, laid back lifestyle, huge mansions, local Chettinad food and temples dominate the landscape. Paddy fields, fresh ground spices, temples, tall trees, tiled roofs, community water tanks, roosters, cattle, peacocks pretty much make up the local environment. And those mansions! That is possibly the most fascinating part of the Chettinad, a rich cultural heritage hidden deep in South India.Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaWhile the area is dotted by almost 20,000 massive mansions, most have fallen to decay. Stripped by greedy antique dealers, locked over custody battles, or just plain abandoned, a few have been painstakingly restored to their former glory. Painstakingly indeed because it is no minor task given the power, opulence and finances this money lending community enjoyed. One such lovingly restored residence is the Chidambaram Vilas, a luxury heritage property near Karaikudi, that we experienced on our short visit there.

Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India The heritage rooms at Chidambara Vilas recreates the ambience of authentic Chettiar lifestyles. This is visible in the attention to details, from the vintage hand operated panka fans to even the switches which are designed in a format from a previous era. This is also reflected in the furnishings to the lighting and the design elements like Athangudi tiles, the wooden roofing and panelling. Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India The rooms at Chidambara Vilas are the most authentic Chettiar experience available today, and is the result of a painstaking effort at renovation, which involved the use of innovative and creative techniques to blend old world charm without compromising on luxury.

Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India One step into the cool interiors of Chidambaram Vilas, the reception yielding way to covered corridors, stone courtyards, fine wood work, Italian marble, carved beams in Burma teak, handmade tiles, egg white washed walls, fine chandeliers, grandfather clocks. You know this is something special, maybe more than special. The interiors aren’t very flashy yet scream good quality and craftsmanship, refined taste and a subdued grandeur reflective of the Chettiars. Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India Tranquility defined our stay there, a strange peace and quiet that one craves for. The perfect symmetry held my attention, the intricate designs mesmerising. Pillars, wooden beams, tiles, stained glass, doors, chairs, windows, arches – everything handcrafted in beautiful patterns. Unbelievable. The aesthetics, the colour palette, the soothing marble meets wood and wood meets marble.

Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India 5The sheer scale of near royal magnificence cannot be put into words. I tried to capture some of this well restored heritage property that took about 3 years to be brought back to its former glory. There are a clutch of heritage properties that operate out of restored mansions in the region. Staying here comes at a bit of a cost, but it’s justified. You won’t find this anywhere in the world. Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India It’s difficult to imagine that some of the finest residential properties of the world are nested here in a rather unknown corner of the world. Every minute here was worth our time. Here just for 2 days and a night, we decided to make most of our precious trip. Cuisine, architecture and temples are the three things that seem to define Chettinad. Temples, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Temples, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India A temple every 200 yards or so, and a good chance of coming eye to eye with a rooster in the next! Tea and coffee roadside shacks, deep fried snacks, palm jaggery, rangolis, fresh produce, flowers to offer God, water bodies, well laid out roads, old mansions, simple folk, cows, cricket, so much in this scorching heat. Oh yes, and little kids dressed in their Sunday best for the quintessential temple visit.Tea, Pillaiyarpatti, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Karpppaga Vinayar Temple, Pillaiyarpatti, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Karpppaga Vinayar Temple, Pillaiyarpatti, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Karpppaga Vinayar Temple, Pillaiyarpatti, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaIndia is absolutely fascinating! We immersed ourselves in the ambiance, authentic and exciting, both at Chidambaram Vilas and driving around the region.  The Chettinad belt is possibly most famous across the world for its cuisine as the Chettiars specialised in good food.Masterclass, Chicken Chettinad, Chettinadu cuisine, Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India The most famous of course is the Chettinadu Chicken Curry for which we had a masterclass at Chidambaram Vilas. My other companions, vegetarians to boot, were ready to devour the curry once made as it smelt SO GOOD. Of course I came back and stirred one at home, and will share the chefs version soon. The Chettinadu Chicken Curry is as simple as it is flavourful. Very frugal, basic pantry ingredients resulted in delicious curry, finger licking good curry! As characteristic of regional Indian cuisine, every household has its own version.Chettinadu cuisine ,Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaThe women of the community were instrumental to managing the vast estates and running kitchens, often while the men were away. Easily available local spices and ingredients, traditional cooking methods and a deep interest in food led to a vast repertoire of recipes collectively called Chettinad cuisine. Chettinad chicken is the regions most popular export to the culinary world, and it was nowhere fiery and spicy as I believed. A traditional recipe, it is made with very basic ingredients, spice mixes from roasted spices, ginger, garlic, shallots, tomatoes, curry leaves and of course coconut paste. Masterclass, Chicken Chettinad, Chettinadu cuisine, Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaMeals served Chettiar style, on banana leaves, make up a typical lunch meal, as lavish and as filling as it sounds. Beginning with a rasam, drumstick or beetroot, a sweet rice offering, a line of kuttoos, pickles, chutneys, papad, crispy fried banana chips, dal vada, rice, sambhar, quintessential drizzle of ghee, fried fish, yogurt raita, a sago pudding or payasam to finish. The helping might be just a tbsp each, yet by then end of the meal you can barely move.Chettinadu cuisine, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India We retired to our room for an hour, and then set out under the blazing sun to look around Karaikudi. A visit to the local market was delightful. Small scale sellers, FRESH greens, organic produce, a very ‘farm to table’ slow living existence. They are a self sufficient community. You find everything and more there. Vegetables, sacks of spices, coconuts, coconut graters, rope, cast iron pans, woven baskets, pickling jars.Chettinadu cuisine, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India A step deeper into the market into dusty unnamed by-lanes revealed treasures we’ve been waiting for. Karaikudi is virtually a shoppers paradise for vintage lovers and collectors. It’s not easy to get around and communicate as language is a hindrance so do get a good local guide {or a willing local friend as was our case}. Begin walking and wander around nameless little alleyways, up nondescript staircases, into dusty rooms and keep your eyes open. You never know what you might spot! Kitchen collectibles is what we went for, and that we got plenty of, or rather saw!Shopping in Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India Enamelware by the truckload, every shape and size makes your heartbeat race, race too quick. Yet there is only that much you can stuff into a suitcase, so it’s more a feast for your eyes. Rows upon rows of kitchenware which once made up dowry for new Chettiar brides line every nook and corner. Nothing comes cheap anymore. Different quality cook and serve ware demands different prices, including fine quality enamelware from Sweden and Czechoslovakia. Shopping in Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaMost enamelware was never used, still with labels on from a 100 years ago, as it didn’t suit local traditional cooking methods. It was local tradition to gift the Chettiar bride fine imported enamelware, crystal, silverware etc. Most enamelware has landed up in sheds for sale. There was loads of brass ware too as it is hardly used in houses now, stainless steel having won the battle of modern day cookware!Shopping in Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Shopping in Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India Most shops are a cornucopia of everything. An odd chandelier hangs lonely from the ceiling, a rocking chair high up on a shelf, enamelware and earthenware mixed up, some china that’s lost its family, odd pieces, dust laden. Family portraits dumped into large rooms, once lovingly shot in studios and framed for grand walls, now on sale without buyers. Every piece had perhaps a hidden story of glorious days gone by, days that fell to nought with depleting fortunes.

Shopping in Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India The second world war called an end to the golden age of the Chettiar moneylenders as local politics meant the shut down of banking businesses in Myanmar, Burma etc. Their massive fortunes disappeared overnight, the community forced to return to India. Shopping in Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaWhile they still are a very influential banking community in India, especially down south, those days of glory never returned. Large hand crafted iron keys and infinite heavy safes in all sizes and dimensions stand silent testimony to the times gone by. You can imagine the fortunes they guarded!Sunrise at rooftop, Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaEarly morning we attempted to see sunrise from the rooftop of the Chidambaram Vilas. Up a spiral stairwell in pitch dark, the seemingly never-ending stone steps were like a page out of an Enid Blyton book, mysterious and almost claustrophobic. One step onto the rooftop of and it was just another world. Sunrise at rooftop, Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaThe tops of the Vilas bathed in early morning light were a stunning sight. Beautiful architecture, palatial mansions as far as the eye could see. Most of them abandoned, in a state of neglect, yet the vastness of the community in good times was palpable. Each house has its own architecture, its individual character, bits and bobs from Ceylon, maybe Burma. Yet most big mansions follow a similar basic layout. An external entrance area/courtyard, a reception, an inner enclosed hallway, then maybe a private courtyard bathed in sunlight often covered by grills, surrounded my numerous living quarters, separate dining areas for every course, outhouses for staff, community and private kitchens etc.

Chettinadu cuisine, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India The houses hold hidden tales of the golden years, of untold riches, of classy extravagance beyond belief. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you wake up to the foolish knowledge that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Most mansions are jaw dropping from within. One such house we stopped by to see was Laxmi Vilas, which has been maintained like a local museum and charges a fee to look around. Quite an unassuming property, a small entrance right on the street, yet one step within and it’s like entering a period home where India meets Europe. Laxmi Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Laxmi Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India Italian marble, mirrors from Belgium, Belgian tiles that cover the floor and ceiling, gold touched fittings, hand painted frescoes both from Europe and local mythology, Burma teak pillars. Outer courtyards that yield way to inner courtyards, that further yield way inner most courtyard, doors with numbers, tiles that celebrate an era of plenty, dining rooms to seat hundreds, with wooden beams and high ceilings, woodwork on wooden ceilings that feel like a church in England, stained glass, doors and windows that open in all directions. Some opening into outhouses, huge community kitchens, everything reflecting meticulous planning and superior quality. Laxmi Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaThere was a method to the design, deeply thought and well executed. Every door and window made to exact specs, hand-carved wooden beams, etched glass, murals. The mind wonders, ‘HOW? How was so much even possible?’ Prime teak from Burma was tied to ships sailing across high seas and delivered to Indian shores, well seasoned by sea water along the way. The teak still stands tall. The same for spiral wrought iron staircases from Manchester. Failing fortunes meant a generation of artisans lost, livelihoods lost to politics of the world.Visalam, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaYet another heritage property we stopped by was Visalam. That is another stunning ‘experience hotel, an 80 year old traditional home built by a father as a gift for his daughter. It has a hugely colonial feel to it, yellow verandahs, bougainvilleas, water harvesting pots, shaded courtyards, lush green lawns, a traditional kitchen and master classes, an in house baker, a spiral staircase imported from Manchester, big game room drenched with rays of the setting sun, Belgian mirrors, vintage Phillip radio, old ceiling fans, board games – every detail so fascinating. Visalam, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India We were invited to Visalam for a meal, but with our tight schedule all we managed was a hurried cup of coffee, a delicious wholewheat banana cashew loaf cake baked inhouse, and addictive  paniyarams served in a quaint poolside cafe. Bliss! Such a pretty place, and so vastly different from the others. So much character! Most luxury properties built pools later; that was not part of local culture a 100 years ago.Visalam, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India 1000Most villages with mansions are well laid out, in a grid system, where often it is one mansion per street. A look down and you can see the whole house, one end to the other, then visualise what lies behind the tall stone walls. Several garage doors, doors to outhouses, little balconies all open into side streets.

Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India The main porch shines like a beacon and opens into the main street. The richer the Chettiar, the bigger his mansion, the closer it often is to the center of the village. The centre often has a community water body, with a temple alongside. Interestingly, the region houses one little village that is under 100% CCTV coverage. The mansions here have too many valuables within to ship out, so this particular community got together to secure the village!Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaIn the short time we were in Karaikudi, we also managed a trip into Athangudi to see how floor tiles are made. Tile making here is a traditional local craft. Tiles handmade here are in vibrant colours, reflective of the rich cultural heritage of the Chettiar community. They have their own distinct charm.

Athangudi Tiles, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Athangudi Tiles, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India It’s a fascinating process, a skill which is slowly fading away, yet is world famous. The tiles are handmade mixing white cement, sand and pigments, then poured into molds. With increasing wear and tear on Belgian tiles, it became expensive to constantly import them. That created a demand for local tiles, and the artisans believed that the earth from their land was best suited for these.Athangudi Tiles, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Athangudi Tiles, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India 3Designs from European tiles were replicated and mixed with local colours to develop a characteristic local specialty in dusty hot corrugated roofed sheds. These tiles are 100% handmade, eco friendly and are being used across hotels and homes in the region. The process is time consuming, labour intensive, and also a dying legacy due to limited artisans. They are quite expensive and have carved a small niche for themselves.Sunrise, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Sunset, Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaWhat we didn’t manage was to see was the weaving of cotton sarees that are special to the region, the kandaangis. In earthy bold hues like the colours of the rising and setting southern sun, orange, red and black dominate the weave. If Banarsi saris are inspired by the hues of sunrise, then the kandaangi weave truly meets the sun on the other side. A stop by the weavers was on our list of things to do, but we just couldn’t manage it. We’ll be back!Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India Still we managed much more than we could ever imagine. 2 days can never be enough for a place as beautifully, and as historically and culturally rich like this. Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaI’d definitely like to go back again, maybe when it is cooler. There’s so much more to explore, so many heritage sites in the region, ongoing ASI excavations, forts, temples, artisans, kitchens. Also so many more doors and windows, small things that fascinate me. Here are some I managed to capture.Doors and windows of Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India Incredible! Just so incredible!!

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