To Eat Like a Chettiar: An Afternoon with Meenakshi Meyappan

To Eat Like a Chettiar: An Afternoon with Meenakshi Meyappan

Meenakshi Meyappan shares lessons and memories from running the Bangala, an award-winning hotel in Chettinad, for twenty years.

“If I was told to light the fire, or to even light the stove, I wouldn’t know how,” laughs Meenakshi Meyappan, when asked about her cooking style. A revelation that takes us by surprise, given that she is generally regarded as the guardian of Chettinad cuisine.

We meet Meenakshi at the Bombay Canteen, where she and her staff are overlooking a two-week Chettinad pop-up; a collaboration between the Bombay Canteen and The Bangala, an award-winning family-run boutique hotel in Karaikudi, Chettinad. Chef Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen is passionate about bringing lesser known cuisines into the limelight, and Chettinad food, with its unique flavours and textures, deserves all the attention it can get.  

Chettinad, which translates to Land of the Chettiars, is made up of 74 villages and towns in the arid southern districts of Tamil Nadu. The Nattukottai Chettiars, after whom the region is named, are a merchant community that have a penchant for trade, beautiful mansions, and good food. Originally from Kanchipuram, the community migrated to Kaveripoompattinam, eventually settling in a group of villages close to Madurai. Although the move took them further inland, the Chettiars continued to have strong sea-faring ties. They traded salt, precious stones and textiles. Later, during the British rule, the Chettiars developed their business acumen to include banking, taking their money-lending skills to far flung lands such as Malaysia, Burma, Singapore, and Vietnam.

With the end of the colonial era, Chettiar wealth began to dwindle. But not before, between mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they built close to 15,000 mansions in their homeland. These opulent villas, many of which contain as many as 50 rooms, showcase materials and furniture from their travels abroad: massive doors made with solid Burmese teak, chandeliers made from Venetian crystals, Italian tiles with delicate detailing, and intricate Belgian glass.

Most of the homes lie empty these days — the Chettiars have since moved away to Chennai, Sri Lanka and Singapore — but the mansions, although in various states of ruin, serve as a snapshot of a community at the peak of its powers.

Image credit: Mysliceofpizza

Image credit: Mysliceofpizza

If Chettinad could be distilled into a feeling, it would be the melancholy of a settlement forgotten in time. Working hard to remedy this are Chettiars like Meenakshi Meyappan who want to open up Chettinad to the world. “When we started [the Bangala], the main objective was to make Chettinad known. Having people come to stay and enjoy the food wasn’t what we thought of. We wanted Chettinad to be known, and unless we ran a good hotel, people wouldn’t come.”

And known it is. In 2018, The Bangala was listed #28 on Conde Nast Traveller’s Top Restaurant Awards, an accomplishment Meenakshi is proud to point out. Chettinad food serves as an intangible map of all the lands the Chettiars have traded with — there is chill garlic grilled fish, as you might find on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, and meat gravies that echo the sweet-sour flavours of Singapore. Although trade encouraged the Chettiars to rethink their vegetarianism, the cuisine boasts of many unique vegetarian preparations that are a delight of unusual textures and flavours.  

chettinad bangala meenakshi meyappan

A meal at the Bangala provides the perfect opportunity to acquaint oneself with the many wonders of the Chettinad culinary canon. Madhur Jaffery who visited the Bangala recounts the variety of dishes she sampled here: “Fresh prawns from the tip of India, king fish slices smeared with spices and pan-fried, okra cooked with tamarind and the tiniest of baby shallots, green beans in a coconut milk sauce, a soupy rasam made with fresh crabs, chicken with black pepper, cashew curry, a mousse of tender young coconut [...] there is more offered at every meal than you could dream up.”  As the saying goes, one is lucky to eat like a Chettiar. Helmed by Meenakshi, the kitchen employs eight, churning out multi-course meals, each one deserving a two-hour nap after. While most of the courses consist of traditional Chettinad fare, dinner features a European course, a nod to her childhood, when Meenakshi’s Irish governess would make a ‘Western’ meal every evening.

A typical day for Meenakshi begins a little differently than what every article about a successful entrepreneur would have you believe — “I like to wake up late”, she chuckles. “No later than 8 a.m.,” she adds quickly. Each meal at the Bangala is planned by Meenakshi, first thing in the morning, even when she is away. Once the menu is decided, she gets down to the business of running her home — a large chateau, where she lives with her staff. At 11:30 a.m., she heads over to the Bangala, where she spends the rest of the day, until well past the dinner service. Here, she spends a considerable amount of time getting to know her guests, making them comfortable, and in the process, making friends. “You shouldn’t go into hospitality if you don’t like people,” she explains.

Image credit: The Bangala

Image credit: The Bangala

Other than running a house and an award-winning hotel, Meenakshi has also co-authored two books: The Bangala Table and Mansions of Chettinad. The Bangala Table is a stunning cookbook that captures the culinary legacy of the hotel in recipes and photographs. Published in 2014, it has done much to make Chettinad food more accessible. If a recipe is an intangible record of history, it is imperative that the Chettinad cuisine is preserved, and the Bangala is its foremost champion.

Unlike other heritage hotels in the area, the Bangala isn’t a typical Chettiar mansion. Instead, it is a British-style bungalow that was originally a gentlemen’s club. The building fell into ruins, and Meenakshi and her family made the decision to restore the building, giving it a new lease of life. “When we started, we had just four rooms, and could accommodate eight guests in total!”

Twenty years later, the hotel has 30 rooms and buzzes with the energy of guests — some new, but many making their yearly pilgrimage — who have checked out of their busy lives to spend a few days basking in the scorching Karaikudi sunshine, and the far gentler warmth of Meenakshi’s hospitality.

With family photographs on almost every wall, colourful stained glass windows, and pots of bougainvillea stretching lazily over white walls, nodding gently in the warm breeze, the Bangala gives you the feeling of being in an ancestral home. When Meenakshi says “I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur, more like a hostess receiving people in her home,” I understand why.

While Chettinad in general has an air of an abandoned ghost town, constantly looking to the past, the Bangala is different. Meenakshi is one of the few Chettiars who continues to live in her hometown, reinventing and carving a new niche for herself through the Bangala, while celebrating the past. She does this with pragmatism and a lack of sentimentality that is disarming. “I’m just doing this to keep me busy. It’s daily routine now. I always tell my daughters and daughters’-in-law, once your children are grown and don’t need you anymore, it’s important to find a hobby to keep yourself busy — But the funny thing is, I can’t even call this a hobby, because I don’t even cook!”

The ‘Canteen Chettinad Table ‘ In Collaboration with The Bangala is running at The Bombay Canteen until May 19, 2019.

Aysha Tanya is the co-founder of The Goya Journal

Banner image credit: The Bangala