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Chettinad is a region in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and the Chettinad cuisine comes from the Nattukottai Chettiars of the region. The food preparations have been the result of an amalgam of spice trade between Vietnam, Malaysia, Laos, Myanmar, Srilanka and Indonesia and is characterised by freshly ground spices in their dishes. The food has piquancy, huge amount of chillies, pungent spices and pepper.
Chettinad cuisine is one of the the spiciest in India, which is very apparent in all the dishes requiring a ton of red chillies ground to a powder. If you’re like me and would prefer not to experience gut-burning, flaming intestines and a miserable night of heartburn requiring copious amounts of Tums and Gelusil and still experience the flavours of the region, here’s how to go about it.
I stumbled upon this wonderful recipe for Chettinad chicken and decided to adapt it to my own tastes. On a day when I didn’t have chicken, I used mutton and it came out just as well. Mutton as a meat requires way more time to cook and get tender so this takes a longer time on the gas. You could even try it in a pressure cooker but I feel that the flavours would probably come out better with slow cooking. I also adjusted the spices to my preference and kept the chillies and some of the other condiments whole, just enough to get the flavour without the searing intensity. I also use oil pretty conservatively so you won’t find my food swimming in it.
Here’s my take on Chettinad pepper mutton. I kept coconut out of it as my kids are allergic and just didn’t have the energy to make a separate dish only for them. Will experiment with it another day and if it comes out well, you’ll get to know. For now, here goes.
500 gms boneless mutton cut into approx 1 inch cubes
3 tbsp oil
1 level tsp whole black mustard seeds
2 tsp fennel seeds
3 inch long cinnamon stick (broken up)
4 green cardamom pods
3 long dry red chillies (kashmiri mirch not the bird’s eye variety)
2 medium onions sliced finely
2 tsp ginger paste
4 tsp garlic paste
1/2 cup curry leaves
3 medium tomatoes blended into a paste
1 tsp cumin seeds
3 tsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp black peppercorns roughly crushed
1 heaped tsp salt
Get Started (pictorial steps below)
- Dry roast the cumin and coriander seeds in a pan and when cooled, grind them into a powder and set aside.
- Heat the oil in the pan and throw in the mustard and fennel seeds, which should begin to sputter. Then add the cinnamon, cardamom and dry red chillies and stir for six to seven seconds. You can keep the heat on medium here, else your spices will burn quick.
- Add the onion and stir. After 10 seconds, add the ginger and garlic paste and mix. Add the cumin and coriander powder and the curry leaves and keep stirring till the spices start going a bit dark and you get the aroma. Should take around 3 – 4 minutes. If you find the spices sticking to the bottom of the pan you can add about 3 – 4 tablespoons of water to de-glaze the bottom of the pan.
- Add the mutton and mix. Then add the salt, crushed peppercorns and keep stirring for about 15 to 20 minutes till the meat has become nicely brown.
- Add the tomato paste, stir for about two to three minutes and add one litre of water to the pan, stir well till everything has been incorporated and simmer on medium-low heat with the lid on for an hour, checking and stirring intermittently. Taste to check seasoning.
- You can choose to make it a gravy dish or a dry dish. After an hour, take off the lid and if there’s a lot of gravy, increase the heat to high and stir well till the water evaporates, if you want a dry dish. If the dish has become too dry, add half a cup of water to it and simmer on medium heat till you get the right consistency.
Important notes: Do not add the tomato paste before the meat as it will slow down the cooking process.
Keep a glass of water by the side. You can use it to de-glaze the bottom of the pan if you feel your spices are sticking to the bottom and are at the risk of getting burnt. Add a few tablespoons of water just to de-glaze and cook the ingredients well till the water evaporates again.