Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The History of Chettinad Peppercorn Chicken

Chettinad Peppercorn Chicken
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
Southern India’s wealth of culinary tradition has a vast history that is intricately woven with the spice and rice growing business.  In the middle ages, or late in the tenth century, in the deep south where curtains of sweet fragrant rain move across the damp green landscapes, a vast empire untouched by events in the West and Central Asia had begun to lay down their roots.  They were the people called Cholas, and their heartland was the valley and delta of the Kavery, the life giving, sacred river of southern India.  The Kavery river rises in the southwestern region of Karnataka and its mighty waters flow in a southeastern direction towards Tamil Nadu, where it finally descends the Eastern Ghats in rumbles of clashing thunder.  Coconut palm trees sway as far as the eyes can see over the emerald landscape along with rolling soft fields of rice.      

The Cholas were one of the greatest civilizations of the times and during their golden age, their province was one the richest.  They dominated the southern landscape and they remained in power until the late thirteenth century.  It was an age of artistic and cultural achievement in some of the most impressive ways which led to the flourishing of music, dance, poetry, sculpture, painting, architecture, literacy, and culinary delicacies.  The Cholas may have seen their glory fade as their capital Tanjore has been built over by new empires, but their legacy still stands in Tamil Nadu.  At the heartbeat of the city, stands the monument of the Chola people, the jeweled Brihadeeswara Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Monument.  At the time when it was built, the Cholas had reshaped the medieval world in the south and their king Rajaraja Chola, was considered the king of kings. 

During the Chola period several castes and dominant guild communities emerged.  Traders and merchants organized themselves into guilds.  The farmers occupied one of the highest positions in society, they were the nobility or the landed aristocracy whom grew rice and the highly valued peppercorns known as “black gold”.  Kochi, in Kerala is the center of India’s spice trade, and the aromas of cardamom, coriander, cumin and cinnamon, lingering out of warehouses scent the air in the old town with its winding narrow streets and chatter in the ancient Tamil language.  

A prominent caste that became important in subsequent dynasties are the Chettinad social caste whom specialized in the preparation of food for the aristocracy and nobility.  They were mostly established in Tamil Nadu until late in the 19th and early 20th centuries when emigration began further south to Ceylon and Burma where the Cholas also ruled.  The Chettinad became the group of people from the region of the same name, famous as skillful master cooks and were sought after as hired help.   Their well kept secrets of delectable and delicate dishes involved aromatic spices, sweet and sour flavors, as well as celebrated ingredients of the region.  One of the most popular ingredients due to the vast availability of coconut palms are coconuts and coconut oil which form a base for almost all preparations.

It is widely agreed that Chettinad cuisine is one of the spiciest and aromatic yet delicate in its use of chilies, setting up the stage for the spices to bloom.  One particular dish that has made its mark is the Chettinad Peppercorn Chicken.  As the name implies, it consists of  chicken pieces that are cooked in a robust sauce in which its main ingredient is freshly ground peppercorns and fennel seeds.  The dish is well balanced with chopped onions and coconut milk that give it a tender sweetness.  

Following is a traditional recipe for Peppercorn Chettinad Chicken in it’s simplest and dry form.  Be prepared to crush black peppercorns at the very moment so that your dish can have the essence of ancient traditions.  For this recipe I modified it with a touch of tomato paste, an ingredient imported by the Portuguese from Mexico during the early days of colonization in the beginning of the 1500's.
Chettinad Spices for Peppercorn Chicken
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Molcajete for Grinding Spices
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Chettinad Peppercorn Chicken


500 grams of Chicken Pieces (with bones for maximum flavor)
1 Onion Chopped
1 Inch piece of Chopped Ginger
2 -3 Cloves of Crushed Garlic
1 Teaspoon of Cumin Seeds
1 Tablespoon of Coriander Seeds
1 Tablespoon of Fennel Seeds
1 Tablespoon of Black Peppercorns
5-6 Dry red Chiles (or to taste)
1/2 Cup of Coconut Milk
1/4 Cup of Shredded Dry Coconut (Unsweet)
1 teaspoon of tomato paste
10 to 12 Curry Leaves
Salt to Taste
Oil for Frying


Rinse and dry the chicken pieces with a paper towel.  Sprinkle a little salt on the pieces.  Heat enough oil in a pan for frying.  Fry the chicken until golden crispy.  Set aside.  Next finely chop the onion, garlic and ginger.  Grind the cumin, coriander, fennel and dry red chiles.  Set aside.  Next crush the black peppercorns so that they release their aroma but do not make into powder form.  I use a Mexican stone grinder called a molcajete, which works great for crushing and grinding spices.  Heat the pan again with a small amount of oil.  Begin by sautéing the chopped garlic and ginger.  Add the curry leaves until they begin to pop.  Next, add all the spices so that they roast and release their aroma.  Add the chopped onion and sauté until it reaches a golden translucent color.  Add the dry coconut and continue to cook for a couple of minutes.  Add the coconut milk and tomato paste.  Keep stirring at low heat.  Season with salt to taste.  Finally add the chicken pieces and toss until completely covered for about another five minutes.  Serve right off the stove with rice or an indian bread such as a paratha.        

By Leticia Alaniz © 2015