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

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Last Meal Of Edgar Allan Poe

Portrait of American Writer Edgar Allan Poe 
Since the dawn of American gothic horror writer Edgar Allan Poe’s life, he was surrounded by  poverty, isolation, coldness, loneliness and death.  His stormy life was drawn from good and evil which provided the groundwork for his famous dark literary masterpieces.   

Poe was born in 1809 and 40 years later in 1849, his short life ended abruptly, causing a stir of mystery to his enigmatic persona that continues to fascinate us until today.  His death was reported in a newspaper as having been stricken on a cold night in a tavern in Baltimore, where he was found delirious, in great distress, laying in a gutter and later carried to a hospital where he died a lonely death four days later.

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague.  
Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins? - Edgar Allan Poe  

Scholars conclude that Poe’s life of misery could have psychologically been self inflicted.  He published masterpieces that today are recited, performed in theaters, reenacted and made into films in many languages around the world.  Yet there are accounts of him living in dire poverty, barely making enough money to pay the rent.  Many nights, he was found wandering the streets in Baltimore begging for a meager 50 cents to buy a meal.  It was the amount that in those days, a simple plate of food in a tavern would have cost, which would include a pint of ale.           

The writing desk and bed of American writer Edgar Allan Poe
Poe would stay most nights in his rented room writing until dawn.  In the winter months, when the cold was waiting in the shadows, he often kept himself sheltered from the bone chilling wind and had only a candle or an oil lamp for light and the warmth of ragged old blankets.  By the end of his life, he had suffered much loss including the death of his beloved wife Virginia, which he immortalized in his poem: Annabel Lee.  His ruined finances provided very little money to feed himself and there were accounts of him not having much to eat except bread, wine and occasionally cheese.  He was a man of refined taste and he enjoyed a good brandy or a Spanish Amontillado sherry, but he could rarely afford it.  Most days, a piece of bread was all he ate during the day, saving the wine and cheese, and maybe a crusty crumb for the evening supper. 

It was October 7th, a dark, icy night when he uttered his last words: “Lord help my soul.”  At his last breath, strange rumors began to circulate across many towns and his macabre stories were not very well appreciated among the society, whom considered them too eerie and horrific.  There was never an autopsy report, and the cause of his death was disputed.  Bone deep hunger, emotional emptiness, depression and loneliness could have been the reasons of his untimely death, with hunger being the principal cause which provoked all the other symptoms to follow him like a dark plague.     

In those days, it was the Victorian era when good food and refined tastes were in fashion.  Meal times were an opportunity for the rich to display their wealth and elaborate feasts were the norm.  Employed people and farm laborers ate reasonably well and could afford heartier food such as sausage, bacon, cheese, eggs, fish, beef, game, fruits and vegetables.  The tables of that era were splendid and much cheer, sweets and good wine were customary.  Luxury was high on the menu and the quality of food greatly improved as agricultural methods continued to evolve in abundance.  But the diet of the very poor marked a stark and terrible contrast.   Those with very little money survived on potatoes, bread and gruel of little nutritional value.  Poe, lived way below poverty level, which for him meant no food at all for long stretches of time.  It was very hard to earn a living being a man of letters.  He was at the mercy of greedy publishers yet he was determined to pursue his literary ideals.
The Last Meal Of Edgar Allan Poe
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
In the last days of the young poet’s life, dessertion, darkness, mystery, unbearable pain, beauty and his genius mind were all that were left.  On the menu, his las meal most undoubtedly consisted of bread and wine, and if a few coins came his way, he was able to afford cheese.  His writing desk, his pen, an ink well and a wax candle were his only companions.

Only Edgar Allan Poe, who knew the secrets of madness could concentrate his brilliant mind away from the thoughts of biting hunger and steer his pen to create intense suspense, terror, sensation, simple truth, stories and poems of grim realities that mirrored his own life.   

He was caught between a fine line of rationality and irrationality.  For what is considered one of the greatest poems published to his name, The Raven, he earned only $14 dollars.  Just about what a bottle of wine would cost these days.  

In a strange macabre way, The Raven is a narrative poem of a kind of rehearsal for his own death.  A poem which, can be interpreted as Edgar Allan Poe speaking thru The Raven as he recounted the words: Nevermore, Nevermore, Nevermore...    

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seaming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor,
And my soul from out that shadow that lies of floating on the floor
Shall be lifted — nevermore!  
Quoth The Raven Nevermore! - Edgar Allan Poe

By Leticia Alaniz © 2015