The Chettinad cuisine, known for its spices and unique flavour, lures food lovers to this region in Tamil Nadu, to try out their famed dishes. The elegant memorial building for legendary poet, Kannadasan, near the Karaikudi bus stand, welcomes one to the city of beautiful palatial houses built in the traditional architectural style of Chettinad. The 'Sri Priya' mess in Karaikudi, which has been serving authentic Chettinad dishes for the last 50 years, was started as a small tea shop by Venugopal Naidu and his wife Saraswati.
The eatery which only has lunch service, offers an elaborate spread of authentic non-vegetarian Chettinad dishes with piping hot rice.'Sri Priya' mess would be opened only between 12 pm and 4 pm, and foodies queue up in front of this eatery to relish the mouth watering dishes that are served here.
The mess is situated opposite the 'cinema' bungalow on A R Street, the beautiful Chettinad palatial home which has often been featured in many superhit movies. As one eagerly waits in the queue outside, eyes are immediately drawn to the menu board that is displayed. Sapad (meals), biryani, chicken, mutton, eeral (prawns curry), kaadai (quail) and njandu (crab) are some of their specialities. The hotel is now run by Naidu's son Sivakumar and his wife Rajathi. He too helps around during the busy hours, and oversees everything to make sure that his customers are happy and satisfied.
Lunch is served on fresh banana leaves which actually enhance the flavour and aroma of the dishes. Piping hot white rice is served with some pickle, mezhukkupuratty (vegetable stir fry) and the non-vegetarian Chettinad dishes which 'Sri Priya' mess is famous for. The waiters, who are mostly women, run around carrying the vessels containing curries and shout the names of the dishes aloud, to be heard in the entire dining hall. Naatu kozhi curry (home-grown chicken), broiler chicken curry, mutton chukka, mutton head curry, mutton liver fry, goat’s brain curry, crab, fish fry, fish curry and prawns are some of the mouth-watering delicacies are served for lunch here.
The waiters would serve a spoonful of the gravies for the customers to taste and help them order the dishes. These women waiters, who serve food with so much passion, are in fact the life line of this eatery. They lovingly persuade the customers to go for a second helping and patiently explain the dishes to those who are trying the cuisine for the first time. After the elaborate meal, customers would be served half a glass of rasam (a spicy concoction which has medicinal properties), to aid digestion. Lots of foreigners visit the mess as well, to try out the spicy goodness of the Chettinad dishes. They even give high ratings for this quaint eatery on tourism websites which has actually made 'Sri Priya' mess quite popular among foodies and travel enthusiasts around the world.
"Most of our loyal customers are the common people who live in the locality. Lunch services were extremely busy even during the time of my father. We usually begin cooking our dishes from 9 am onwards. The hotel's kitchen is adjacent to our house. The masala mixtures that we use here are the same ones that are used in our home as well," says Sivakumar, adding that the flair for cooking runs in the family. Movie stars like Nazar, Vadivelu, Raj Kiran and Siva Karthikeyan too have become fans of the 'Sri Priya' mess after having delicious food from here. Sivakumar proudly recalls the time when filmmaker Shankar embraced him in appreciation as the latter loved the dishes that were served to him. Many political leaders and top bureaucrats too are frequent visitors at the eatery to enjoy the authentic taste of the Chettinad cuisine.
The prawn dish called 'eeral,' crab curry and a dish made with goat's brain are the specialities at Sri Priya. Mutton head curry too is quite popular among the foodies. Those who prefer less greasy chicken dish can try out the naatu kozhi curry made with home-grown organic chicken. Meanwhile, the broiler chicken curry is for the ones who love the succulent meat which has soaked up all the spicy goodness in the gravy. Mutton liver fry and curry are delicious dishes which are nutritious as well. The traditional cuisine found by the Chettiars of Chettinad truly enjoys a prominent position in the food culture of the country.