Tamil Nadu, a state on the palm-fringed southeast coast of India, is the cradle of Hindu vegetarian cooking. The cuisine depends on rice and lentils, wonderfully transforming them with patience and fermentation into such toothsome wonders as masala dosa and iddly. But the southern coastal region called Chettinad flaunts another cuisine that thumbs its nose at Tamil vegetarianism. An ancient society of bankers and traders that dispersed across Southeast Asia in the 19th century, the Chettiars traditionally subsisted on chicken, fish, and mutton, liberally lacing these fleshy delicacies with coconut milk and hot chiles. In fact, Chettinad—not Goan, as you might expect—has become a code word across India for the spiciest fare.
A little over a year ago, a restaurant specializing in Chettinad cuisine called Ruchi Chettynadu opened in Curry Hill. A sign emblazoned in the window warned, “Non-Vegetarian South Indian Cuisine,” presumably to scare away vegetarians, though they too would have found plenty to love, including all the usual South Indian snacks and, for non-vegans, an unusual concentration of egg dishes. The space was narrow and mainly subterranean, and the glum expressions on the faces of the employees seemed to say that they had given up any hope of success. Needless to say, the place soon closed.
Lo and behold, it reappeared months later across the street, with a new name—Asaivam, an ancient Sanskrit word meaning “inauspicious,” in this context referring to non-vegetarian food. The menu remains heavy on mutton, offered in six variations that range from dry to damp, employing curry leaves, black mustard seed, and either tomatoes or coconut milk to arrive at sauces that are uniformly deep brown. Selections like mutton masala ($11.95), mutton kozhambu, and mutton kottu curry are pungent in flavor, more so because at Asaivam mutton means goat rather than sheep.
Among the dozen or so chicken dishes, a few, like chicken tikka masala and butter chicken, are Northern Indian imports. Skip them—you can get better renditions elsewhere. Of more interest are the chicken choices that show a Chinese influence, perhaps partly a result of the Chettiar diaspora. One such is chicken 65 ($7.95), a heap of crispy fried drumsticks that benefit from a gingery marinade. Multiple stories circulate as to the origin: (1) It was invented at a café on Highway 65, (2) There are 65 grams of chile for every kilogram of chicken, and most unbelievably, (3) It was invented in 1965 at the behest of a British traveler. Indo-Chinese dishes can often be identified by their non-Indian names: ginger chicken, chili chicken, etc.
As with chicken 65, deep-frying is a favorite technique where fish is concerned. The generic-sounding fish fry ($10.95) designates a pair of kingfish steaks luxuriantly coated with spices, then fried, much hotter than it looks. Fish mouli is the same species braised with coconut milk, onions, and ginger. More unusual are the egg dishes. Podimas ($4.95) is like a wilder western omelet, chunky with vegetables and hot chiles, with the scrambled egg reduced to sand-sized grains. Strangest of all, perhaps, is “egg half boil,” which we eagerly ordered with no idea what to expect. The table dissolved into laughter as the waiter set it down—a pair of runny, so very English poached eggs flopped on a plain white plate.