Muttai Kalakki To Chicken 65; Exploring Salem's 8 Iconic Dishes

Renowned for its dishes that are packed with spicy and tangy flavours from the usage of tamarind, red chillies and spices by the plentiful, Salem offers a lens into some of Tamil Nadu’s most amazing dishes that otherwise get ignored on a mainstream level. Drawing inspiration from Chettinadu cuisine as well as the classic Tamil Brahmin fare which is largely vegetarian, the concept of ‘mess’ canteens serving home-style food is a common eating culture prevalent around the region.

Additionally, since the region has also been governed by multiple dynasties like the Cholas, Pandyas and Hoysalas, influences from the royal kitchens have seeped into the canvas of what the cuisine hopes to cover. While most regions in the Kongu Nadu cuisine belt overlap with one another, some Mughal influences courtesy of Tipu Sultan’s rule, as well as the impact of the Chettiar business community continues to remain evident in what the town has to offer.


One of the untapped and obscure delicacies to originate from Salem is sun-dried pieces of boneless mutton that has been heavily salted and sprinkled with some turmeric and chilli powder. A phenomenal way of preserving meat products for a longer shelf life, the uppukandam can be shallow fried or pound into smaller chunks to sprinkle as a condiment over eggs. Soaking the meat overnight and pressure cooking it the following day is also one of the common ways to consume this dish.


While most southern regions have their own rendition of tamarind rice, what makes this specific preparation from Salem special is its intricate balance of sweet-sour flavours. Heavy on the tamarind, pepper and groundnuts, the puliodharai is often times consumed as a vegetarian lunch option or served as a mid-day meal for those looking for something that doesn’t quite constitute a full meal. Among the many biryani versions popular around Tamil Nadu, the puliodharai is a refreshing clutter-breaker.

Muttai Kalakki

A street food offering of over-easy eggs whisked with a large spoonful of leftover chicken or mutton gravy, the muttai kalakki is similar in composition to the Japanese omurice omelette. The egg mixture, when poured onto a hot griddle, is cooked for a span of 10-15 seconds before it is folded over and served with dosas or parotta. Eaten as a tiffin meal or for breakfast, the outer cooked layer encases a runny centre that is almost tender in texture.

Kovai Biryani

What makes the Kovai biryani special, like most of its contemporaries (read: Dindigul, Ambur), is the usage of a locally cultivated short grain rice variety known as the jeeragasamba. Unlike most other biryanis which are cooked using the ‘dum’ technique, the Kovai biryani uses a combination of cooking methods – starting with a wood fire and switching to dum at a later stage in the process.

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Have You Tried These Dishes From Chettinad Cuisine?

Chicken 65

What is perhaps the most popular South Indian appetiser, the chicken 65 gets its name from the year it was conceived at the Buhari Hotel in Chennai. Cubes of boneless chicken coated in a rice-flour batter loaded with chilli powder, fennel seeds and ginger-garlic paste, this deep-fried snack is eaten as an accompaniment to alcoholic drinks at local watering holes all over the state of Tamil Nadu. The classic version also has variations like the chicken 78 and chicken 82, which failed to garner as much popularity as the former.

Saiva Meen Kulambu

The tamarind and chilli-heavy meen kulambu – or South Indian fish curry is a mealtime staple that most meat-eating households enjoy a few times a week. On the other hand, the saiva or vegetarian counterpart of the kulambu, draws inspiration from the Chettinad-style preparation which alternates fish with banana blossoms that are batter-fried and added to a tangy curry punctuated with curry leaves and gundu milagai (round chillies).

Thattu Vadai

A snack time treat that is available by the plenty at street vendor carts around the district, the thattu vadai is an innovative take on a sandwich; only difference being thattai (South Indian rice crackers) are used in place of bread to hold a tangy mixture of grated carrots, beetroot and onions that have a crunchy-fibrously chewy texture. This unusual snack is also smeared with spicy chutneys or condiments for an extra kick of flavour and enhance the taste of the vegetables.


An interesting street snack a la bhel puri, the norukkal comprises of crushed murukku and thattai, which are tossed with spicy condiments like green chutney, shreds of carrots, beetroot, onions, mint, coriander and a generous drizzle of garlic-infused coconut oil. Known to be the rite of passage when it comes to the ultimate culinary tour of Salem, the norukkal also has seasonal additions of raw mango, cucumber, spring onions, or even leftover dry sabzi preparations (poriyal).