A Table of Missed Opportunities
The hungry traveller is a familiar sight in Coorg since the little district opened up to tourism, especially over the weekends. Chances are you will find him, en famille, tucking into pandi curry with a single-minded intensity, taste buds refusing to travel beyond the rim of that plate.
It is a rich, dark, sultry, winner of a curry, worthy all the attention it gets –but I sometimes wish that I could lean across and whisper the names of more than a dozen other dishes that appear regularly at our tables that deserve to be tasted with the same dedication.
It’s always intriguing to observe how the character and history of a land and people are etched firmly on the food, and in Coorg, you can trace the influence of hunting, constant warfare, feuding clans,rice farming and a land rich with wild produce through what appears on the table.
I’m not sure why so many people think we’re not good at vegetables in Coorg but we are –that pork curry again, manages to give the wrong impression without meaning to. A well-made Coorg kumme curry (mushroom curry) is one of the most exquisite creations I have ever eaten.
Made with earth scented, wild mushrooms if they happen to be in season, mild and tender, it’s so good, it holds its own with just a stack of akki ottis (rice rotis) for company.
Vegetables on our tables are generally of the most ordinary, kitchen garden variety: tender aubergines, ash gourd, pumpkins, Mangalore cucumbers and beans.
But in each curry and stir-fry, the palate of spice, sweet and sour is manipulated to draw out a different set of flavours.
Kumbala curry tender cubes of pumpkin in a coconut based curry, or bainay barthad, sour-sweet pan-fried aubergines, timeless in their simplicity, are the tastes we dream of when we are far from home.
After a particularly successful 10 day Coorg food promotion at Dakshin, the restaurant that serves South Indian classics at the ITC Windsor, Bengaluru, I was delighted to see my recipe for the modest pan fried aubergine included on the regular menu.
But with a long tradition of foraging, we also look beyond our kitchen gardens to the edges of forests and fields, and right through the year, we keep an eye open for the fruits, berries, shoots and wild greens always on offer.
There is always a special seasonal treat: baimbale curry –crunchy shoots of tender bamboo, gently fermented and then curried; kaad mange curry –sour-sweet curried wild mangoes; kembe curry, made from tender colocasia leaves, dense and flavourful, and ambatte para – wild hog plum pickle; or refreshing chutneys of ripe mangoes or Coorg bitter oranges dressed in seasoned curd.
A particular favourite is a robust curry of dried jackfruit seeds, and I always wait for the season when fresh bracken ferns appear, with their tender, curling tips to make the most unusual stir-fry.
For me, it seems to capture the essence of the place in its flavours. Hunting days are long gone, but intense smoked, dried meats made from farmed pork and mutton still flourish in our kitchens.
Steamed, sweetened parcels of jackfruit pulp mixed with broken rice make a delicious, anytime snack.
Coorg home cooks have taken generations to create classic puttu-curry combinations: soft strands of noolputtu–steamed rice noodles and chicken curry; paaputtu, cardamom scented rice cakes cooked with milk and coconut, paired with mutton curry and plain, dependable thaliyaputtu, similar to a plate idly and kadambuttus–why give it all up for pandi curry?
If it still haunts you, similar flavours, but sharper, turn up in meen curry, fish curry with dark roasted spices and a spicy njende curry, crab curry, both of which throw down challenges to much better-known versions from the coast.
With such extravagant choices, why limit your experiences of Coorg on a plate? It would certainly be a case of so many missed opportunities.
Kaveri Ponnapa is an author, and leading food and wine writer based in Bengaluru. Her articles appear in UpperCrust magazine, Sommelier India and several other publications. She also writes a lively blog, The Coorg Table that explores the traditional foods of Coorg, and chronicles life and food in the coffee and tea plantations of southern India in another blog, Plantation Style.