The Flavours of Kodagu
- Kaveri Ponnapa
The cuisine of Coorg evolved over the centuries, drawn from the generosity of the fertile landscape – tender wild greens, ferns, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, colocasia; forests full of flavourful wild game and birds, fields and kitchen gardens carefully tended by the people who were warriors, hunters and farmers, mostly in that order. The cuisine of Coorg, like so much else here, is all about the landscape.
Rice, grown in deep green valleys and the terraced fields of the higher slopes, was the queen of the table. It made its way to the table in unique versions at each meal, combined with delectable curries, fries and chutneys. Wild berries and fruit were gathered in season, and pickling and preserving were, and still are, popular. The rhythms of the seasons shaped the cuisine – selections of dried and smoked meats and preserved vegetables shored up the bleak monsoon months, when hunting was impossible, with the labour intensive, transplanting season underway in the fields. Every part of the year presented its special delights with a flourish, and the Coorg table® was always set with a lavish and exciting range of dishes.
The predominant flavour underlying this unique cuisine is ‘sourness’, either from the dark, viscous vinegar made from the fermented and boiled fruits of Garcinia gummi gutta, or from squeezes of ‘native’ limes, or else the much loved kaipuli – local bitter oranges. Invariably, many dishes contain an accent of one of these ingredients. Traditionally, spices were ground in stone mortars and pestles, and grinding stones, and food was cooked in wide mouthed, red or black, earthenware pots, known simply as ‘curry-chattis‘, which retained the flavour of the food perfectly. In addition, there were brass and copper vessels of all shapes and sizes. A whole range of foods was steamed in copper steamers known as ‘sakalas‘. The wood fired kitchen was a smoky place, where dried meat hung from the rafters, gathering a wonderful flavour of their own. Coorg women earned a well-deserved reputation for managing large, extended families and being extraordinarily good cooks, their generous hospitality extending easily to strangers.
Rice is everywhere in our homes and always on our tables, the link between forest and field. It appears at its simplest as kanji, gruel, or as the unleavened akki otti. But it is best loved as a puttu: washed, dried and pounded rice is cooked and steamed to create distinctive flavours and shapes, each one carefully paired with a curry. The classic combinations – noolputtu and kolicurry, kadambuttus and pandi curry, paaputtu and erachi curry never fail to please. Crab and fish curries are usually eaten with akki ottis or rice. We take these pairings for granted, but they owe everything to uncounted generations of gifted women who worked on the offerings from their surroundings and narrowed the many possibilities down to these combinations of texture and flavour.
Although Coorgs are always seen to be predominantly meat-eaters, one of their best-kept secrets is the range of fresh, lightly cooked and engaging vegetarian creations. Ranging from simple chutneys of toasted sesame seeds and coconut, roasted and pounded jackfruit seeds, piquant curries of wild mangoes, ash gourd and pumpkins and local French beans, garden fresh vegetables are on the table year round, at every meal.
The defining flavour of the cuisine is sourness. Almost every dish has a tang from the dark, sharp vinegar called kachampuli, boiled down from the juices of the fruits of the Garcinia gummi gutta . This is the secret ingredient of Coorg cooking, used for fish, chicken, mutton, pork and vegetable fries and curries as a souring and thickening agent. It is used as a marinade, or added in the final stages of a curry, for a dash of tartness thickening it slightly. A squeeze or two of kaipuli (Citrus aurantium), the native marmalade oranges sour enough to make your mouth pucker, or large, juicy, native limes add tangy accents to almost every dish. Dark, dry roasted and powdered spices – peppercorns, cumin, fenugreek and mustard seeds – add another layer of flavour to many preparations. Sesame seed oil, which was the traditional cooking medium brought its own character to every dish.
Modern Coorg has tweaked this inheritance a little, adding a change here and there, refining a dish or a technique: but it has taken generations for the underlying simplicity and perfection of this cuisine to evolve. It comes from the perfection of being in step with the seasons; sourcing the freshest ingredients from the surroundings and a complete understanding of the produce at hand that would be difficult to improve upon, even if we tried.
To read the complete articles from which this introduction to Kodava cuisine was excerpted, click on the links below:
The Coorg Table
Flavours of Coorg