Burnt Oranges and Other Stories

by Kaveri Ponnapa

A delicious marmalade aroma spreads through my kitchen, mixed with notes of charred citrus. My hands are all sticky with the intense, jammy juice of kaipuli, the rough skinned, juicy bitter oranges beloved of Coorg home cooks, roasted on an open fire. I've just spent the better part of the morning preparing my annual supply of kaipuli chutte pajji, an unusual chutney of roasted bitter oranges. There's so much work involved making this, but it's work into which I throw myself willingly, in happy anticipation of the delicious results.

Kaipuli, the local bitter orange is the unsung beauty of the Coorg table. When I hold one in my hand, I can never resist piercing the skin and breathing in the sharp, clean fragrance deeply. I'm reminded instantly of the quiet country lanes of Coorg, with their low, moss-covered walls overhung with trees, at the end of which you find isolated homes where you are always sure of a welcome. And whether it's an ancestral home, or a small, cozy cottage, you can be sure, that if you wander around, you will find a kaipuli tree laden with fruit in season, waiting to be made into various treats. Kaipuli is a fruit of never ending pleasures, or so it seems, it's sour juice and bitter flavours particularly cherished in Coorg.

No luxury of a wood fire in the city here, but I do have a compact Weber grill, and red-hot coals deliver excellent results. Smoke clouds the patio outside my breakfast room. The thick, sometimes knobbly skin of the fruit darkens slowly on hot embers. Artistic patches of orange peer through the black, releasing aromatic oils that scent the air with the most beautiful fragrance. Occasionally, there's a hiss and sizzle as a spray of juice shoots out of the roasting orange. The citrus scents all around send me straight to heaven. The skin will have to be well-scorched and blackened before the kaipuli is plunged into cold water. Then comes the painstaking part of peeling off the blackened exterior, and retaining the inner, darkened skin, which now has the most enticing, smoky aroma and will soon add a lovely texture to the chutney: tiny chunks that escape being ground into a pulp, with hints of marmalade. Like all char-grilled ingredients – think roasted tomatoes, onions, and peppers – there's a distinctive smoky sweetness that seeps into the charred kaipuli.

Separating the pulp from the thin membrane and slippery, never-ending seeds seems to take forever and by now, the bulk of several kaipulis has shrunk to a disconcertingly tiny puddle at the bottom of a bowl. The sour juice has wrinkled my fingertips until they look like they are a hundred years old!

It's a long, patient morning's worth of effort, but the thought of the dark chutney keeps me going. "What are you doing?" asks my daughter. "Oh nothing much," I say casually, "just making a little chutney." But she recognizes the tone instantly.

"When you say something in that innocent voice, I know it means trouble," she replies. And she's right. I rope in my husband to roast the kaipulis, and get her to help peel them when they are done.

Kaipuli chutte pajji is an acquired taste, but those who love it – and I'm on top of that list here – love it devotedly. It is one of those unique Coorg flavours difficult to describe. Every time I make it, I can only marvel at the imagination, patience and experience of the home cooks who created and developed this recipe. The bottled chutney is a rich, dark brown, shiny, bittersweet, and warm with spice. Its jam-like texture and smoky flavour stir up memories of wood fired kitchens, rain and newborn babies. Babies because this dark, dense chutney that has many cleansing and curative properties is also known as petthavvada pajji -chutney for new mothers –and it's always on the menu for them, every day.

It's hard to make up your mind about exactly what this is: traditionally, it's a pajji, a chutney in which the ingredients are ground together. But it has the texture of a soft-set jam, and can be eaten with so many different accompaniments. Some days I love to make a lunch of just a plateful of soft, white, short-grain rice, curd and a large scoop of kaipuli chutte pajji. The flavours are full of intriguing layers of fried onions, coriander seeds, chillies, cumin and jaggery, and a lingering taste of citrus that refreshes the most jaded palate. It tastes equally good as part of a simple main meal; with akki ottis or, as one of my aunts recommends, on toast.

My mother-in-law would always send me off with a huge bottle of the stuff, carefully packed to survive its journey to London, where I tried make it last as long as possible, for a lingering taste of home. My enthusiasm rubbed off on my husband, never much of a fan, who soon acquired a taste for it, and is now as fond of it as I always was. Our son loves it, while our daughter says, enigmatically, that she's 'developing a taste for it,' although I don't see her eating much of it. Surprisingly – or maybe not so – this is one of the local treats that a lot of visitors to Coorg like to buy from stores that sell home made pickles and jams, to carry back with them.

After an entire morning of roasting, peeling, frying, grinding and boiling, surrounded by an incredible mess of charred skin, discarded seeds and membrane – not to mention blackened, ruined, fingernails – my daughter stared at the single, 750 ml jar of chutney and asked, incredulous, "Is that all?" Yes, it was, actually. There's no way you can explain what makes all the effort worthwhile until you plunge a spoon into the dark, silky mass, put a helping onto your plate and taste those complex, bittersweet, citrus fruit flavours with just the right hint of spice. A few weeks ago, I read that burning citrus fruits is the current craze with many professional chefs worldwide, to highlight sweet and bitter flavours, and reduce acidity. Stuff our grandmothers have worked out so well in this unique chutney, so evocative of the Coorg countryside and way of life.

Note : Kaipuli, literally translates as 'bitter orange' and goes under the label of Citrus aurantium.

Thank you for visiting this page. If you read something that you enjoy, or see an image that you like, please take a moment to write a response. Do look out for the recipes of all the food featured here in my upcoming cookbook.

Image Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa

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