by Kaveri Ponnapa
For the better part of my teens, I was vegetarian by choice. Not dramatic, under normal circumstances, but since I am Coorg, it led to many interesting situations. Most often, when we visited relatives, my announcement was met with loud cries of shock and protest, followed by expressions of sorrow and disbelief. An aunt even questioned my suitability for marriage, vegetarian that I was. My grandmother would ask me, every day of the holidays, out of deep concern and affection, "What shall I make for you?" and exclaim, triumphantly, "Potatoes!" Somehow, the vast number vegetarian dishes on her extravagant table remained invisible to her. I soon grew accustomed to the sound of an omlette being hastily and violently beaten up in the kitchen, wherever I went, as compensation for all the meat I was going to miss. I could never figure out what all the fuss was about, because we had such a wonderful vegetarian repertoire of the freshest flavours possible, most of it sourced from the kitchen gardens attached to every home.
As it was, there were golden curries of pumpkin, cubed and cooked with tender skin still on (kumbala curry), faintly sweet and garlicky. From the back garden came deliciously fat, creamy double beans (avare), which were curried with ground coconut. Kuru curry was thinner, and ran to the edges of your plate, carrying a lovely contrast between fresh green shells and terracotta coloured, dried local French beans. There were lively, stir-fried greens, like kake thoppe, or chonde keere thoppe. The leaves were garden fresh, and all it took was an onion and a few green chilies to make a stir- fry perfect in its simplicity. Tiger-striped Mangalore cucumbers were fried soft and velvety, and given fillip with a little jaggery. And I would wait for the day when a pale, thin curry of ash gourd in curd appeared on the table. Delicate flavours, tender cubes of translucent ash gourd and a mound of white rice – it was all the lunch I needed that day. Comfort food meant thoge, a homely blend of vegetables cooked in a thin base of toovar dal.
In season came a parade of delicacies: wild mushrooms, tender bamboo shoots and enticing little mangoes that were made into a hot and sweet curry with a touch of jaggery. A large glass bowl on my grandmother's table alternated between plain, solid curd and a selection of pachadis, made with cucumbers, the famous Coorg bitter oranges or sweet mangoes. And there was much more. Of course, things have changed. Going vegetarian is popular now, but we still seem to hesitate, doubting ourselves. Take me for instance – my mother-in-law suddenly turned vegetarian; when she came to stay for several months, I rushed out and bought a huge tome on vegetarian cooking and, abandoning this entire legacy, cooked for her from its pages.
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