The Wild Side Of Life

by Kaveri Ponnapa

A short while ago, a young man who follows The Coorg Table wrote in to say that he had tried out and enjoyed most of the recipes posted so far. He also made a request for a recipe for kaad mange curry adding that his grandmother, who used to make this curry for their family, had passed away. And with her went the recipe for a treat that the family, loved, still held in their taste memories and associated with her – but did not know how to cook. Anish Thimmana's poignant story reminded me of many similar ones I had heard, and set off a whole train of thoughts in my head. So maybe this post will be a little longer than usual.

It reminded me of how we often take people and things we love for granted, for that very reason – because we love them, we think they will last forever. It reminded me of the importance of learning from an older generation, from their fund of knowledge of the land, cooking techniques, experiences and stories that are so valuable and unique, but all too often disappears with them, unless we record everything. It also set me thinking about many much-loved ingredients gathered from the wild, unique to Coorg, that we have taken for granted for centuries. But can we afford to think that we will always have them?

Wild mangoes are one of the seasonal treats we love in Coorg, and look forward to, year after year. Rounded and plump, with a feisty, peppery flavour, their marbled green skins covered with minute, dark flecks and pinprick dots, never evenly coloured, showing not more than a reluctant reddish blush in patches, wild mangoes once turned up in our kitchens in abundance. They grew on majestic, towering trees and the supply of fruit seemed inexhaustible. Every village had a famous wild mango tree, monumental, prolific, that produced fruit enough for every home. The early wave was collected, and quickly made into a hot and salty pickle before the stones grew too large and hard. Batches were preserved in brine for the rest of the year, and later, ripe mangoes, similarly preserved in baranis were put away, and brought out at a wedding or feast, to be made into a curry.

But the sweet, ripe mangoes were what we waited for. Peeling a pile of wild mangoes, the air is scented sharp and sweet, and juice drips, collecting in a waiting vessel. When your thumbnail pierces the top of the little fruit, there's a beautiful contrast between the sharp young green of a layer of inner skin and the pale lemon yellow flesh. A dish of kaad mange curry has a certain magic that nothing else can match: is it the sweetness of jaggery, combined with red chillies, and the unique taste of these beguiling mangoes, a taste and fragrance drawn from the soil of the land? I could never tell, and I still cannot. But the curry has a flavour that cannot be matched or replicated by any cultivated fruit; every last drop is scraped off the plate, and everyone lingers over the seeds, drawing out sweetness, scent and emotions.

We still wait for them season after season… and the numbers dwindle. With the relentless development of the land that we are seeing these days, there is so much that is being lost, but we don't seem to notice, because the gifts from the land continue to come in. Clearing tracts of land indiscriminately sweeps away so many species of wildflowers, orchids, ferns, lichen, wild berries and fruit which generations enjoyed. When we visit friends in the villages of Coorg, we enjoy wild fruits like karmanji panne; kotte panne; sweet, green kumme panne; kunde narale; gumatte panne and so much more. People recall how, as children, they would take the cattle out to graze, and never go hungry – there was such bounty on trees, creepers and bushes. Since children rarely herd cattle these days, a friend does a wonderful thing – he takes his children berry hunting during the summer holidays, in April and May, and again at the end of the year, when the countryside is bursting with fruit and berries, so that they in turn become familiar with what the hillsides have to offer. Wild, leafy greens – kolike thoppe; pana thoppe; thaate thoppe; onti yele thoppe; kingiri mulle thoppe; muttli thoppe and scores of others – once so much a part of our food traditions, made into chutneys and stir-fried, full of valuable nutrients, invaluable for tiding over the monsoon months, have begun to peter out of our diets, and the environment too. I was listening to a friend's daughter, who currently lives in one of the North Eastern Hill states tell her mother that there were plenty of the familiar Coorg greens available in the markets, and growing wild on the hillsides. Once abundant, now becoming elusive even in rural areas, my friend, only half joking, asked her daughter to send some across to her kitchen in Coorg! Plants, according to experts, are being lost at the rate of three species an hour and the valuable knowledge of these wild foods, gathered over so many generations, a knowledge that forges our deep connection with the land, is also shrinking.

The exceptional wild mushrooms of Coorg now arrive in a sad trickle, compared to the basket loads of even 25 years ago: the price we pay for the extensive use of pesticides and aggressive farming techniques. Some rare species have retreated to wild and difficult to access parts of the district, the only places where they can thrive, undisturbed. And when was the last time you ate a curry of fresh, sweet-fleshed Baré meen (a fresh water fish), caught or shot in unpolluted waters? And wild game has disappeared from our tables altogether. In a rice cultivating culture like ours, delicious and valuable foods – like koile meen (a tiny fish found in flooded paddy fields and streams), crab and wild greens – can be found in and around our fields. Wild foods make nutritional sense too: studies the world over have shown they are extremely valuable sources of concentrated amounts of vitamins and minerals, which can rival and supplement cultivated foods in many ways. Our food in Coorg has always been local, seasonal and sustainable, now a global mantra; foraging for mushrooms, ferns, wild berries and leaves, so much a part of our everyday lives, is now endorsed by some of the most famous restaurants in the world, like Noma, in Copenhagen: it would be tragic to allow this to be lost.

Many of the things I write about are still available, but everyone will agree, in quantities that diminish alarmingly every year. Trees are threatened too: our cuisine would not be the same if we did not have jackfruit, wild mango and the panapuli tree (Garcinia gummi gutta) to gives us kachampuli, our own, unique vinegar. The canopy of shade that covers our coffee estates is now a monoculture of silver oak – what a dismal change from the varied, indigenous trees of our childhood, each with its individual character and unexpected gifts. Carlo Petrini's Slow Food Movement and small groups of concerned people across the world are trying to halt the loss of local food, fruits, and vegetables, creating seed banks, rescuing indigenous species from oblivion. If we paused to think of the wide-ranging selection of treats we get from our generous land, and see how it defines our cuisine and culture, we'd realize that if we were to lose these wild foods, our distinctive culinary heritage too, would change forever.

So as I cook my kaad mange curry this year, I dedicate this post to Anish's grandmother, and all the generations of Coorgs, both men and women, who created perfect recipes from the abundance that our rugged land had to offer. They acquired the knowledge, cooked with love, passed on traditions and preserved the land and its wild foods in their time – it's our turn now.

Botanically Speaking: for those interested, here are some of the botanical names for the wild fruit and leafy greens. If anyone would like to share their knowledge of wild greens, fruits and berries, please do write to me, I would welcome any additions and recipes.
Karmanji panne: Carissa inermis C.gangetica;Kotte panne: Zizyphus rugosa; Gumatte panne: Physalis peruviana; Kolike thoppe: Alternanthera sessilis; Pana thoppe: Drymaria cordata; Thaate thoppe: Cassia thora.

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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