by Kaveri Ponnapa
Moody, melancholy landscapes, cold, rough weather, and unrelenting rain pounding on rooftops, the outline of the hills watered down under a wash of subdued blue –the beauty of the Coorg monsoon is not the obvious kind, but it is one that the Coorgs love and appreciate. As the rains build up, drowning the valleys from mid-July to mid-August, a period known as Kakkada, Justicia wynaadensis, a nondescript plant that grows wild on embankments and forests comes into its own. The rain-soaked earth fills its leaves with rare, medicinal properties for eighteen consecutive days, adding them one at a time, until, around the third of August, it reaches the peak of its powers. We call it madde thoppe, 'the medicinal leaf', its name almost synonymous with the mood of the Coorg monsoon, and it is highly prized for its special qualities. In a season when the weather throws down challenges every day, and there is plenty of demanding outdoor work, overseeing the transplanting of paddy seedlings, the hillsides offer us this exceptional protection against the harsh climate.
We pluck the fresh leaves from their crisp stalks, and bruise them by crushing them lightly between the fists. The woody parts of the stalks are discarded, but the tender portions can be used, although some people prefer to use only the leaves. This is then soaked overnight. The next day, when the leaves are placed over a fire to boil, an exotic, unusual fragrance invades the kitchen and the colour of the water begins to change, as the innocuous looking leaves suddenly begin to release their subtle qualities, staining the water violet, or indigo. This extract – deep, dark and potent – is cooked into a sweet payasa, or a puttu, and eaten to shore up defences against the rain that rages outside. Madde payasa or madde kool is a gentler version, cooked with coconut and sweetened with syrup made from jaggery. The more rustic way of cooking it is with garlic, ginger and peppercorns.
Madde puttu, a startling indigo, is more uncompromising. It is usually cooked unsweetened, and allowed to cool into solid cakes. Even the spoonfuls of sweet, Coorg honey and ghee cannot mask the intense, familiar, herbal flavours. Like the Coorg monsoon, a love for these rare flavours is an acquired taste.
Even though our lives are far removed from the traditional farming cycle of Coorg, we have not lost our taste for these precious monsoon treats, and every one of us waits for a bunch of leaves, or bottles of extract to arrive in our kitchens. Every year, some kind friend or other sends me armloads of madde thoppe, and I get busy in my kitchen, recreating the essence of many, past monsoons. The swirls of indigo and violet extract in the vessel are a visual treat, and the fragrance that rises from the vessel of boiling leaves releases waves of nostalgia, and memories. Madde kool is about unusual flavours, and with its combination of colour, scent and folklore, it evokes a whole season. When I place the first, velvety spoonful in my mouth, I always think, our ancestors could not have found a better way to beat the monsoon blues.
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