Living and working in London in the late '80's and '90's, between my husband's friends and mine, we entertained a heady mix of successful corporate types and highbrow academics. Cosmopolitan, polyglot, with a, sometimes, formidable knowledge of the cultures and cuisines of the countries they had lived in, French, British, Brazilian, Nigerian, Chilean, they all found their way to our table. Palates were sophisticated, tastes refined. Indian cuisine was already the rage. Madhur Jaffrey, Camellia Panjabi and Ismail Merchant ruled the airwaves and bookshelves, carrying Indian food to a new level of discrimination.
Expectations were high, and with a recklessness born not a little out of desperation, I plunged into the rain-drenched memories of my Coorg background to trawl the flavours and secrets of a cuisine of a rugged mountain people, shaped over the centuries by wild forests, fields and clear mountain streams. My imagination roamed the hills of Coorg, running over the mouth watering seasonal delicacies, which appeared in such abundance year after year. Was it possible to capture the nuances of an astonishingly vast and varied cuisine by selecting just a few dishes? And which ones? Venison, wild boar, quail, imperial pigeon, crab, tender bamboo shoots and wild mushrooms all found their way onto the Coorg table™. The challenge was to present not just fabulous, unforgettable food, but to distill onto a plate the spirit of place, so to speak: the thrill of hunting wild boar through dense forests in the glittering September air; the secret lives of mushrooms; the mists, the sheets of rain and melancholy of the monsoon which brought tender shoots and leaves surging through sodden earth. Surprisingly for a cuisine so steeped in the particular landscape of Coorg, a number of modern classics emerged, which required little or no reinterpretation. Although the ingredients and flavours were unexpected after the more familiar curries, kebabs and rotis, every dish savoured at our table was a runaway success, paired with the early, seductive offerings of wine from Chile's Maipo Valley.
For a rustic people, Coorg cuisine is astonishingly rich and extensive. But I would gladly sacrifice much of my culinary heritage for those special trophies of what Antonio Carluccio evocatively called 'the quiet hunt' – wild mushrooms. The fields and forests of Coorg are scattered, in season, with a range of fungi that are a mushroom hunters dream. Nethalle kumme, extravagantly large, divine roasted or curried; umbrella shaped kode kumme; tiny, peach tinted nucche kumme, their dainty caps clustered close together, waiting to melt in your mouth; mara kumme, sprouting on the barks of trees - mushrooms are a prized addition to the table. Early morning hunts yield rich rewards, dotted across expanses of grassy meadow and field; beside leaf covered, silent paths inside coffee plantations; on rich red anthills and the bark of trees. There is something entirely magical about mushrooms. Perhaps it is the way they spring up, with scarcely any warning, and disappear, fading and disintegrating almost before you can spot them. Hunting mushrooms is an art, and since they tend to flourish in the same place year after year, everyone keeps their secrets of the search. The warm, steamy fragrance that rises up from heaps of mushrooms in baskets, waiting to be cleaned, is wildly intoxicating and it's understandable why epicures the world over pay shocking sums of money for the earthy flavours that are very much a part of our traditional fare. In Coorg, we curry, pickle, roast, and fry mushrooms. Roasted wild mushrooms, sprinkled with a tiny pinch of salt and chili and a dash of lime juice make an excellent entrée - silky, elegant, and, well, very sexy.
The dramatic thunderstorms and rains of the monsoons bring some of the most coveted delicacies that every Coorg craves. In lush green clumps, conical shoots of bamboo, sharp as pikes, emerge suddenly, shrugging aside wet earth. The green cones gathered from the riverside clumps, and the pale golden ones from deeper in the forest have a long journey to the table. The shoots are scaled and sliced, and soaked in several changes of water over 48 hours. The final result is tender chips of bamboo, tangy from the fermenting, which release their juices with a delicious crunch. Pickled, curried, preserved in brine, it is an all time classic. The golden yellow curry is eaten with akki ottis and a splash of melted ghee. Buttery kadambuttus, soft strands of noolputtu, creamy paputtu - each one unique in texture and flavour are all made from rice, sacred to life. Of all the many rice preparations, the akki otti, a rice roti, is the most versatile – it lends itself to a host of curries - bimbale, crab, pumpkin, and fresh double beans.
The landscape has more hidden delights. Wading knee-deep in clear highland streams leading to rice paddies yields another great treat - freshwater crabs. Curried or fried, spiced with roasted jeera, green chilies, ground coconut and kachampuli, tender, sweet-fleshed crabs can be quite addictive, piles of excavated shells rising to indecent heights beside each plate
Hunting and eating wild game is now a part of folklore, but succulent cubes of pork, the meat most relished, is cooked into a dark, luxurious, sultry curry. The spices are dry roasted, and fat and bone add depth to the flavours. Tart and viscous, kachampuli, the local vinegar adds the final touch as the pork simmers, soaking in the spices. The cubes of pork in their dark sauce are served with buttery white kadambuttus and a squeeze of lime. The contrast of colour, texture and taste is perfect, and the curry one to linger over, unabashedly licking your fingers.
The Coorgs are an ancient people, and somehow, myths, forest-lore and old stories weave themselves into any conversation about their food. I still recall the excitement of pre-dawn forays to shoot duck, partridge and quail. Clouds of green pigeons would rise in the dewy freshness of a coffee estate, alert to the first shot fired into treetops at dawn. Heirloom recipes were very much a tradition in clan bound Coorg society, passed down the generations carefully, and these, from my mother-in-law and grandmother, are to be treasured.
Cooking for friends over the years, I discovered that these dishes lend themselves easily to a modern presentation. Menus, for instance, can include a starter of roasted mushrooms, followed by pepper-fried quail, with a side dish of stir-fried greens, and finally, pork curry. The classic Coorg puttu-curry combinations look wonderful plated, on contemporary white china. The recipes here have been served up on generously sized white plates, which have a dramatic border of the Sinhalese script in black, a sharp accent on the colours of the food. The flatware is Robbe and Berking, and the Oswald Haerdtl stemware, made by the 184 - year old Viennese glass house, Lobmeyr. The coffee cups are French, and the coffee, decidedly Coorg. Of all the many jaggery sweetened confections that do very well as dessert, over the years I have stuck to my own personal favourite – bale muruku, fritters of a local variety of banana, spiked with sesame seeds, coconut and jaggery. Crunchy on the outside, yielding and buttery on the inside, served with strong black Coorg coffee, it's the perfect ending to a meal.
My ancestors understood perfectly Alice Waters' beautiful phrase, 'the edible landscape'. Wild ferns, with softly curling tips, growing beside streams in moist clusters are gathered by the armful and cooked with just onion and green chilies into a simple, velvety textured dish that has a flavour redolent of unfamiliar herbs. Tender colocasia leaves, curried and sprinkled with lime juice, stir fries of wild greens that grow on the hillsides all add zest to the table.
Wild mango trees grow to spectacular heights and, by late April are laden with delicately rounded miniature fruit. Sweet, juicy and deliciously piquant, these are collected carefully, some curried with jaggery, and eaten with rice, and the surplus preserved in brine.
Salting, pickling, preserving, brining, smoking and drying of meats are all a part of the culinary year. Large baranis and earthen pots line the attics and storerooms of every home. Wild hog plum, taut green limes bursting with juice, tender jackfruit, and wild gooseberries all find their way into preserving jars. Everyone has a kitchen garden. Creepers trail, pumpkins burgeon, beans, gourds and fresh leafy greens abound. The hillsides are dotted with wild, sweet, berries.
Every time I cook a traditional meal, the entire landscape of my ancestors murmurs in the background. It's a cuisine all about the freshness of seasonal ingredients, and a deep understanding of the environment, the seasons, and the best they have to offer. Hospitality and generosity are traditional, and legendary, so every meal becomes a celebration. And they have hit on a winning formula, because friends come back to our table again and again, each with requests for a special favourite – ancient, and thoroughly modern.
Coorg Modern appeared in Food Lovers Magazine, in the April/May 2009 issue.
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