Old Spice

by Kaveri Ponnapa

It's raining in Coorg right now. Clouds hang heavy over the hills, and a steady downpour that may last for days has blurred the landscape. Madikeri is all mist, damp and gusts of wind. Fresh, cold cascades of water come tumbling down the hillsides, splashing onto roads. It's a raw season, and it directs my thoughts to a dish of pepper - fried chops.

The world's most traded spice, Piper nigrum – black pepper – has been exported from the Malabar Coast for millennia. Costly, and rare, associated with luxury, it fuelled trade, inspired voyages of discovery in medieval times and toppled power structures in Europe. Malabar became synonymous with high quality peppercorns, all over the world. A short distance up the ghats from this famous coast is Coorg, where pepper grew wild in the forests for centuries, flavouring our food, and our lives. The sight of pepper vines, perennial climbers, wound sinuously around the trunks of trees that shade coffee plants, with their pretty, tight clusters of green fruit is a familiar one, with pepper now an important commercial crop.

Black peppercorns, with their hard, crinkled, surfaces and sharp, slightly citrusy scent are a familiar sight in Coorg. As children we would crawl under cots, playing hide and seek, only to find sacks of pepper stored there, and gave away our hiding place by breathing in the scent of pepper, and sneezing loudly. Peppercorns have been scattered in cupboards and used in our food for much longer than can be recorded. Traditionally, in Coorg, pepper was referred to as being 'equivalent to gold', as valuable, and as incorruptible. Old timers dubbed it 'kartha paun', meaning black gold, which, interestingly enough, was what it was called, in medieval Europe, since it was as valuable as gold.

Black pepper,'nalla mollu' was a precious, old, spice in Coorg – it was scattered, mixed with grains of rice into a bride's trousseau boxes, and used liberally in our food and a host of home remedies to cure various ills. Its slow, smouldering heat, without the drama associated with chillies, comes from peperine, a volatile oil that stimulates the appetite, and increases the flow of gastric juices, improving digestion. Roasted and ground peppercorns, or just ground peppercorns go into so many of our dishes, that it is possible to believe this is one of the original spices of our cuisine. When the weather gets wet and cold, a little more of this 'black gold' goes into our food.

For those pepper-fried mutton chops, tender meat is lightly marinated in a spare combination of spices and, the key ingredient, black peppercorns, split open to reveal their white interiors and pounded, are mixed in. Then they are shallow - fried with translucent shallots, which bring a hint of sweetness to the fire of the peppercorns. The spice mixture condenses into a thick, rich, clinging sauce, just perfect for the meat, delicious eaten with white rice and mollu kanni, (pepper water) another monsoon favourite. Or thick cut slices of very fresh white bread; or maybe, chunky fried potatoes. The heat released by these small, corrugated, pungent berries is long lasting, not easily quieted. It challenges the coldest, wettest weather, and brings comfort to a season of stormy days and nights.

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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