by Kaveri Ponnapa
A small ritual unfolds at sunset in many Coorg homes. There's a clinking of glasses as they are arranged on trays, followed by the heavier thud of bottles of whiskey, brandy, rum - homemade wine for the ladies - being brought out of locked cupboards, cabinets or bars and lined up for the evening. Bottles of water or soda are fetched, and cubes of ice are punched out of trays into ice buckets. Everyone loves a good drink in Coorg, it's a companionable activity, and this is a mellow part of the day, when friends may drop in, accept the offer of a drink that may stretch to several more, talk late into the night about affairs of the world, or old times, and stay on to dinner.
I love this part of the evening, when the uncertainties, the waiting, the sudden silences of dusk morph officially into night, and the household is bustling again, ready for a break that is unofficially named 'drinks'. Ceremonies are scattered lightly over the activities – the crunch of a cap being twisted off an unopened bottle of alcohol, the first peg measured out and offered to the ancestors; a finger dipped into the first drink of the evening, small libations offered, again, to the ancestors. The small wooden tables in my grandfather's home were decorated with a collection of bleached dots, from years of receiving liquid offerings. And once the glasses were filled came the snacks, to keep them company. There were little glass bowls of fried, spiced peanuts that were placed on every side table, salty, with shiny curry leaves scattered through, or bowls of crunchy 'Bombay mix', full of nuts, raisins and cornflakes. But these did not interest me.
For a finicky and temperamental meat-eater, I waited eagerly to see what would emerge from my grandmother's kitchen to partner the drinks - inevitably meaty treats, not for the faint-hearted. Wobbly, baked goat's brain, fried, spiced liver, kidneys, I relished them all, and nothing could turn me squeamish. My absolute favourite, though, was kaima unde barthad, fried meatballs made of minced mutton. Small platefuls arrived from the kitchen, stuck through with wooden toothpicks. Hot, succulent, covered with a light coating of crumbs from being fried in ghee, I could eat my way through a heap of them without encouragement or guilt. They were full of the flavours of fresh coriander, green chillies and lime. Hand-tossed, poached in water and then shallow-fried to finish, they were always moist and tender. The gentle frying in ghee meant rich brown crumbs that could be scraped off the pan, and from a serving plate, and licked up.
Little luxuries, all these snacks were reserved for the adults, and children usually got themselves a rationed portion. But this is where I had a wonderful advantage. My grandfather, who loved reading and literature, had spotted in me a kindred spirit with a passion for books. He would call me to stand beside him, or perch on the armrest of his sofa, while he read aloud or quoted from Shakespeare, Ruskin or his favourite, Oliver Goldsmith. I listened, and helped myself freely to the snacks from a plate placed on a small Art Deco table beside him. Sometimes, when he finished, he would thrust a book into my hands, and urge me to read a passage or two for myself.
Memories of food are some of the most vivid and evocative that we carry, and this particular one is inseparably entwined with a rare and warm companionship between an elderly man and an exuberant seven-year-old. Even today, when I cook kaima unde barthad, they bring along with them a whiff of whiskey, books, and my grandfather's presence.
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