Finger Food and Small Feasts

by Kaveri Ponnapa

We love our feasts in Coorg. At weddings, festivals and family gatherings, not to mention innumerable other occasions when generous feasts are cooked up at a whim, there is always so much good food on the table that you might think we take it all for granted. But we don't, and we prepare each and every one as carefully as the other. There's plenty of planning that goes into a feast, but some of the most interesting things happen around it, away from the table, in little islands and pockets of time over the evening.

Those glasses of brandy, whiskey and rum, homemade wines and liqueurs that always fill hands at any occasion in Coorg –big or small, special or everyday –never come alone, but bring along a procession of finger foods and 'small snacks' trailing after them. Platters of fried liver, mutton or pork, chopped into small, compact pieces that fit just right between thumb and forefinger, spicy, carelessly scattered with the potent little paringe mollu. There is always something for vegetarians too, but somehow, whatever it is, it never seems to remain in your memory or your taste buds like these meats.

Pandi barthad is a dark, shiny, undulating landscape. You always scoop a spoonful or two onto your plate, pick up a piece with your fingers and pop it into your mouth. A bite into every tasty morsel releases a rush of kachampuli and lime, shockingly sour and delightful. Soft, succulent pork coated in a layer of fat, with just the right spice combinations, followed by a sip of whatever drink you favour. Its use of just three spices is deceptive, because its flavours were deep, rich and lingering. It may pretend to be a 'small snack', but it most definitely is much more than that.

Pandi barthad invokes a host of memories: family gatherings where, invariably, men clustered together on verandahs, or outdoors; the nearby forest and coffee estate creaked loudly into the silent night. Voices were swallowed up by the darkness, and a much older Coorg was visible in the far distance: a Coorg of dark, dense forests, teeming with wild boar to be hunted and carried home in triumph. The women created their own, closed world between kitchen and dining room, excluding the men, but happily wandering out into the masculine preserve as and when they pleased – the advantages of being a Coorg woman are infinite! Familiar stories resurfaced and floated around, and well-worn jokes made their rounds yet again. Small children ran helter-skelter, shrieking with delight, playing games they had just invented, snatching helpings of pandi barthad as they ran. A few minutes later they would be back, tongues hanging out like little puppies, shouting for water as the spice hit their palates.

Other memories of drums, and the haunting call of the long, curved horn of the Coorg band (valaga) playing at a wedding float to the surface too, and old conversations and images swirl around in your head. Images of aunts and mothers bustling around in peacock bright saris, welcoming guests, directing, play across your memory. For just a few moments, you watch the lovely scene from far away, immersed in a small, private feast of your own: pandi barthad on the small paper plate balanced on your lap, with a glass of something to keep it company held in your hand, and contentment envelops you in a warm cloud.

Conversations ran on endlessly. Everyone seemed to have so much to talk about; nostalgia wafted around everywhere. Dinner was always a long way off at such gatherings, but it never seemed to matter, because by the time you got to the table, your senses had feasted in more ways than one.

There's another, fabulous variation to this dish which will follow sometime soon!

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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