From the early weeks of June, to the end of August, great, sullen formations of clouds rise from the West coast, climb the ghats, and engulf the hills of Coorg. The rain pours down in sheets, without a thought of interrupting itself and the roar of water fills your ears, as every stream becomes a raging torrent. Even in the rare, muffled silence, every leaf drips audibly. It is a time of rare beauty, for anyone willing to abandon the comfort of a warm room, and wander across the cloud covered hills, usually drenched to the skin, but exhilarated. There's a delightful verse doing the rounds among Coorgs now, evocative of this season of rain and mists. Roughly translated, it goes something like this – the rains come pouring down, streams overflow, turning into rivers; the highlands are hidden, the forests darkened with mist. It's time for dried meat, fresh water fish, crab curry, home-reared chicken curry, tender bamboo shoots and madde puttu (a sweet made from a medicinal plant) It's the season of Kakkada for Coorgs.
The month of Kakkada spans mid-July through mid-August, a time when the busy rice -transplanting season kept people outdoors, hard at work, in need of warm, comforting food. With the incessant rain, the monsoon brought many, coveted gourmet treats – stores of dried, smoked meats and dried fish made an appearance. Vegetables like the Mangalore cucumber, gourds and pumpkins were carefully stored in attics to shore up the bleak monsoon months; a special colocasia leaf that grows, orchid –like, on trees was steamed into puttus and dried jackfruit seeds pounded into a tasty chutney, or made into a rich, earthy curry, as the heavy rains flooded all farms and gardens. Golden segments of ripened Jackfruit pods were rubber through bamboo sieves, and the extract steamed in koovale leaves (Schumannianthus virgatus), that have a distinctive fragrance and delicate taste of their own, into koovale puttu a steamed rice sweet. This was carried down to the paddies as a snack to lighten the intense hard work of transplanting. There were small delicious crabs to be caught and curried, and this was when, traditionally, the wonderful Coorg vinegar, kachampuli was made.
The fury of the monsoon rains is not quite what it used to be, and modern markets have taken care of the lean, monsoon months, but Coorgs have not lost their taste for old favourites. There are tender bamboo shoots to look out for, and this is when madde thoppe, a medicinal plant (Justicia wynaadensis) comes into season. According to our traditions, for eighteen consecutive days, the medicinal properties of the plant, which guard against many ailments increase, with one added on each day. Its fascinating that this plant, which grows all year round, should produce a concentration of medicinal properties just when the weather is at its most bleak, and people are exposed to cold, wind and rain, standing in flooded paddies – Nature's Bounty? The juice is extracted from the leaves by crushing and soaking them overnight, then boiling them in water. The purple extract is a monsoon special all Coorgs wait for, to cook into a delicious payasa, or a puttu. Bottles of the juice are carefully transported to people living in other towns, so that they don't miss this yearly offering from the land.
My mother-in-law's monsoon kitchen, like my grandmother's, was always filled with the tang of fermenting bamboo shoots. The slices floated in a large vessel of water that was changed daily, over 48 hours, to detoxify them. In a small outdoor kitchen, a huge vat of madde thoppe leaves simmered, on a wood fire letting off clouds of steam into the moisture -laden air. The juice would soon be cooked into a comfortingly soft payasa sweetened with jaggrey that was consumed in large, uninhibited scoops. Moss grew, grasshopper green, over roads, front yards and walls, innocent looking and dangerously slippery, one careless step sending you skating out of control. We walked to school from my grandparents' home, cutting across a small wood, wading through a cold, stream. The rain came down in sheets, umbrellas flipped inside out in the gusts of wind and we carried our slippers in our hands, as the muddy little rivers that flowed over the roads threatened to carry them away. Embankments collapsed, sometimes blocking the way home; we hardly noticed, we were busy discussing what tea time specials might be set out for us on the dining table that afternoon. At home, if a door was left open, blasts of icy winds blew through and any outing meant returning drenched and cold, wiping sticky clumps of wet earth off your shoes on a metal scraper outside the door. The power supplies were disabled for days on end. And somehow, it never seemed to matter, because there was always a fragrant, delicious, much-anticipated seasonal treat waiting on the table.
And here's the simple verse again, that makes the Coorg heart skip a beat. It paints a perfect picture in words, of the rain drenched landscape and all the riches it offers:
Jori bhuva male
Thumbana thod pole
Kodavak ikka Kakkada
Tender bamboo is a seasonal delicacy that can be salted or frozen for use through the year. Bamboo, known as punda grows in clumps along riversides, in forests, and a dwarf variety, prized by the Coorgs, is found on the higher slopes of the hills, known as wote (Ochlandra travancorica). The river bamboo, full of unforgiving thorny spikes is particularly tasty. With the first showers of monsoon rain, the bamboos begin to put out tender shoots (bimbale) that cut through the earth in pointed cones. These are gathered before they grow too woody and hard, and carried home. They are stripped of their thick, outer covering until the pale, tender flesh is reached, which is chopped or sliced, and soaked in water for 48 hours, to remove the toxic acids that it contains. The water is changed every 24 hours, and the bamboo ferments gently, retaining a tang when cooked. This is finally rinsed and prepared for cooking. Sometimes this long process is skipped altogether and the bamboo chips given a quick, fierce boil, the water drained, and the chips used in a curry or fry. Although I have done this, I still prefer to follow the longer process of soaking, since the sour tang from the fermentation adds to the flavour of the curry or fry. Bimbale curry is eaten with akki ottis (rice rotis) with a splash of hot, melted ghee, or lime juice, according to taste. If fresh bamboo shoots are unavailable, the tinned kind is a reasonably good substitute, although it lacks the full flavour of the fresh shoots.
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