Plantation cooks belonged to a special tribe, now almost extinct. Eccentric, temperamental, usually drunk on arrack on market days, they had a distressing tendency to kill off assorted relatives anytime they wanted a few days leave. But they were immensely gifted, capable of producing superb meals in badly equipped, smoky kitchens, and serving them with a flourish at the best-appointed tables. The procession of Josephs, Anthonys and Chinnaswamys attached to the tea and coffee plantation bungalows bore a strong resemblance to the mythical ‘Ramaswamy’ immortalized in Colonel Kenny-Herbert’s Culinary Jottings for Madras, published in 1885. He had to be wooed, coaxed and cajoled into displaying his mastery over refined Western and Indian cooking. He was an artist, who could create a “petit pâte a la financière” or a “supreme de la volaille” in the most basic kitchen. But, as Kenny-Herbert cautioned, “if you want to put nice little dinners on your table, you must be prepared to make a friend of your chef.” The relationship was a delicately balanced one, which needed patience and, as Kenny-Herbert put it, a smile when referring to past culinary disasters.
In his frugally equipped, wood-fired kitchen, Chinnaswamy wielded his genius, turning out spun sugar baskets filled with fresh fruit and cream, and local curries with equal felicity. He managed all this with the bare minimum of kitchen equipment and the simplest utensils. Kenny- Herbert, however, sensibly recommended, that it would be best to “ give him a few crockery sundries for exclusive use in his kitchen. If not, portions of your breakfast and dinner sets will find their way to the cook room, and the list of the killed, wounded and missing will become alarming.” Chinnaswamy and his tribe shopped for household provisions at the weekly market and somehow always managed to exceed their allowance. A review of the accounts always led to much unhappiness all around, with Chinnaswamy pleading his innocence, leaving the master and mistress of the house exasperated, but unable to sack him, as they were hopelessly attached to his excellent curries. Here’s Cathleen Ballantyne, who came to Coorg in the 1880’s as a coffee planter’s wife, describing her husband, George Ballantyne, trying to reconcile the weekly accounts with Chinnaswamy:
“ Now, here are coriander seeds and coconuts”.
“ For curry sar,” said Chinnaswamy.
“ And turmeric and poppy seeds?”
“ For curry sar.”
“ And chillies and dry ginger, and cardamoms?”
“ For curry sar,” again came the reply.
“ By Jove.” George said, clearly impressed.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, he teased out the qualities of each ingredient for a curry on a granite grinding stone, or in a mortar and pestle. If asked for a recipe, he became, invariably, aloof and evasive, his eyes sliding away to the distant hills visible through the window. He roasted and combined spices to perfection, displaying a genius for creating his own special spice pastes and blends, which left his own distinctive stamp on curries that held his employers in their thrall forever, making sure that he ruled the kitchen.
Cook's Note : The curry should be like a thin broth, sour and spicy with a tiny hint of sweetness. Take care not to overcook the prawns, they will become hard and rubbery. It also works very well with de-veined, un-shelled prawns. The shells add a lot of flavour to the curry.
Image Credits: Nithin Sagi