by Kaveri Ponnapa
A large glass pitcher with freshly squeezed juice from local oranges or full of clear squashes and cordials, placed on a lace mat, was one of those classic, timeless sights on the Coorg table. It always appeared at a particular moment in the life of a busy household when, everyday, there was a pause, and everyone caught their breath. Hot, thirsty, dust-covered children raced in to snatch a glassful of refreshing squash before they ran off again. Just about anyone who wandered by stopped, almost absentmindedly, to have a drink. Aunts and grandmothers left the kitchen and a long morning’s cooking to sit down and sip something and chat. It was one of those beautiful, suspended moments, so easy to create in the midst of our busy lives; but more often than not, we miss it. We are mostly too busy to pause in the middle of the morning –in fact, to pause at all.
The rich abundance of Coorg’s fruits found its way into bottles of bitter orange, Indian gooseberry, ginger-lime and passion fruit squash in most households. Fresh fruit squash was always there and it drew you back –and maybe that’s how tastes were shaped: because even today, nothing that comes out of a carton or pre-packed in a bottle can compare with a home made squash. Over time, that glass pitcher became a sort of symbol of a particular way of life in which you knew where most of the produce that made its way into your kitchen and onto your table came from –you grew it.
Of late I’ve been thinking about many women of an earlier generation and remembering others that I used to know. Their days seemed so ordinary: what, I wonder, inspired them to cook meal after meal, three times a day, all through their lives, cooking from scratch –which was the only way we cooked not so long ago –for large numbers of people. They managed coffee estates and rice fields all day and then stayed up until after midnight making heaps of delicious snacks to store away in knee high, recycled biscuit tins, always generous and caring.
Was it the moments of beauty they created for themselves in turning out perfect dishes with ingenuity and imagination, from naturally good raw materials –which is why I have always cooked? Or did they feel the way that I do when I shut myself in my store every morning after breakfast, opening cupboards, and breathing deeply, happily, taking stock of all the ingredients carefully and lovingly stacked up inside that I can bring together in many harmonies through the day, feeling like M.F.K Fisher when she wrote: “The store, the bins, the cupboards, I had learned forever, make an invisible throne room. From them I ruled; temporarily I controlled. I felt powerful, and I loved that feeling.” And there is great power in food, in the cooking and sharing and feeding.
A part of the answer lies, I feel, in the beauty of the ordinary that is everywhere, where every part of the day, each task becomes its own perfect moment, as rich and satisfying as any grand project that we might undertake. On a remote coffee plantation, miles from anywhere, no matter how rushed the events of the day, my grandmother would spread out a pretty tablecloth, and make sure the smallest children in the house had their own miniature glasses from which they drank fresh juice. Some of this comes back in unexpected ways, in the moments that we choose to recreate for other generations, in other places and times. Colas, bottled and canned drinks never made their way into our home when my children were very small persons; it was always fresh squashes and juices, with some pretty glasses (that are still around) turning the mundane into something rather special.
This year I made the perfect ginger-lime squash to my taste. Ginger has been cultivated in Coorg for generations, highly valued for all its curative and stimulating properties. But there’s a deeper association I love that is all to do with these same women –hard working, resourceful, generous and strong –who have left us this culinary legacy. Ginger and turmeric plantings were the preserve of women; the income that was generated from their cultivation was exclusively theirs, by custom. So in the Coorg marriage contract, the bride’s rights to ginger and turmeric fields were publically announced and secured, giving her that all important right to the profits of her enterprise and hard work. They were far more modern than we could ever have imagined.
Countless bottles of ginger-lime squash have been made in countless homes for as far back as we can recall, but this turned out to be my ideal version of a well-loved classic. It’s a winning combination of fierce ginger and sharp lime, softened with just the right sweetness. The bonus is the beautiful shade of pink that comes from doing away with preservatives and using raw, un-boiled limejuice. The ginger settles to the bottom neatly and has to be shaken to life before pouring it out, fiery and reviving. I could have made it just that much healthier by using jaggery syrup, but that would have meant losing the lovely pink, so a compromise was made.
The citrus fruits that grow in Coorg are rich, juicy and loaded with flavour, and this squash shows off the qualities of our native limes. Here in the city, most often the ginger I use is store bought, and if the bags of produce sent by friends don’t arrive in time, so are the limes. I hope someday that I’ll have limes and ginger that I’ve grown myself. In the meanwhile, when I take a break from my routine, somewhere in the background is an image of that iconic pitcher on a dining table set in a calm pause, before life rushes on again. I guess this is what you might call the art of slow living and you can practice it wherever you happen to be.
Cook's Note : : I prefer not to use the traditional preservative of potassium metabisulphite. I just refrigerate the ginger lime squash. It keeps very well for up to 3 weeks, if your squash lasts that long! You can use strained jaggery syrup instead of sugar to give you a more earthy and healthy option. The colour of the squash will not be the same though.
Photo Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa
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