by Kaveri Ponnapa
Year after year, the beauty of puthari just takes my breath away. The nights are cold and clear and from the hilltops, the stars shine with a clear, piercing light as the harvest date approaches. The days are filled with a kind of humming energy from the excitement of all the preparations that need to be made to welcome the harvest. Everyone who can spare the time and even some who cannot, make their way back to Coorg to celebrate puthari with their clans, at their ancestral homes. Somewhere between September and December, while we were all busy with our lives, a transformation has taken place across the valleys of Coorg. It is as if a silent breeze has blown across the fields and turned the tender, bright young green of paddy to pale gold. The moon grows fuller and heavier as the nights pass and by harvest time, the whole of Coorg is bathed in a wash of silver light. It's a scene of such unearthly beauty, that it always brings back a line from long forgotten childhood stories: "an enchantment lay across the land". All of Coorg seems to lie under a magical spell.
If you have been lucky enough to bring in a harvest at an ancestral home, the experience will be stamped on your memory forever. The warm glow of a lit lamp; prayers offered to ancestors for blessings and protection; laughter and gossip; palm prints of rice paste and bitter gourd stencils decorating walls and doors; feasts, music and dance, and a sense of anticipation and elation.
There are so many heart-warming customs that go into the growing of rice: like tying a knot in the first sheaf of ripening paddy, so that prosperity won't slip away, then running to the granary to announce aloud that a rich harvest is on its way. The way the old harvest welcomes the new, the previous year's paddy, rice and rice flour heaped up in a basket with every kind of auspicious food to greet the new sheaves of grain. The stalks of freshly cut grain that will decorate doorways, lamps and pillars, sometimes woven into beautiful clusters, inviting good fortune.
Puthari is an old night, filled with all the ancient magic of the land. The wick of the lit lamp on a platter, bobbing down a lane to the fields looks like a little star against the darkness; the slow beat of the Coorg band (valaga) as it plays draws you back hundreds of years to other, long ago harvests; the gunshots that announce the cutting of the first sheaves of new grain shock you back to the present. Your bare feet are cold on the damp earth, but you heart is filled with warmth as you listen to the old songs of thanksgiving, walking behind the singers, back to the gracious old house, lit up and glowing like an old oil painting.
Back in the bustling house, the tables and benches are set out for the feast, and little portions of eleakki puttu are tossed onto the ceiling, offerings to the ever-present ancestors. There's a timeless feeling to sitting down at those long tables with multiple generations, waiting for the oldest member of the clan to acknowledge the new harvest before we all eat together. It's a promise from the land, a promise fulfilled after months of hard work: of rich harvests, abundant vegetables, fish in the streams and game in the forests to bring to our tables.
The feasts last many days, but there are some special dishes that belong to the season. The earthy stew called simply, puthari curry, made of fresh bean shells (chette), dried beans (kuru), bitter gourd and dried koile meen, a small, slender fish found in the flooded paddy fields and streams is a dish just made for cold winter nights that bring in the harvest. Thick, and sharp with kachampuli, served piping hot with akki ottis, it is unpretentious and satisfying, the dried fish adding it's own intense flavour to the curry.
I had never eaten puthari curry, but thanks to the generosity of Barianda Mrs. Lalu Uthappa, Chef Naren Thimmaiah's mother, I learnt how to make it. Her instructions were so simple to follow that the very first time I tried it, in no time at all, I was holding an earthenware pot filled with the most rich and enticing curry. I did not manage to get dried koile meen, despite my best efforts, so I used small, dried sardines instead – Lalu aunty sympathized with me, adding that the curry would taste even better with them. She made it sound so mouth-watering, I will definitely be searching Coorg for those little dried fish!
This is one of the prettiest curries I have ever cooked – in the terracotta pot, there is a wild mixture of bright greens and dark reds as the vegetables and beans tumble together, with the occasional silvery flash of sardine. By the time it cooks and thickens, of course you lose most of the colour, but it is a vivid reminder of the freshness and abundance that comes from our fields. I made the curry last, and enjoyed it all over again a few days later when the flavours had become richer and deeper.
Last year, we sat for hours in the home of our good friends, all famous singers, listening to them sing the ballads of the land. We stayed for several hours, drank whisky, ate dinner with them and then left – they would sing through the whole night. We celebrated puthari with my grandfather's clan, at his ancestral home in Nalnad, welcoming the harvest wrapped up in the hospitality and great affection of the clan we ate rice payasa cooked by the women, just as my grandfather must have done decades and decades ago, while the valaga played outside.
This year, although I cannot be in Coorg for the harvest, I will cook puthari curry, make akki ottis and payasa. My thambuttu powder is ready. I will welcome the harvest with a full table, and memories of last year's celebrations: and remember the lovely lines from the old Coorg song: puthari comes in glory, but it slips away quietly. And end with a gentle plea, to never leave Coorg, puthari.
Bappaka Puthari Bannathe Baathe
Popaka Puthari Ennethe Pochi
Image Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa
Image Credits: Sudeep Gurtu
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