by Kaveri Ponnapa
There's a little store that I visit to pick up all sorts of delicious Coorg treats –homemade wines, maybe a bottle of pickle or some special ingredient that happens to be in season. It's one of those places where people drop by to pick up their packages, and stop to chat. Transactions can never really be hurried here. A couple of months ago, I could hardly suppress my excitement as I collected a precious haul of tiny, freshwater fish I hadn't eaten in years. My catch was placed in an icebox, while we lingered, exchanging news with Bottolanda Uthappa who has run his store for decades, and has scores of stories and facts to share.
Never mind being barked at by a ferocious policewoman about parking restrictions on a very crowded street, there was no way we could leave before a long exchange of pleasantries and news about ourselves, our families and the world at large –it's the way things are done in Coorg. Our conversation meandered around the changes we were seeing in our land, the dwindling rice fields and along with them, the disappearance of so many foods we once had in abundance. It was a welcome way to spend time. On my way out, I braved the policewoman's wrath again, to stop by the bus stand, and pick up a copy of our favourite Coorg language weekly, the evocatively named Poomale, meaning a 'garland of flowers', that carries all the news you need about Coorg. With a copy tucked safely into the back pocket of a car seat, I headed home, my head full of stories, both old and new, dreaming of the curry and cutlets I would make with the fish.
Koilemeen, the slender fish that is such a delicacy in Coorg thrives in freshwater streams that feed flooded paddy fields, an un-demarcated world that is neither land nor water. Here, carefully dammed and channeled cold, fresh streams rush along mud embankments to flood the fields full of growing paddy. It's a beautiful world of upside down hills and skies reflected in standing water, pierced by sharp young stalks of ripening paddy. Snow-white cattle egrets tiptoe elegantly through on their long, thin legs, as though reluctant to disturb this submerged landscape.
When the dammed waters rush into the rich fields, they bring with them a flood of small fish, tender and delicious. Growing up, the abundance of koilemeen in season was looked forward to and taken for granted. Large bowls of curry and crunchy, crispy cutlets were consumed, and bottles of pickle were put away for the months ahead. All this time of enjoying koilemeen, I hadn't really paid too much attention to how they came to the table. It was enough that they were there. But gradually, the supplies waned; more often than not, we heard the same story everywhere –no koilemeen this year; or, they don't seem to come in the way they used to, anymore. What had happened was something most of us hadn't realized as we rushed ahead with our busy lives.
Every year, as we relinquished our rice fields to ginger and other crops, or just gave up cultivating them altogether, an entire eco-system changed. As the chemical fertilizers and pesticides increased, the fish retreated. Rice farming is also one of the most community oriented activities, and an unspoken understanding kept the natural water channels between neighbours clear of weeds and obstructions so that water flowed freely, a system that has shrunk alarmingly. The elaborate web of relationships that connected the flooded rice fields and the delicious fish that came to our table was forgotten. It was another little world, where traps (poda) were made from woven coconut or pana mara fronds and placed across the narrow breaches that channeled water into the fields, trapping the tiny fish. Bracken ferns, (thereme), with their tangled fronds, made a barrier that prevented the little fish from becoming soggy under the flow of water. The catches were abundant, quantities were consumed and even more dried on rooftops, saved for another day. The rich waters brought a first wave of chaipemeen, saved for drying, followed by the prized koilemeen.
Every batch of koilemeen that comes into the kitchen brings other species of fish –stragglers and imposters who have to be caught and prevented from getting into your earthenware curry pot. Chaipemeen is rejected, as are some other odd characters. It's a time consuming affair, cleaning the tiny fish from the dense mud of the fields. But it forges a deep connection with the land, a reminder of a particular confluence of soil, rain and water that produces this specialty that reaches our tables, year after year. This batch came after such a long while that I washed it with great care, retrieving every slippery little fish that escaped from my bowl.
The curry is rich and earthy, full of flavour. We always eat it with akki ottis, made from rice grown in those same fields, dreaming all the while of the brooding landscape of Coorg. Koilemeen curry evokes so much nostalgia and emotion tied to the land, it almost overwhelms. Small clusters of this fish bound with egg to make patties or cutlets come with a hidden crunch and a sharp touch of spice, a family favourite. The pickle is perhaps best of all, intense, salty and spicy.
The koilemeen season is officially at an end, although there may be another wave from villages that take a second crop of rice. Then we'll have to wait long months for them to return to our kitchens. I hope there will always be enough rice fields in which they can thrive. I hope there will always be enough fish and that they will not become one of the 'lost foods' of the land. When the foods we love no longer come to our tables, we need to ask ourselves why –and be reminded that "what we eat is a part of an integrated whole, a web of relationships that cannot be reduced to single ingredients". The food we eat is so much a part of who we are; a part of our history and of the choices we have made over the years from the landscape we lived in and what it had to offer. To keep the foods we love, perhaps we need to look at nurturing small farming communities. Without living rice fields, there will be no koilemeen, and perhaps many other things will begin to disappear, that we haven't begun to miss as yet.
Image Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa
Image Credit above:Sudeep Gurtu
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