Forest Tales

by Kaveri Ponnapa

There’s a pile of thick, silky leaves between my hands. They are a deep, shiny, dangerous green, beautiful to run my fingers over, and just a bit alarming at the same time. Even the botanical name, Remusatia vivipara has a wild, unpredictable ring to it, like the forest from which it has been plucked and brought to my kitchen, a wildness usually hidden by the friendly sounding Hitchhiker Elephant Ear, the name by which it is commonly known.

Mara kembe is a glossy forest beauty that flourishes during the monsoon in Coorg. It grows on trees, drawing vital nutrients from its hosts, producing concentrations of anti-oxidants that make it a wonder cure in native medicine for an astonishing range of common ailments and serious diseases. But mara kembe does not yield up its healing properties quite so easily. It comes with a wicked little twist, a generous dose of ‘raphides’, needle sharp calcium oxalate crystals that can cause a severe irritation in the throat that can even be fatal to browsing animals. A good dose of acid, usually generous squeezes of native limes, or some kachampuli, is used to neutralize this toxin and make the leaves edible.

In tangled, luxurious, rain-soaked forests, mara kembe comes into its own from June to September, when the rains beat down across Coorg. Rich with nutrients and anti-oxidants it was cooked and eaten to keep body temperatures stable during the cold, wet windy weather that lasted for months, when people spent much of their time outdoors, working the rice fields. Mara kembe puttu is a throwback to the cold, wet, hard days of the past.

A roll of green leaves, tied artistically with a length of some dried forest creeper lies on the floor of my kitchen. It has just arrived from Coorg, along with a precious haul of juicy, thin-skinned native limes, their skins mottled and rain battered, but their flavour undefeated. There’s a bundle of fiddlehead ferns that already has me dreaming of a tender stir-fry. Roots, shoots and leaves tumble out of a bag. I approach the mara kembe leaves with caution and respect after a tasting incident gone wrong –I accidentally dipped my finger into a paste of raw leaves to taste for salt. The fierce burning and itching took so long to die down, I doubt if I will ever make the same mistake again!

I grind the thick, rich leaves with spices, taming their ferocity with copious quantities of limejuice and steaming them into rice puttus wrapped snugly in banana leaves. This is one of the most beautiful puttus I have ever eaten. The soft parcels open up to release a warm fragrance of forest scents and a rich green colour that has survived the steaming. I would quite happily eat it just as it is, to explore every nuance of that wild taste. But you can mellow the flavours a little, seasoning the puttu it with a little chopped onion; mustard seeds and curry leaves fried in a spoon of ghee if you wish. The stems of mara kembe go into a curry, and the tubers are eaten too. But that’s a story for another time.

Kakkada, which runs through mid-July to mid-August, is a season that comes with myths and folklore of its own. The rain beats down –or at least, it did –so relentlessly that it was believed that even the gates to heaven were closed, an unsuitable time to die. The forest was always a dark, dangerous and uncertain place that one entered with caution to gather food, even more cautiously when the skies were sullen and the earth sodden with rain. Under those skies, the stories grew darker too, weaving webs of myth around foods that were commonly eaten. Colocasia esculenta, the familiar Taro, a relative of mara kembe, popular in curries the year through was enmeshed in a tale of spirits during kakkada. Since the gates to heaven were closed to good people, kulis, malignant, mischievous spirits used this ambiguous time to travel to heaven themselves. They would go away, leaving their children tied to the safety of the stems of Taro plants during kakkada. If you dared to eat Taro during this month, you harvested it at your peril! With mara kembe puttu on your table, fragrant, delicious, filled with so much goodness that extensive scientific research is being done into its remarkable curative properties with the idea to include it in pharmaceutical medicines, why would you want to test out that little myth anyway?

Photo Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa

Please look out for this recipe in my upcoming cookbook.

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