Farmyard to Table

by Kaveri Ponnapa

Some time ago, I was at a highly sophisticated biryani tasting session. About halfway through about a dozen different offerings, I ate a spoonful of rice, and was instantly engulfed by huge waves of nostalgia. Powerful taste memories came flooding into my mind, and I was back at my grandmother’s table, eating small dabs of a dark, intensely flavoured sauce off my plate. What I had just eaten was an Andhra ulava charu biryani made with slow cooked horse gram. The dish I remembered from my childhood was mudre kanni, a beautiful rich red sauce, made from the heavily reduced extract of horse gram. Unlike the ulava charu of Andhra, which is a mainstay of the cuisine and eaten regularly, Coorg's much loved mudre kanni is a special dish that reached our tables directly via the farmyard.

Horse gram, (Macrotyloma uniflorum) known as cheriye mudre in Coorg, and as kulthi, hurali and by various other names elsewhere, was always cooked in gargantuan quantities, particularly during the season when the fields were being thoroughly ploughed to prepare them to receive the young rice saplings. On the coffee estate neighbouring my husband’s ancestral property, enormous vessels would bubble on wood fires as horse gram was cooked to feed the bullocks that drew the ploughs. The gram was cattle fodder, but the liquid that was drained from the cooked gram was precious stuff. Neighbours would be invited to come and collect as much of the extract as they wished. Soon, people from all the surrounding homes would trail in with empty milk cans, aluminum pails and chembus, (lotas), to carry away the protein and iron rich extract, to be boiled down and seasoned into a thick, earthy sauce.

Mudre kanni is best eaten with steaming hot rice. If you have a rich red colour, and a sauce with a deep, intense flavour, salt, sweet and spice lightly mingled into a taste that lingers on and on, and makes you reach out your fingers for one last lick time and again, then you have made the perfect mudre kanni. It needs to be savoured in smallish quantities, without too many other accompaniments to crowd its flavours - preferably none at all. It belongs to the category of ‘heating’ foods, so we were always cautioned to consume it with care. That’s also probably the reason it always showed up on the table in cold, wet weather, in a large ceramic jug, its glaze crackled with use and age.

It is one of those unusual foods that linked us directly with our farmyard animals - decades ago, the cooking of this sauce always involved community, for just this reason. One of our venerable Coorg elders, a repository of fantastic and engaging stories of other times told me how, in 1946, timber merchants, with two large elephants, arrived at his village. The felling of trees was a very rare event then, unlike today’s unbridled slaughter - everyone gathered to watch what was going on. The men and elephants camped by the riverside, where every evening, the elephants were bathed and fed and children were allowed to play with them.

A gigantic cauldron of cheriye mudre bubbled on a wood fire, the fragrance steaming into the air, and the extract was filled into empty kerosene tins. Children from every house came with chembus (lotas) to collect a share. The mahouts were scrupulously fair about equal shares for everyone, and each family reciprocated by taking turns to feed them simple meals every day.

Mudre kanni was always cooked on a wood fire and considered a rare treat, eaten with par-boiled rice. His mother, declared Ajja, while telling his story, made the best mudre kanni ever, the likes of which he has never tasted again. It was also, he said, one of those dishes that you always shared with those who could not make their own, making sure that no one in the village went without.

From all the wonderful accounts I have listened to, mudre kanni, it appears, was always part of a series of exchanges - when traders came up from the plains to the remote villages of Coorg, five to six loaded bullock carts working their way up to the hills, they camped for days, unloading potatoes, jaggery and coriander seeds. They took back Coorg’s famous fragrant rice, jackfruit and all kinds of forest produce. Every evening, at their camp, cheriye mudre was boiled to feed the bullocks and the women of the village would be quick to reserve a share in advance. Ajja’s mother was always quick with her bookings, so, as long as the traders stayed, there was always mudre kanni in their home - a great luxury, he recalls, as meat was hard to come by, and this was as rich in taste.

When I was growing up, this sauce was always part of a much more elaborate spread at mealtimes. But it still had a certain aura about it, of being something to be served out in small quantities, eaten sparingly, lingering over every drop: a special dish that refused to let us forget its frugal past. I don’t cook mudre kanni over a wood fire, unfortunately I don’t have one yet, and pressure-cooking helps reduce much of the work of boiling the beans. It still takes a fair bit of slow cooking to get that special flavour that is worth every bit of the effort. I love it with just plain rice, and it’s a bonus that it keeps for very well for long periods without spoiling. It’s also a dish that makes me think deeply about how we once cooked and ate, and how food came to our tables; and also about scarcity and plenty, and what we do to create both - I love mudre kanni even more for that.

Photo Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa

Please look out for this recipe in my upcoming cookbook.

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