A Mutton Pulao to Cherish

by Kaveri Ponnapa

On mornings when a wilderness of tangled, lush greenery grew on my grandmother’s dangerously rickety kitchen table and the fresh, sharp, mingled scents of mint and coriander leaves filled the air and she shooed us out of the kitchen more vigorously than usual, you knew that it would be pulao for lunch. It was the only rice and meat dish that we knew then (the invasion of biryanis was a long way off). I called it green pulao, on account of its colour, although the Coorg name for it is ‘kartha pulao’ – black pulao – or ‘erachi kool’ - meaning quite simply, rice-with-meat, which is also a dish in neighbouring Malabar.

It is not a particularly elaborate dish, demanding innumerable, hard to procure ingredients or complex cooking techniques. But it needs careful, patient preparation and considerable skill in gauging cooking times to have that perfect, spice-scented, falling-off-the-bone meat and tender grains of rice at the end of several hours of work. Those were days when I would slip back into the kitchen by a side door that led into a small, messy room where the spice pastes were ground for the day’s cooking. The sturdy young woman who helped my grandmother in the kitchen would be at work on a pile of spices: tiny, undisciplined flecks of khas-khas; round, yellow moons of fried gram; spikes of deep scented cloves; green cardamom and sweet cassia bark. She would pound them into submission with the end of an elongated stone roller and then, gathering together bright white coconut scrapings, heaps of green leaves and garlic, she would begin to work rhythmically, lifting the roller ever so slightly, bringing it down with a ‘thunk’, and then moving it heavily and smoothly, forwards and backwards onto the ‘arpe kall’a grinding stone that was fixed into a waist-high concrete platform. She paused only fleetingly in this hypnotic movement to scoop up a little water from a ‘chembu’ she kept nearby, to add to the rapidly mingling spice paste. I would stand, watching intently. Soon a delicious green aroma, ripe with the decadence of garlic would fill the room. If I pleaded hard enough, when the spice paste was almost done, she would allow me to have a go at handling the roller and pretend that I was an expert grinder of spices. It was tricky work - the roller was heavy, with a will of its own, the surface of the stone slippery. If I had managed to crush one of my fingers, which was a distinct possibility, or had dropped the stone on my foot, she would have been in serious trouble. But such disasters never happened. Instead, I developed a lifelong love for hand-ground spice pastes, cool, smooth and always brightly coloured, never overheated and angry like their machine-ground counterparts. I loved the way she gathered the paste into a neat mound with the edge of her palm and then sprinkled just a little water to wash off what remained on the stone, scraping it into a dish with her hand. These carefully collected watery remnants were used in the cooking too, adding to the richness of the flavours. The spice paste held the secret to the fragrance and flavour of this particular pulao, blending all the different ingredients together so that they could not rush off on their own to confuse or dominate the palate, but had to yield up their qualities in a distinctive, beautifully layered harmony.

A morning’s dedicated slow-cooking would give you the most beautiful pulao. My grandmother used a large, heavy bottomed vessel, as did my mother-in-law, although I do have a pressure cooker version of her recipe, garnered from one of my aunts, years later. This is a true pulao, cooked in a rich stock. The favoured rice was not basmati, but the local, fragrant, short-grained jeerige sanna. All the flavours were sealed in with a square of cloth torn from a thin cotton Kerala towel and a lid placed over it all, a method that seems to have travelled without change with the original ‘pilaf’ from the Middle East on its journey East. The identical method of cooking this dish is described in Baghdadi and Syrian Arabic books: the cloth protects the steam from falling back on the rice and turning it to sticky mush. With this method, and some care, you have moist, plump, separate grains of rice that are the hallmark of a pulao.

If you had judged when the rice had soaked just long enough to make it tender, and not soggy, and the meat was just right to add to the rice, the stock not too much, or too little to cook the rice, then, when you opened the lid of the vessel when the pulao was done, the most divine aroma would steal out, driving you crazy with impatience for lunchtime to come around. And my grandmother always got it right. We would dig our fingers into a soft pile of rice, sliding beautifully cooked chunks of meat off the bone, drawing some cool choute mor pajji, (cucumber pachadi) or fierce eruli mor pajji (onion pachadi) towards the rice, scooping everything into our mouths in bliss.

I love the way this dish has travelled so many thousands of miles from the kitchens where it was first invented, and following many less frequented paths of migration and trade, it has established itself in our rustic kitchens. With the use of local spices, it has acquired a character all its own - black peppercorns and Coorg’s unique kachampuli have worked their way into the flavourings quietly, seamlessly - and yet it retains something of its original identity. It also lent itself beautifully to the cooking of whole game birds, much prized at one time on the Coorg table, when every family used to hunt.

Erachi kool or kartha pulao is a dish that demands attention, and whenever it is served, it carries the unmistakable stamp of being something special. It used to be cooked and served at homes when guests arrived. At weddings, it was the most anticipated course, the colour of the rice making a darker, damper green on the gloss of the banana leaf on which it was served. It was eaten with silent concentration, a mor pajji of cucumber on the side that brought its own shade of green to the ones already before you, or sharp, crisp onions and green chilies in curd. Pulao is rich in flavor and character, a dish that demands much of the cook, that asks to be cherished - I now know why we were chased out of my grandmother’s kitchen all those years ago. It appears deceptively simple, until you have eaten it. It was a sad day when it was jostled off the table at Coorg weddings by a contender that came from the same region, the biryani - to my palate, it lacks the immense depth of a pulao.

Photo Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa

Please look out for this recipe in my upcoming cookbook.

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