One Good Dish

by Kaveri Ponnapa

This afternoon I cooked one of those effortless, classic Coorg combinations: paputtu and erachi curry. The huge bowl of curry dwindled rapidly, as we scooped it onto creamy paputtus. With the cardamom scented steam that wafted up from our plates came many exclamations of appreciation, followed by long, satisfied silences. Everyone around the table had something to say: a question to ask about the ingredients, the way they were cooked, all attention was on the table. My daughter pointed out with all the expertise of someone extremely fond of her food that the meat was cooked to perfection, and a friend, normally a timid eater, tucked in enthusiastically, leaving me pleasantly surprised.

Conversations in Coorg are so often about food and cooking that everyone takes it for granted and, in fact expects it. When you meet a friend on the street as you pick up your groceries, or drive from your coffee estate to the nearest town to collect mail, or make a phone call, inevitably, one of the first questions is about food. Have you eaten – it may be breakfast, lunch or dinner – followed by the quintessentially Coorg query, "yenthe curry", which in spirit, translates as "what fare" (on your table). The replies are often so evocative and vivid, they are worthy of the best food writing. Men and women, grandfathers and grandmothers, aunts and uncles, young people all love to ask this question. It's a sign of friendship, familiarity, warmth and so many inexpressible emotions and nuances of a way of life.

This interest in what goes onto other peoples' tables is both casual and intense. The aftermath of a phone call is often a flurry of activity to prepare a similar dish to the one just discussed, or a plan for something like it the next day. Just how much food is discussed is something I took for granted: at weddings; over garden walls; on street corners; in formal drawing rooms and on telephones, conversations about food floated in the air everywhere, snippets lingering in your memory years, even decades later. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' home, watching my Grandmother and the oldest of my aunts' cook. My aunt would sometimes disappear for what seemed like hours from the kitchen. Curious, I would wander after her, only to find her deep in conversation on the telephone with a friend or neighbour about some recipe, our afternoon meal temporarily forgotten.

My mother-in-law and her generation were certainly the original food bloggers. She had a gaggle of nieces who lived nearby and since she was a superb cook, hardly a day went by without one or the other of them calling to ask about a recipe for a much loved dish. She was so passionate about food, she would share and discuss recipes and cooking techniques over a fickle telephone connection that crackled fiercely, often by the light of an oil lamp, as the electricity supply frequently failed, prompting my father-in-law to ask in exasperation, why she hadn't done all this when everyone had met just a few days before! I was grateful though, as I learnt a great deal, thanks to her interest in food.

It always amazed me how she produced the most extraordinary meals from the tiniest of kitchens. The menu for the day always involved an element of surprise, as sometimes, unexpected ingredients arrived in the kitchen. But generally, there was always that one good dish, chosen from a repertoire of many dozens, which was the focus of a meal. It took so little to create a meal that was memorable. On days when we ate paputtu and erachi curry, there was not much to distract us from the main cast of flavours: "don't put too much on the table at one time" was my mother-in-law's advice. Erachi curry has tender cubes of mutton and some bone, in gravy tinged with the fresh green of coriander leaves ground with coconut that makes its rich base. A few whole spices, a few powdered ones, a touch of kachampuli, and you have one of the simplest, most pleasing curries ever. If you have the time and patience, it is worth every bit of the effort to grind the spice paste by hand, on a granite stone slab with a roller, arpe kall in Coorg. The masala you get adds its weight in gold in flavour to the curry. It is often eaten with paputtu, which gets its name from the milk in which it is cooked, soft, lightly sweetened, the perfect partner for the deep flavours of the curry.

Mutton and goat were, at one time, relatively difficult to come by in Coorg, bought from market towns. The meat usually came wrapped up in soggy newspaper, very fresh. It always arrived rather late in the morning, as it required a journey to the nearest market to buy it. But before long, aromas drifting all over the house would tell you that lunch was on its way and soon, the sharp sound of trays of paputtu being slammed onto the kitchen counter to turn it out could be heard. Once we were seated around my mother-in-law's table, the scene was not too different from the one I described a little while ago – everyone engrossed in the food, making their own mental notes, ready to share them when the meal was done – which completes the circle for me, as I have her to thank for this curry and puttu. I take her advice on this one, and never put too much on the table with it – erachi curry definitely deserves your undivided attention.

Thank you for visiting this page. If you read something that you enjoy, or see an image that you like, please take a moment to write a response. Do look out for the recipes of all the food featured here in my upcoming cookbook.

Image Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa


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