by Kaveri Ponnapa
Rice is the ultimate comfort food: reliable, unpretentious and always present on the table, I could not live without it. Sometimes, it turns into something much more glamorous, with just a few added ingredients. There's a recipe in the hand-written collection I put together in a book, when I got married, that I return to again and again, when I want to do something special with rice, without too much effort. Neyi kool is a slightly sweetened rice dish, cooked with ghee, scented and flavoured with cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, studded with fat, golden raisins and browned cashew nuts. Hints of lightly caramelized onion add a lovely depth, and a few pods of garlic give it an unexpected earthiness. My version is tinged a delicate gold from a pinch of turmeric added to the cooking water. It was made, traditionally, with the tiny, pearly grains of jeerigé sanna that were famous in Coorg for generations, and added their own warm fragrance and flavour to the dish, giving it an entirely different character. But it works equally well with good quality basmati.
Neyi kool is light and elegant, its grains silky with ghee. It's ideally suited to a coconut based chicken curry, or chicken fry. It's a great favourite with children, and was a part of my childhood, served up on a large china platter that constantly needed to be refilled, as waves of people sat down to lunch. It was on everyone's table, and I imagined that we had invented it, in Coorg. So imagine my surprise, when I attended a Mapilah wedding in Calicut, a few years ago. My friend Abida Rashid is an extraordinary cook, and custodian of the culinary traditions of the Mapilah people. At her daughter's wedding brunch, Abida had outdone herself, with seventy-two Mapilah specialties spread along a never-ending table that stretched along the picturesque backwater that flowed past her garden. And right in the midst of this feast was neyi kool – called neyi choru, by the Mapilahs – near identical in taste. Rice was once the wealth of Coorg, and caravans of oxen, laden with golden grain would wind their way down to Malabar, to trade for salt, oil and other essentials. There must have been a lively exchange of ideas, as there always is, with trade. I often wonder, which way the exchange of influences in this dish of neyi kool travelled – to Malabar, from Coorg, or the other way round?
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