Ranee Vijaya Kuttaiah's table, where I have dined many times, overflows with delicious food, fascinating anecdotes and memorable conversations, fuelled by an extraordinary life lived to the brim. Beautiful, original, larger-than-life, outrageously talented, Ranee brings her own inimitable style to everything she does. The food she cooks and shares so generously has a certain je ne sais quoi, a depth of flavour, a lingering essence that you don't find in similar dishes you may have tasted elsewhere.
A Kalakshetra trained classical dancer; graduate from M.S.University, Baroda; a psychologist; a Public Relations manager for Ford U.S.A; an advertising filmmaker and author of three bestselling cookbooks, Ranee re-launched two of them at the ITC Windsor, Bengaluru, a few days ago. Cuisine from Coorg, the first of her cookery series first published in 2000, was part of this promotion.
For someone who has made a name for herself in the world of food, training five-star chefs in the cuisine of Coorg and Tamil Nadu, immersed in dance, she did not actually begin cooking until she was married and had a home of her own. But, as she points out, she knew all about good food since her childhood, and appreciated it.
Her mother kept a splendid table, where on an average 10-12 people, all friends of her father, Kotera P. Chinnappa, could be found enjoying a lavish spread every other day. Kotera Chinnappa, an elected member of the first Coorg Legislative Council, was deeply interested in politics and social welfare, and friends and colleagues gravitated towards his home. Typical Coorg hospitality saw them all seated around his table feasting on Coorg meen barthad, pandi curry, erachi barthad and puttus.
Ranee's mother, Chembanda Akkavva, who learned to cook from her older siblings, having lost her own mother when she was very young, was an expert home cook. She was famous for her erachi palav, koli nalla mollu barthad, pandi curry, all of which feature in Cuisine from Coorg, as well as her holiges and chirottis.
In fact, Ranee's parents hosted such a generous table that, when she got married, her young husband, Nadikerianda Kuttaiah, was taken aback at the lavish spread presented every day. When they returned to their own home, he took care to hint to her that he was a simple 'one curry, one vegetable, one meat and rice man'! Kuttaiah was soon won over by his wife's cooking though, and her book is dedicated to him.
Ranee recalls approaching her mother with a large, blank notebook, and writing down recipes as she learned to cook from her. She describes her mother's kitchen nostalgically, vividly: the waist-high, wood-fired stove could hold four dishes at a time, with two kept on a simmer at the back. There were stacks of vessels on shelves, and a vast attic, approached by a steep, narrow flight of wooden stairs, where her mother stored a collection of gigantic vessels meant for communal cooking, that she had inherited. In the kitchen was a 'meat safe', a kitchen classic of its times – a wood-framed cupboard with a wire mesh door and sides that kept curd, ghee and other foods cool, and safe from marauding ants, lizards and various pests. In this kitchen, she watched her mother expertly regulate hot coals to bake delicious cakes in a lidded tin. And it was in this same kitchen that Ranee learned to cook many of the classic Coorg dishes that feature in her book.
One of the most endearing things about Ranee is that, despite all her sophistication, she remains a Kodavathi at heart, most often elegantly dressed in a traditional long-sleeved jacket and Kodavathi style sari, in all her public appearances. At home, you are as likely to find her eating her favourite chilkana pandi, chutte pandi, kaad mange curry, as any Western dish. She still loves to cook and eat rustic Coorg dishes like bale kanni, which she learned from her older siblings, who lived in the village of Balamuri for long stretches of time. Well-travelled, and a connoisseur of good food, Ranee appreciates Syrian Christian and Tamil Nadu food amongst Indian cuisines.
Her mother and sisters could hardly have imagined that the youngest in the family, the last to learn how to cook, would one day, as a food stylist and advertising filmmaker, be inspired to write a cookbook, in which she would put together all the recipes of favourites that had been served on their family table so many times. But that's typical of Ranee's sparkling personality – everything she sets her hand to, she masters and presents with a grand flourish. Her father wrote in his autobiography of how his life changed, and good luck poured in when his ninth child was born – and that's Ranee Vijaya Kuttaiah for you. She lives right up to her name, and she's a hard act to follow.
Cuisine from Coorg by Ranee Vijaya Kuttaiah. Published by Sterling Publishers Private Limited, New Delhi. Price: Rs.100.
Image Courtesy: Ranee Vijaya Kuttaiah