Kodavathis of a generation or two before mine would have been surprised —if not disbelieving and mildly indignant —to see their favourite coconut toffee listed (under the slightly different name of coconut ice) as a traditional British homemade dessert.
This luscious confection, usually tinted a delicate pink or pale green, comes from a long line of fudges, cheeses, toffees and tray bakes that filtered into Coorg kitchens with the coming of the coffee plantations in the mid-19th century, bringing with them a typical plantation style of living, eating, décor and entertainment.
Coorgs who lived on British style plantation homes consciously chose a style of life that evolved from a mingling of two entirely different ways of life, creating, in the process, an appealing new style. They benefited from employing cooks who had trained and worked in any one of the several Planters’ Clubs dotted across the tea and coffee districts of South India; this often eccentric, but extremely talented tribe specialised in a mixed, Anglo-Indian style of cooking, full of unexpected combinations, and an inventive use of spices.
An invitation to dine at a plantation home was always a treat during my childhood. Exquisite lace and hand embroidered linen covered the table. The most sumptuous mingling of arrays of Coorg puttus, curries and fries, jostling for space with roast chicken, ham, fish in white sauce, discreetly spiked with green chillies, dinner rolls from the local bakery and potato salads was presented on beautiful English crockery, acquired and used with great care. The eclectic mix of dishes — robustly Coorg and British-influenced, exotic and attractive —complemented each other in every way, without obvious effort.
At one end of the table, sparkling with temptation, alongside a more elaborate dessert or two, were the squares, blocks and diamonds on which the ladies lavished extra attention. These were the portable treats that you picked up at the end of the meal, and Coorg women prided themselves on the quality of this particular class of confectionary that they produced, something that is still true.
Coconut toffee was always wildly popular; its soft succulence came from fresh coconut cooked with reduced milk, sugar and the merest hint of flavouring; this was usually enough to seduce even the most indifferent palate. Piles of coconut toffee were always present at weddings; when babies received their given names; when you happened to drop in on a neighbour in the middle of the morning. They always disappeared very quickly. Juicy and slightly chewy, with all the delicate sweetness of coconut, they also fitted the Coorg style of sweet dishes that were never too elaborate, always freshly made and easy to carry away.
There is a cherished stash of inherited, handwritten instructions and many more pages culled from women’s magazines for cakes; bakes; fudges; toffees; jams; jellies; roasts, sauces and chutneys that link back to the plantation style life in Coorg, which lasted well into the 20th century. This collection came from women I greatly admired, and it records tastes and dishes that may have come from the British, but were thoroughly adapted to local tastes by the time they got past a few generations of Coorg women, and made their way into my kitchen. My mother-in-law’s sister made a solid milk fudge, layered and coloured pink and white. She called it glacé, and it was the toast of the table at every family celebration. She refused to reveal the exact proportions she used, despite many years of attempting to extract the recipe from her. But recently, I discovered that it is identical to the late 19th century Cream Toffee recorded in various British cookbooks. It probably came into her recipe collection through many twists, turns and wanderings. Just as the coconut toffee —or coconut ice — ended up as a British sweet on an island where coconuts never grew.
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa
Photo Credits: A.G.P Sathyaprakash
Do look out for the recipes of all the food featured here in my upcoming cookbook.