Every day of my life, I am conscious of taste. Each meal, each dish is thoroughly considered for taste —or the lack of it, sometimes much to the mystification, impatience and amusement of my family —and unconsciously measured up against flavours past. Over the years, something seems to have happened to vegetables and fruits. The larger the shelves and heaps of produce become, the greater the flavour that seems to drain out of everything that reaches our tables. Tomatoes, pumpkins and beans are scarcely recognizable. When did you last taste a really delicious avare (speckled butter beans) curry? Something always seems to be missing, whatever lies at the heart of how things grow. Have we been eating poor imitations of vegetables for so long that we have forgotten what they taste like? Can we really allow the stamp of soil and seasons to be lost?
I often find myself thinking, with a degree of longing, of the small, informal kitchen gardens of Coorg, casually scattered with all the produce in season, enough to fill the table and some more. This is not an exercise in nostalgia: it’s about those missing tastes. The vegetable patch followed a simple, repetitive cycle, presenting familiar favourites, and some sadly un-loved characters: but every one of them was true to themselves in their perfectly fresh and individual flavours. Of course, it had everything to do with where and how they were grown. If I explore deeper, what I am searching for is a taste of place.
I made a batch of boodi kumbala jam some time ago, from a huge ash pumpkin, or winter melon, if you happen to know it by that name. A bottle full of its beautifully translucent, tender, cardamom scented shreds was always on the breakfast table in Coorg when there was a glut of these gigantic, ashy-skinned orbs in the kitchen garden. It was consumed in enormous helpings. Boodi kumbala’s own essence is delicate and pleasing, easily swamped, unless treated with a light hand. It is one of the most mundane offerings from the fields, but boodi kumbala jam, in all its flawless simplicity is one of the reasons I could not eat a commercially produced version, if there is one.
Prompted by an urge to eat a spoonful of something I hadn’t had in a long time, I worked out a recipe from what I remembered. The bottles emptied very quickly, a spoonful sometimes serving as a delightful, miniature dessert. The jam is not a long lasting one, its shelf life limited by the modest quantity of sugar that goes into its making —but that is part of its personality. We ate it on bread, with akki ottis, and by itself. Despite the unqualified success, there was that familiar sense of something elusive missing. Meanwhile, I carried on cooking and writing.
Over the last few years, I have met, and continue to meet —because of a book I wrote on Coorg —so many people I would never have come across in the ordinary course of my life. Many of them come back to me with beautiful stories of finding their way back to their roots through reading what I have written. So many of them trace their way back through taste, through the food described on these pages, remembering and recreating a sense of a place for themselves. You could call it finding a taste of one’s own. When a young Coorg woman I know speaks to me at length about dishes and tastes she’s exploring, produce she’s re-discovering, urging her mother to dig deep into her own food memories to save every small dish from oblivion, all the while expanding her own knowledge and respect for the land, I’m filled with excitement and hope. Remembering how good food tastes is surely the best way to make sure we keep it alive.
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.