On a recent trip home to Coorg, once quiet country roads were jammed with traffic, there was a frenzy of ugly construction everywhere, and coffee estates were being carved up into plots on which to build villas, and sold to developers. And all the while, my social media feed continued to refer – incessantly, maddeningly – to Coorg as “the Scotland of India”. Never mind that the landscape and people are entirely different, that they have a beautiful culture and identity of their own. Never mind that the hills and valleys have their own songs, legends and stories to tell: but then, have you ever heard of a “Switzerland of England”? Or heard Venice called the “Alappuzha of the West”?
Under the circumstances, the kitchen seemed the best place to be, where comfort could still be found in a familiar pile of ingredients that behaved –generally – the way they were expected to. A handful of fresh, sharp scented coriander leaves and a few warm, whole spices set off an entire chain of thought that led to a fragrant dish of kaima undé curry. This is a rustic dish, comfort food of the best kind: spiced, gently poached meatballs suspended in a rich, layered curry that is practically a one-dish meal.
My hefty encyclopaedia of food history informs me that meatballs are one of the world’s favourite foods. Practically every corner of the globe has a much-loved version, made with an extraordinary range of flavourings and different meats. They can be deep fried, steamed, baked or poached; simmered in soups or sauces or just eaten by themselves, depending on cultural and culinary variations, but everywhere, this is comfort food. The Armenians have kufte rize, the Bulgarians ćufte. Estonians and the Finns have a version that is similar. You can work your way through several countries and cultures before you have exhausted all the versions of the meatball.
Kaima undé curry is rich and layered, with a nice touch of green spice to it that goes well with cold weather and steamed rice. Meatballs, both poached and fried are a favourite in the Coorg kitchen. Most of us have forgotten, but they are a link back to a time when hunting was a crucial part of life, when it was important to use every cut of meat without waste. A version of meatballs involving a stunning, deep, spicy pickle of minced boar or venison, poached, fried and filled to the brim into large jars with a blend of spices made its infrequent, but unforgettable appearance at the lunch table of my childhood. Since then, it has disappeared completely; but I get to hear of it now and then from women of another generation whose husbands hunted regularly, and who still cannot forget, after all these years, being woken up at odd hours of the night to make the most of the game that had been brought into their kitchens, cleaning and cooking until dawn broke.
Some things we cook and eat are similar to what we find in other kitchens; they may be very close, but they are never the same. There are ingredients we include and others we leave out. Choices we make about textures, thickness, cooking times and garnishes: choices of when we eat a dish, and at which meal you will never find it on the table. Why, in one mouthful, there is a flash of recognition, a familiarity that brings immediate comfort, all of it tied up to time and place. So kaima undé curry will never taste like kufte rize, keftédes or any of the many delicious variations on the theme of meatballs cooked across the world, each of them perfect, each of them with a character of their own – in the same way that Coorg will always be Coorg, and never Scotland.
Photo Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa
Please look out for the recipe in my upcoming cookbook
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.