When the first few stalks of paddy —still edged with green and pulsing with new life —have been ritually harvested, tied around a stone pillar in the central courtyard, and hung over a glowing lamp in the heart of an ancestral home which has probably stood in the same place for 150 years or longer, the celebrations begin. With all the singing and dancing that goes on, there’s always a feast around the corner. The countryside is luminous at this time of year: a certain deepening of its beauty brought on by ripples of ripe grain standing in the fields, an abundance of produce, and a rare tranquillity.
But this is Coorg. The lamplight and home fires must always be edged around by something a little darker, something wild, with a hint of old forests and long hunting days:even if hunting nowrests in stories of the past, a past that stretches away endlessly beyond the limits of the imagination and brings back timeless images of “the pork and brandy feasts” of puthari, the harvest festival.
At puthari, the rice fields are covered with a wash of silver by night, and golden green by day. A fragile sheen of past celebrations blots out, for a while, the crush of tourists, crowded towns, the traffic jams. The Coorgs retreat to their homes, fields and ancestral strongholds to harvest, feast, sing and dance. Quite often, driving along a road deep in the countryside, you catch a glimpse of a group of men with small drums, singing, followed by a trailing crowd, disappearing down a quite lane. They sing the histories of the clans, walking from one ancestral home to the next. It’s a beautiful way of remembering: waking up slumbering old houses, and singing people into forgotten frameworks. The community hunt, once so much a part of these celebrations is gone; hunting parties no longer comb the forests in pursuit of wild boar, preferred, as recorded by early visitors to the land, by the Coorgs to all other meat. But true to tradition, pork features at the puthari feast.
We smoke, dry, preserve, curry, braise, fry and roast pork, extracting every ounce of flavour, varying the texture as much as we can, sometimes scooping a spoonful of preserved pork fat from a ceramic jar into a dish, intensifying flavours. At the big village feasts and celebrations, besides the barbequed pork, there is always a deep, rich, pandi curry.
There are probably as many versions of this ancient dish, born out of our hunting past, as there are kitchens. I have my own favourites, tasted at various tables and feasts.
Food changes with the ingredients available at hand; but sometimes one comes across a dish that has evolved so perfectly in its own time and place that it is best left alone. A modern touch that jars is the incongruous garnish of coriander leaves. And a heavy hand with spices and kachampuli. The personal benchmark for pandi curry came to me from a set of proportions for dry spices I wrote down in a journal more than three decades ago. It has travelled with me across countries and continents; every mouthful takes me back to Coorg, to that particular collective history —of forests, and a coming together of culture and spices from where this curry emerged.
If you cook it, you should get is something like this: cubed chunks of tender pork in a dense, molten gravy, releasing the slow heat of black peppercorns, grown in the hills of Coorg since the times when wild vines could be seen looping across trees, sketching great arcs and webs across the dense jungles. Red chillies were latecomers: even the violent little bird’s eyes, referred to locally as parangi, betray their foreign origins. Hidden notes from dark roasted spices that have survived a pounding in a mortar and pestle, and have begun to release their flavours into the pork should follow the heat of the roasted peppercorns. A sharp burst of kachampuli —that’s all you need—to slice through the gleam of melted fat. You may like a squeeze of lime, just for its exuberant freshness, before you tuck into a plateful. If you happen to have a wood fire in your kitchen, and the patience to slowlymeld all its flavours into one, harmonious whole: fierce, crushed ginger; a touch of golden sesame oil; all those dark spices, and rendered fat, it’s unlikely that you will ever forget the taste. It is as perfect a dish that ever came out of an extraordinary place.
Read more about Pandi Curry here: Pork Tales.
Slow Cooked Pandicurry Recipe
- 1 kg pork with skin and fat, cut into small pieces.
- 1 tsp fresh ground pepper powder
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 6 medium onions, sliced
- 1 whole pod garlic, coarsely crushed
- gingelly oil
- 2 inch piece ginger, crushed
- 3 level tbsp coriander powder
- 2 level tbsp chili powder
- kachampuli or malt vinegar
- 1 tsp jeera (cumin seeds)
- ½ tsp mustard seeds, both slow roasted separately on a tava, until medium brown, cooled & powdered fine.
- Wash the pork, (retain ½ cup water) drain, and add 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp pepper powder, turmeric and set aside.
- Mix the sliced onions & crushed garlic with the pork.
- Heat about 3 tbsp gingelly oil (more, if the pork contains less fat), add the crushed ginger, & fry until brown. Remove browned ginger, & add to the pork.
- On very low flame, add 3 level tbsp coriander powder & keep stirring for about 1minute. Then add 2 level tbsp chili powder, & stir until it turns coffee brown.
- Add the pork, & its washed water (about ½ cup). Cover the vessel with a lid, & cook on medium flame until all the water evaporates. Keep stirring occasionally.
- When all the water has evaporated, add warm water to just cover the meat, and cook uncovered on a medium flame until done.
- You can also pressure cook the pork in the following way. Once the water evaporates, add 2 cups of water, and pressure cook for 2 whistles.
- Once the pork is done, whether slow cooked, or pressure-cooked, add 1 ½ tbsp kachampuli, stir, & cook for a further 10 mins on a slow fire. Taste, & add more salt or kachampuli, as required. The oil should rise to the surface.
- Add the roasted, ground jeera & mustard seeds to the curry.
This is a slightly different, and entirely delicious pandi curry. This recipe is from my aunt’s mother, & as a cook’s tip, she shares this with us – she never hurries pork by pressure- cooking it, preferring to allow it to cook slowly, to release fat and natural flavours. The result is, deep flavours, and succulent pork, cooked to perfection. She also uses gingelly oil, which was the traditional cooking medium in Coorg, which adds its own memorable flavour to this curry. I can vouch that slow cooking the pork is worth every bit of the effort !
Classic Pandicurry made easy (Pressure Cooker Recipe)
- 1kg Pork, with a proportion of fat, and a small quantity of bones,cut into cubes (fat and bones combined should not exceed 250 grams)
- 2 large onions, chopped fine.
- 4 inch piece of ginger
- 4 cloves of garlic.
- 2 tablespoons whole cumin (jeera) seeds.
- 1 ½ tablespoons mustard (rye) seeds.
- 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns.
- 1 teaspoon fenugreek (methi) seeds.
- 2 teaspoons turmeric powder.
- 1 tablespoon coriander powder.
- 1 tablespoon, or to taste, red chili powder.
- 3 green chillies, slit vertically.
- 1 ½ tablespoon kachampuli, or Coorg vinegar ( see note on ingredients for substitutes)
- salt to taste.
- 2 cups hot water.
- A little oil for frying
- Grind the ginger and garlic to a fine paste.
- Dry roast each of the dry spices on a hot tava, separately. Start with the spices that take longer to roast. Mustard seeds should turn white and begin to crackle; the cumin and fenugreek should turn dark brown and begin to release their aromas. Allow them to cool, then grind each one separately to a fine powder.
- Wash and drain the pork, sprinkle with the turmeric and set aside.
- Fry the chopped onions in a little oil ( 3-4 tablespoons) until lightly browned.
- Add the garlic ginger paste and fry for a few minutes.
- Add the pork and turmeric, and fry until the pork releases water, and begins to change colour.
- Sprinkle and mix in the coriander powder, chilli powder, and finally all the dry roasted spices. Stir thoroughly. Add salt to taste.
- Add about 2 cups of hot water, or according to the gravy required.
- Pressure cook on medium heat for about 20 mins. Remove from gas and allow the pressure to drop.
- Add about 1 to 1 ½ tablespoons of kachampuli, and simmer for a few minutes. If you are using a substitute for kachampuli, like a dark brown vinegar, you will have to double the quantities, and the curry may not be so dark in colour. Finally, add the green chillies.
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.
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