Spirit of Place

by Kaveri Ponnapa

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.

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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