It’s fascinating to see how the food of my childhood, Kodava cuisine, created by generations of gifted home cooks who were all experts in their own kitchens, very much in touch with the rhythms of the land, is making its way onto menus in popular restaurants and being added to the repertoire of cooks everywhere. This is the food that has made the deepest impression on me: images of produce and flavours imprinted themselves on my memory, becoming an essential part of my heritage. The rustic, black pepper laden, rice-centric food of Kodagu evokes such a depth of memories, emotions, remembered tastes, flavours and seasons, that one dish or another makes its way onto my table every single day.
To plunge into the heart of it all, you begin with rice—every meal is built around rice. Akki otti, a plain rice flatbread made of rice flour and cooked rice toasted on a griddle without oil and puffed up over an open flame has the capacity to absorb and reflect multiple flavours with its slightly charred exterior and soft interiors, making it ideal anytime food. Sitting at the breakfast table, tearing off small portions to scoop up elle pajji— smoky and earthy chutney made of roasted onions and chillies, coconut and toasted sesame—or dipping portions into butter and local honey, the layered textures of these flatbreads reveal the secret of why they are universally popular. Whether you are eating a baimbale (bamboo shoot) curry, bollari barthad (velvety Mangalore cucumber) cooked with a little jaggery and spices or kuru curry, a weighty curry of field beans or tender jackfruit, vegetable fry, or kaad mange curry, a sour-sweet concoction of wild mangoes, akki ottis are the perfect partners, bending themselves to the main flavours, allowing them centre stage, providing all the textures to complement them.
Diving deeper brings the classic puttu-curry combinations, so perfectly balanced that generally, no one disturbs them. A puttu is made from broken rice, cooked and steamed into a range of shapes and textures. Noolputtu are a heap of soft, rice-noodles eaten with a coconut based chicken curry; paaputtu are creamy, flat rice cakes steamed with coconut and milk, fragrant with cardamom, eaten with mutton curry. Hand rolled, round, steamed rice dumplings, kadambuttu, have enough heft to absorb the strong flavours the famous pandi curry: cubed pork cooked in a blend of dark-roasted spices that has captured the taste buds and imagination of everyone who has tasted it.
Kodagu’s best known dish, drawn from the old tradition of hunting wild boar, is a rich, sultry pandi curry awash with black pepper and it contains the single most important ingredient which the Kodava cook will carry to the ends of the earth— kachampuli. Tart, dark and distinctive this vinegar is made from boiling down the extract of the ripe fruits of Garcinia gummi gutta, known locally as panapuli. Related to kokum and fish tamarind, panapuli extract needs about 17 hours straight of boiling to reach the perfect consistency. Kachampuli has now made its way out of Kodagu, conquering other kitchens, even sold online, something our aunts would never have dreamt of, much sought after by home cooks and chefs wanting to replicate the distinctive sour flavours of a good pandi curry.
This souring agent is used in both vegetable and meat dishes and is indispensable in cooking fish, either in a meen curry or meen barthad, which usually is whole fried mackerel or sardines, spiced with a marinade of turmeric, red chilli powder and a good smear of kachampuli, crisped up with a dusting of rice flour.
Delicious, weighty snacks—pepper-fried liver, spicy fried meatballs and fried morsels of tender pork— often served up with a glass of whiskey or brandy, work up a distinctive identity when seasoned with a dash of kachampuli. Umami laden, flavour intense smoked and preserved meat (onak erachi barthad), and dried fish (onak meen) are cooked with the obligatory splashes of kachampuli that highlight the inherent smokiness of the meat and fish.
Typical Kodava meals never rush flavours. Before the age of wedding caterers, who have sent some of our best dishes into oblivion, you were sure to get a mutton pulao fragrant with locally grown short grain rice, piles of green coriander and mint, and tender mutton cooked with cardamom, peppercorns, green chillies, poppy seeds ginger and garlic, cloves, sweetly scented cassia bark, It was served in aromatic heaps and eaten with sliced onions in a dressing of curd at a wedding lunch. I would look forward to squashing the tender grains of rice into the mutton, breaching a pool of seasoned curd and onions (eruli mor pajji), mixing it into the rice and scooping a melange of flavours—cool curd and the warm spices of the pulao—into my mouth. Again, whole black peppercorns and kachampuli have worked their way into this dish, giving it a unique flavour. This was followed by a round of steamed rice and a curry of mixed vegetables, a sharp pickle of wild hog plum, jackfruit or limes with green peppercorns, and finished with a payasa of rice cooked in coconut milk and jaggery, topped with fried cashew nuts. No overcrowding of the plate or palate, just slowly savouring each dish to the fullest edges of its personality, which is still the way we eat.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that everything most valued about our cuisine happens in the monsoon, the defining season of Kodagu. More often than I can count, I am asked what is the best time of year to travel to Kodagu, and I always answer: when the rains have gone, towards the end of the year. But with the rains, the tender, elusive foraged seasonal foods— fiddlehead ferns, colocasia leaves, mud crabs, wild greens and tender bamboo shoots also retreat, and some of the best-loved dishes disappear from our tables to return only the following year. Umami surges in dishes—wild mushrooms, fragranced with rich earth clinging to their stalks are gathered, cleaned, roasted and finished with a minimal sprinkling of spices and lime, or cooked into a tender curry with a coconut base, to be eaten with akki ottis. Smoked and dried meats are put to full use, first soaked and then cooked and pounded into intensely flavoured shreds that have become soft and pliant, releasing juices as you chew them. Delicate stir-fries of fiddlehead ferns, therme thoppe sometimes topped with an egg are eaten, again, with akki ottis. Tender shoots of bamboo surge to the surface to be quickly harvested, soaked and fermented before being curried, fried and pickled. An earthenware curry pot simmers with mud crabs, trapped as they emerge from the embankments of paddy fields or freshwater streams, a rich stew of crab, shell on, sweet flesh to be dug out, mixed with the curry and eaten. Sometimes we just roast them over a wood fire, rub them with salt, the juice of local limes, and chilli powder made from tiny, explosive bird’s eye chillies, parangi mollu, which everyone loves over all other varieties of chilli for its distinctive, citrusy, fiery flavour. And yet the season remains incomplete, until we harvest armfuls of a tattered wild leaf, Justicia wynaadensis, to soak and boil it for a dazzling purple extract full of medicinal properties, which we cook into puttus, payasas and rice that absorb the plant’s herbaceous flavours and fragrance and breathe them out again as we eat.
Some of the catchphrases of contemporary cuisine: seasonality; sustainability; organic, and local are all held within everything that I have just described about the Kodava table.
-By Kaveri Ponnapa. Kaveri is an author and independent writer on heritage, food and wine. Her first book, The Vanishing Kodavas is an extensive cultural study of the Kodava people. She is currently working on a book on Kodava cuisine.