It’s a very special corner of India – where the pace of life still harks back to a more peaceful, languid era when life was humdrum, communication was thoughtfully composed on monogrammed letterheads and men were chivalrous.
It helps perhaps that Coorg nestles in a large valley somewhere where Karnataka merges in Kerala, where forests are dense, where clouds regularly kiss the low hills and butterflies flirt with tigers, the nearest airport is many moons away and the smell of coffee always is in the air.
The better part of this land is drained by the Kaveri, which begins its journey here in hills of Coorg, or Kodagu. It is one the greenest and least urban parts of the country, and coincidentally, one of the richest, thanks to money from plantations that grow coffee, pepper, betel nut, cardamom and areca nut. Let’s save you a net search – join the dots of Mangalore, Mysore and Mahe – the land in between, in the shadow of Western Ghats, is Kodagu. (You can’t locate them on a map either, can you? Oh, go Google!).
A largely rural economy brings other advantages – a lot of tradition continues unabated, including in the area’s culinary habits. If you think pepper in its dried black form adds flavour to your food, try pepper plucked fresh and still bright green – you life’s goal might just become to ensure a constant supply in season – winter for the record!
The food is incredibly well rounded, with rice forming the staple. Well, cooked rice comes in perhaps more forms that anywhere else. And yes, Coorgis consider the local rice sannakki – superior to any basmati. To help you compare – here’s an aid – when sannaki starts to ripen, the fields smell like melting ghee! The day starts with rice rotis – akki rotti. There’s a range of puttu or steamed rice dishes – nuuputtu or thin noodle like rice like idiyappam or paaputtu – steamed broken rice with coconut and sugar. More recent outside influences have brought in neyi koolu (ghee rice). Then there’s fragrant oduputtu, infused with the resin of the Indian copal tree. A novelty is the kadambuttu (ball shaped puttus), which you are guaranteed to ask the chef how you can make them too! There’s lots more, from berambuttu (puttu made with jaggery) to madd puttu (no, no, you do not have to lose your mind over its delicious flavours – it is made of a leaf called Madd Thopp, which is locally credited as an aphrodisiac though!) There’s many, many more – plan your trip accordingly.
Traditionally, Kodagu has been fairly self-contained, so home to relatively few mainstream vegetables. Popular curries here include those of kumbala (pumpkin), but also chekke (raw jackfruit), kumm (wild mushroom), kemb (colocasia), maange (raw mango) or baimbale (bamboo shoot). A kuttu curry would mean a mix veggie offering. Also popular is the mudure, or horse gram based curry. Spices, more commonly associated with Kerala, are plentiful here too, and generously used.
It is in non vegetarian dishes that the cuisine perhaps reaches its greatest heights. The favourite meat by far is pork, and the pandi curry is a must try. Earlier a festive meal, usually at a wedding, would have meant hunting wild boar and deer, no longer options now. So pork is the best bet, though mutton, beef and chicken curries are options too. Fish, and even pork is dried and pickled, especially for the intensely wet monsoon season. Pickles also come from mushrooms, ambate (hog plums), nellikai (goose-berries), kaipuli (bitter orange), bamboo shoot and badava puli (a large citrus fruit).
However much of a coffee fan you are, bella kapi, or black coffee with jaggery, is something you can enjoy only in Coorg. You won’t get it outside easily! Desserts include thari payasa, a kheer-like sweetdish made from sweetened milk and broken rice. Tipplers can rejoice in the fact that alcohol in myriad forms is part of the daily culture – from kall, or rice toddy and kudi, a variety of traditional wines made from a variety of fruits, to well imported whiskies.
You may not easily find a ‘Coorgi thali’ within Coorg – at least outside of the luxury resorts – the concept being traditionally absent, but you could get them in India’s metros. Well, now Coorgi dishes have started making their appearance outside the region, though mainly in the cities immediately in its vicinity. Madikeri, and other towns in Coorg have restaurants serving some traditional dishes. Try Nellaki at Taj Vivanta near Madikeri.
Bangalore now has a few restaurants – Coorg, Cheers Coorg, Coorg Pavilion, Wild Spice…. Occasionally one can find the cuisine listed in restaurants further afield. Daniell’s Tavern at the Imperial, Delhi will prepare dishes if you give notice. An occasional food festival is more common, and short of a stay in Coorg, one would be well advised to give this unique cuisine a good lick… er look. Even as we Indians start to discover the culinary riches of our own remarkably diverse country, unexpected surprises like the cuisine of Coorg will astonish and delight.