An Introduction to Coorg Cuisine
The Coorgs’ (Kodavas) fondness for good food (kadi) and liquor (Kudi) is legendary. Go to their festivals and their weddings to see them enjoy their Kadi and Kudi while they regale themselves with their dance (Aat) and song (Paat).
As in any cuisine, Coorg food is influenced by the geography (hills and forests), history (shrouded in mystery) and culture (unique) of its people.
Coorgs are essentially rice eaters. Rice, which grows in abundance in the fertile valleys of Coorg (Kodagu), is their staple diet. They are fond of their “sannakki”, a fragrant variety of rice that they consider to be superior to the famous “basmathi” of the North. At harvest time, Sannakki paddy fields exude the delicious fragrance of melting ghee.
Coorgs use rice in a wide variety of traditional dishes that come in many shapes and forms. These range from their favourite breakfast dish, Akki Otti (rice chapathis made like phulkas from a dough of cooked rice and rice flour) to a large variety of Puttus (steam-cooked dishes). You can have Kadambuttu (ball shaped puttus), Thaliya puttu (flat puttus steamed in plates), Paaputtu (cooked with milk and shredded coconut), Nooputtu (thread puttu, pressed into noodle like threads with a mould), Od puttu (baked on a flat mud pan), Nuch puttu (made of broken rice), Madd puttu (made of a medicinal leaf called Madd Thopp : Justicia Wynaadensis Heyne of the Acanthaceae family), Koovale puttu made with ripe bananas or jackfruit and steamed in folded Koovale leaves or banana leaves), Thambuttu (roasted and powdered rice flour mixed with mashed ripe bananas) and Berambuttu (puttu made with jaggery).
And then there are a variety of rice Pulavs – from the simple, dainty Nei Kool (ghee rice garnished with raisins and nuts) to the more elaborate and spicy vegetable, chicken and mutton pulavs.
Coorgs are “pure” or “strict” non-vegetarians, as some of them like to call themselves. This obviously goes back to the times when they hunted the wild boar, deer and birds that populated their dense forests. Hunting, both for sport and food, was a popular pastime of the Coorgs. It is not as common now because of the depletion of the forests that have been cut down to plant profitable crops such as coffee, cardamom and pepper. Besides, current wildlife laws prohibit game hunting. Fish and crabs are caught in the paddy fields, ponds and streams that are found everywhere in Coorg. No Coorg meal is complete without at least one non-vegetarian dish. Pork is an all-time favourite, cooked as Pandi curry and served with Kadambuttu for breakfast, or with rice at other meals. Meat, chicken and fish, whether raised at home, bought from the market or hunted in the forest are cooked in a variety of ways with different combinations of spices. They may be fried, roasted, grilled or cooked as a curry with gravy. Meat and fish are also preserved by pickling or by salting, smoking and drying. A reed basket hung over the fireplace in the traditional Coorg kitchen held the salted meat or fish that was being smoke-dried. Dried meat and fish are used during the long monsoon season when stepping out of the house is nearly impossible. Dried fish and crab meat are also used to make spicy chutneys. Meat features in many traditions of the Coorgs – in the “meedi” offerings made to ancestors before a feast, in the “koopadi” taken by close relatives to an expectant mother, and in all festivals and ceremonies related to birth, marriage and death. Meat is taboo only during festivals, such as Kaveri Sankramana, that have been influenced by Brahmin traditions.
Coorgs are also partial to vegetable dishes that use produce from their forests and fields – Baimbale curry (made from tender bamboo shoots), Kumm curry (from wild mushrooms that were used in Coorg long before they became popular in the rest of the region), Therme Thopp curry (of the tightly coiled tender leaves of a variety of fern), Chekke curry (of unripe jackfruit) Chekke Kuru curry (of jackfruit seeds), Baale Kaamb curry (of the stem of the banana plant), Kemb curry (from the leaves of the colcosia plant), Kemb Kande curry (of the colcosia yam), Maange curry (of raw mangoes with spices and jaggery, plate-licking good if made from wild mangoes), Maange Pajji (made from ripe mangoes with curds and coconut – also delicious if wild mangoes are used), and the popular Mudure Kanni (a spicy gravy made from the thickened juice of boiled horse-gram). Chutneys are made not only from coconut, as in other cuisines, but from gingelly seeds, horse gram and jack fruit seeds. These chutneys go well with Akki Otti.
The basic ingredients of a traditional gravy for a Coorg Curry, whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian, is coconut, ground with onions, garlic and a selection of other spices. In the past, coconut oil was used for cooking. But because of the cholesterol scare, coconut oil is now used sparingly or not at all, and refined vegetable oil is substituted for coconut oil by many, resulting in a loss of the authentic taste of Coorg dishes.
Pickles made in Coorg traditionally do not use oil as a preservative. Spices and salt brine are used instead. Besides the common lime and mango pickles, Coorgs make pickles using pork, fish, Kumm (mushrooms), Baimbale (tender bamboo), Ambate (hog plums), Nellikai (goose-berries), Kaipuli (bitter orange),and Badava Puli (a large citrus fruit used only for pickling).