A Gourmet’s Table in Coorg is a palimpsest of grand-mothers’, mothers, aunts, in-laws, cousins and friends, who have created unforgettable meals and heirloom recipes, and cooked with love and generosity for anyone who sat at their table. These recipes, gathered over 25 years of sampling in kitchens, at dining tables, through letters, at homes in remote villages, exchanges at festivals, weddings and, at ain manes, the traditional homes of Coorg clans, distill onto a plate the varied and luscious seasonal bounty of the Coorg landscape.
The cuisine of Coorg evolved over the centuries, drawn from the generosity of the fertile landscape – tender wild greens, ferns, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, colocasia; forests full of flavourful wild game and birds, fields and kitchen gardens carefully tended by the people who were warriors, hunters and farmers, mostly in that order. Rice, grown in deep green valleys and the terraced fields of the higher slopes, was the queen of the table. It made its way to the table in unique versions at each meal, combined with delectable curries, fries and chutneys. Wild berries and fruit were gathered in season, and pickling and preserving were, and still are, popular. The rhythms of the seasons shaped the cuisine- selections of dried and smoked meats and preserved vegetables shored up the bleak monsoon months, when hunting was impossible, with the labour intensive, transplanting season underway in the fields. Every part of the year presented its special delights with a flourish, and the Coorg table was always set with a lavish and exciting range of dishes.
The predominant flavour underlying this unique cuisine is “sourness”, either from the dark, viscous vinegar made from the fermented and boiled fruits of garcinia gummi gutta, or from squeezes of ‘native’ limes, or else the much loved kaipuli – local bitter oranges. Invariably, many dishes contain an accent of one of these ingredients.
Traditionally, spices were ground in stone mortars and pestles and grinding stones, and food was cooked in wide mouthed, red, earthenware pots, known simply as “curry-chattis”, which retained the flavour of the food perfectly. In addition, there were brass and copper vessels of all shapes and sizes. A whole range of foods was steamed in copper steamers known as ‘sakalas’. The wood fired kitchen was a smoky place, where dried meats hung from the rafters, gathering a wonderful flavour of their own.
Coorg women earned a well deserved reputation for managing large, extended families and being extraordinarily good cooks, their generous hospitality extending easily to strangers. Many of them now manage coffee estates in isolated locations, and maintain excellent tables based on the seasonal riches of the landscape. A Gourmet’s Table in Coorg is a tribute to the beautiful, capable and resolute women of Coorg, who always have room for one more at their table, and who have earned us our unmatched reputation for hospitality.
Every one of these recipes is dense with personal memories of the deep pleasures of food shared, laughter, and the personalities of the people who shared them with me and, can summon up the past, or an occasion, with just a whiff of roasting spices or, an entire season, with a vessel of fermenting bamboo shoots or a basketful of freshly gathered wild mushrooms – which is what I hope they will do for you.