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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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Spicy secret

Ever since my friends returned from a holiday in Coorg, they have been promising us an authentic Coorg meal. It’s been a long wait — for the promised meal is still to appear. If it weren’t for Master Chef Velumurugan P., I would have said a few caustic words to them.

In fact, I was thinking dark thoughts about the friends’ perfidy when the chef — who heads Dakshin at WelcomHotel Sheraton New Delhi —invited me over for a Coorg meal. And since I am fond of everything from Coorg — from the beautiful women to their succulent pork — I didn’t hesitate.

I was first introduced to the food several decades ago by a very close friend who was then a student at Madras Christian College and had a great many classmates from the Coorg area, now known as Kodagu. Since then, I’ve been honing my interest in the food of the region, famous as much for its coffee as for its aromatic spices. “The food bears the aroma of the spices of the region,” says chef Velu.

I can vouch for that. A Coorg dish is indeed redolent of fresh spices. Most pork dishes too have the delicious aroma of fresh spices — especially newly ground pepper — in them. Or take something like the Coorg yarchi pulav, or mutton pulao. The dish, prepared with a special kind of small-grained local rice, is cooked with — apart from pieces of lamb — all kinds of spices from green cardamom to cloves to baby bay leaves.

The appealing picture that the cuisine presents complements the picturesque region in the Western Ghats. The area is full of spice plantations, and chef Ramasamy Selvaraj, who is the executive chef of the Vivanta by Taj in Bangalore and from Coorg himself, says the food gets its taste from freshly picked spices. “You pluck the spices and put them in your food — and that’s what makes the food so special,” he says.

A great many other local ingredients do their bit to enhance the taste of the dishes too. Among them is a special vinegar made out of a wild black fruit called Kachampuli that goes into many dishes but especially in something like the pandhi (pork) curry to give it its tart taste.

Pork is especially popular in the region. The pandhi curry, I was interested to note, is also had for breakfast with kadumbutt, or steamed rice dumplings. Chef Selvaraj believes that this has something to do with the weather, which is mostly always pleasant, and occasionally pretty cold. “So people like their pork — and their rum,” he says. I can believe that. My old Kodava friends — I especially remember a chap called Bopiah — enjoyed their pork, and were seldom to be seen without a glass in their hand. But, of course, I am talking about the time when they were all in their teens. These days, they probably hold a glass containing Eno.

Speaking of which, I have to admit the food is very, very spicy. But many of the dishes have ingredients such as coconut which cut the hotness of chillies while lending their own flavours to the dish. Chef Velu likes to use khus khus (poppy seed) paste in dishes such as the Kodagu tarakari curry or vegetable curry. And vinegar counters the chillies too.

Quite a few Coorg dishes are cooked with yoghurt — which again gives a sour twist to a recipe, adding to the taste of the chillies. One such dish that chef Velu cooks to perfection is mangyepajji, a curry prepared with half-ripe mangoes, tempered with yoghurt. The chef tells me that he uses a small green mango from Kodagu for this dish.

All this, of course, goes best with rice — for the region grows its own rice, which is eaten in different forms in almost every meal, including breakfast. The lush paddy fields are also home to fish, so there is fish on the Coorg menu too though meats of all kinds recur more often — and in varied ways. One of my favourites is the liver curry — pooyarchi bartad — fried with chillies, garlic and onions.

The charm of Coorg, I feel, is eternal — and to be found everywhere, from its people to its food. As I have often said — and I can say it again — their women are lovely, and their pigs are divine.

Kodagu tarakari curry (vegetable curry) (serves 2-4)

Ingredients:

• 100g beans • 100g potatoes • 100g carrots • 100g cauliflower • 60g green peas • 5 slit green chillies • 15g coriander seeds • ½ a grated coconut • 4 red chillies • 10g khus khus paste • 1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds • 1/4 tsp turmeric • 5 mashed tomatoes • 3 chopped onions • 10g chopped ginger • 10g peeled garlic •2 tbs oil or ghee

Method:

Blanche the vegetables and keep them aside. Heat oil or ghee, add red chillies and fenugreek. Add onion and garlic till golden brown. Add khus khus paste, coconut and ginger. Stir well and then add the remaining ingredients including the vegetables but barring the tomatoes and bring to a boil. When the vegetables are almost done, add the tomatoes. Season, garnish with chopped coriander leaves and fried curry leaves and serve hot with steamed rice.

Pandhi curry (Pork curry) (serves 2)

Ingredients:

• 500g pork cubes • 150g chopped onion • 60g ginger garlic paste • 100g tomato puree • 10g chilli powder • 20g coriander powder • 6g jeera powder • 1 tsp turmeric powder • 10g garam masala • 80g khus khus paste • 60g coconut paste • 100ml Coorg vinegar or malt vinegar • salt to taste • water for boiling • 100ml refined oil

Method:

Wash the pork with lukewarm water. Add oil in a frying pan and sautι the pork for a few minutes. Add salt, boil with a little water and let it simmer for 2 hours. Keep the pork aside. Sautι the onions till golden brown. Add ginger garlic paste, fry for a while and then add the masala powders. Add khus khus, coconut, tomato and vinegar and bring to a boil. When oil leaves the sides, add the pork and cook till its well coated. Garnish with coriander and curry leaves. Serve hot with steamed rice.

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