According to the Hindu calendar, Kakkada is the period from mid-July to mid-August. On the 18th day of this month in Coorg, the colour purple takes on a whole different hue. Falling approximately on the 2nd or 3rd of August each year, this is the day when the locals pick the leaves of a plant called Maddh Thopp (Justicea Wynaadensis), soak them overnight and then boil the leaves and stem with water to extract the juice.
The plant is found extensively in some regions of the Western Ghats, from Wynaad, to Coorg, South Canara and the eastern Nilgiris. The leaves and stems are supposed to have eighteen different medicinal properties. Limited scientific research on the plant shows the presence of large amounts of polyphenols and flavonoids. These are supposed to impart the plant with anti-oxidant, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties as well as lowering cholesterol levels.
People in Coorg use the extracted juice to make a payasam and a puttu; both rice-based preparations, cooked with a lot of grated coconut, jaggery, ghee and flavoured with cardamom. The traditional belief is that it keeps you healthy all year around, with some families eating it every day from the start of Kakkada.
Having never bothered to find out more about this allegedly miraculous plant before, I fortunately find myself in Coorg on this day. My aunt invites me to lunch and I watch with anticipation as she cooks these special dishes. The green leaves on soaking and boiling yield a gorgeously deep purple liquid, with an aromatic fragrance and a taste that I can only describe as a bit like liquorice. She then makes the payasam, mixing the liquid into pre-soaked rice, adding the rest of the ingredients and cooking it on a slow flame, constantly stirring it until the rice is cooked thoroughly.
For the puttu, the ingredients are first blended together to ensure a smooth paste. This is cooked on a slow fire and mixed carefully, so the mixture doesn’t stick to the pan or form lumps. It takes a good forty minutes or so for the paste to be cooked thoroughly. She then pours it into a dish and allows it to cool and set.
A mouth-watering lunch of chicken biryani, wild mango curry, crisp mutton cutlets and a fried vegetable made with green banana, is followed by the delicious payasam and puttu. The joke in Coorg is that if you are served fried green banana, you have overstayed your welcome. Thankfully, I know this is not so in my aunt’s case. She is well known for her legendary hospitality.
Replete with good food, great company and my annual fix of the magical medicinal ingredient in place, I leave feeling gratified that I have learnt a little bit more about another novel custom of the people in Coorg. So, if you ever happen to find yourself in these parts around the first week of August, be nice to a local. You might just get to sample some of this delicious stuff yourself.