Living in wild, remote areas throws up questions of survival and sustainability. The choices one makes are limited to what is available at a particular point in time. More importantly in terms of cuisine, the sensibility of eating the right food at the right time is driven largely by the seasons.
In Coorg, the long damp and wet monsoon season meant that the availability of fresh vegetables was limited. This led people to explore and innovate with other food options. Learning from the tribals who lived off the produce of the jungle, foods that grew in the wild were abundantly used. Although things have now changed considerably, we still look upon these foods as special, rare treats and are delighted when we can have a taste of them.
The nucchi kumm, one of the local mushroom varieties is typically found after a heavy thunderstorm. Growing in damp humus, the spores germinate and overnight you find sheets of these tiny mushrooms in particular areas of coffee estates and forests. Gathering a large quantity is painstaking, but what is even more time consuming is cleaning them. Snip the roots, wash the mud off them thoroughly and then cook them lightly with a hint of turmeric, salt and chilli powder to taste, so as not to overpower their earthy yet delicate flavor.
The slightly chewy texture of the mushrooms contrasts well when eaten with a crisp toast, or with a rice flatbread (akki roti). Akki rotis are a staple food of Kodava cuisine. When it comes to eating them, there are two distinct factions; those who prefer them soft, warm and straight off the pan, and the others who prefer them heated on an open flame until they turn crisp. Traditionally, these flatbreads were heated on coal embers, which gave them a slightly charred but interesting texture with a smoky flavour.
Tender bamboo shoots or baimbalé, found in the forests during the monsoons, is the most coveted food that appeases the palate of any die-hard Kodava. With the lashings of rain that the region receives, these tender shoots are found in practically every bamboo clump of the forest, belonging to the spiny and thorny variety of bamboo knows as Bambusa Bambos or the slender, asparagus like Ochlandra Scriptoria, locally known as watté baimbalé.
The tender bamboo shoots are cleaned first by removing the tough woody, outer covering that encases the shoots. The shoots are cut into fine strips and soaked for 24 hours in fresh water, to leach them of the hydrocyanic acid present in the shoots. They are washed thoroughly with two or three changes of fresh water and further soaked in water for another 24 hours. This adds to the fermentation process that gives tender bamboo its slightly tangy, distinctive flavor.
Cooked as a curry or even as a fried vegetable, this is very definitely an acquired taste. The firm and slightly crunchy texture of the bamboo lends itself well to the contrast of a soft warm akki roti, drizzled with plenty of ghee or clarified butter. Kodavas also store large pieces of tender bamboo in brine for use through the year, which is used mainly for pickles; the most common being a lime pickle, a sublime combination of lime mixed with sprigs of green pepper, mango ginger and pieces of firm, salted bamboo.
Curiously, the bamboo plant flowers, goes into seed, and then dies in a cycle that repeats approximately every forty to sixty years. Akin to mass suicide, all the plants within a given area undergo this process at exactly the same time. According to the ancient wisdom of many communities who live within or close to bamboo forests, this is a sign of impending famine. Rodents, who have nothing to eat in the forest come out in large numbers and destroy crops, leading to a scarcity of food.
Colacacia Esculenta, taro or kaymbu as it is locally known grows near paddy fields, streams and in swampy areas throughout the year. However, in the monsoons these plants thrive despite the strong wind and rain. With their large green leaves shaped like elephant ears, they are distinctively different to the other plants growing in these areas.
There are many varieties of kaymbu–the red-stemmed and the green-stemmed ones being the most popular. The leaves, stems and tubers are edible. However, all of them need to be soaked in water with lime or tamarind to neutralize the calcium oxalate crystals of the plant that can cause severe irritation to the soft tissue of the mouth and throat. Tender kaymbu leaves and stems of the green-stemmed variety are used to make a curry, vegetable fry or chutney. In the case of the red-stemmed variety, only the stems are used to make a deliciously tangy, sweet and sour curry.
Kaymbu curry has a slightly viscous texture that does take some getting used to and is not for the less adventurous eater. However, those who have grown up eating it consider it a special treat. Eaten with hot fluffy rice or akki rotis, it is a perfect contrast to the milder, softer taste and texture of rice.
The next time you visit Coorg in the monsoon, go local and try the seasonal treats that the region provides. Any Kodava home or restaurant that serves Kodava cuisine will have one of these foods on offer. You will not be disappointed–the unusual flavours and textures of these foods will give you an insight into a way of life that has remained unchanged over time.