The smaller towns and interior regions of India have, over the years, become my favourite travel destinations. There is a surprise, a rewarding experience around every corner. Every moment holds promise and I always (without exception) return from my trips feeling overwhelmed about how little I know of my own country.
Earlier this year I got the opportunity to travel to Coorg and mingle with the Kodavas, the warrior community that gives the region it’s distinct identity. I had been to Coorg before but having stayed on a secluded tea estate was privy to the culture only through the limited set menu that the property offered. This time, however, I got lucky and as I drove through the streets of Madikeri on a chilly monsoon evening to the beautiful Vivanta by Taj property, I couldn’t help but shiver with excitement at the prospect of rediscovering yet another facet of India.
Dark as it was I was driving through a living rainforest and there was every chance of running into a herd of wild elephants – who are known to be quite disgruntled here. This rainforest was once home to tigers too. Sadly, the tigers have disappeared now and the leopard is the main predator.
Of course, most of my eagerness came from the anticipation of new food. I had heard a lot about Coorgi cuisine and the legendary Kachampuli vinegar, which is said to be India’s answer to balsamic. Not to mention the rich dark Pandi curry which I had sampled on my previous trip.
After the long drive from Bengaluru, the Taj property was a balm to my soul. A warm cup of dark rich sweet Coorg coffee made using lots of spices instantly relaxed me and I decided to sink in the luxury of my room till dinner. The rooms are very spacious and well-designed with huge French windows that let one enjoy the rolling mist. My day ended on a high note as I savoured numerous local delicacies at Nellaki, the Indian restaurant at the Taj property.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, I headed for the nature walk in the hotel’s own rainforest with their inhouse naturalist Navin. Hailing from the Kodava community, Navin has grown up in this rainforest and proudly introduced me to the culture and history. The Kodavas are a simple and brave race, said to be descendants of Greeks via Alexander’s men who decided to stay on rather than return home. Their dress and the way they drape their sarees is similar to that of a Toga. Fair and tall in stature its uncanny that most of the great generals in the Indian army are from this community.
As we walked through the forest, Navin pointed out many different trees and plants, each with a legend or two attached to it. To my delight, he also pointed out all the edible treasures of Coorg. He explained that though the food is predominantly non-vegetarian, the concept of foraging is still pretty big. He pointed out several interesting things like fresh bamboo shoots, wild mushrooms, wild mangoes (having a unique flavour owing to the constant rain of the region), large fragrant limes, bitter oranges, edible ferns (unlike the fiddlehead variety found in the Himalayas) herbs and local greens. Even the seeds of the fishtail palm are used to make liquor! With such an abundant variety of ingredients, flavours and textures, I thought of a myriad uses for them.
Over time, legends are born and Navin spoke of one such legendary belief with regards mushrooms. “These are only sighted by those with a gifted instinct. And women have a much deeper instinct than men!” he laughed. It’s the same story with bamboo shoots. Women seem to sense the best, most tender bamboo shoots. As if his point was just waiting to be proven, we met an old lady who had just pulled up some bamboo shoots and was on her way home to soak them in water for later use. She invited us to her house and offered a feast of bananas, mangoes and khajaya. The fact that she invited complete strangers to her house, shed plenty of light on the heartfelt hospitality and timeless friendship the people harbor in their hearts. To their credit, urbanization doesn’t seem to have touched the core of their being.
We even spotted some Maddu Soppu plants, which give the region it’s secret elixir. I’m told a festival held on the 18th day of August marks the “harvest” of this wild plant, the leaves of which when boiled, colour the water a rich purple. This is the secret to the vibrant health of the Kodavas. As we walked on, we passed a sacred grove – an out-of-bounds part of the forest. Nobody enters sacred groves owing to the belief that the gods roam through these parts and don’t like to be seen or disturbed. This belief, though religious in nature is aimed at keeping parts of the forests intact. “That is the legacy we leave behind”, Navin explained, “in the hope that one day the wild will come back and nature gets its balance back”.
Back in the kitchen, Executive Chef Easo Johnson cooked up some magic in his pans. He explained that Coorgi or Kodava cuisine is still very much untouched and not huge on a whole mélange of spices. The prime dishes though few all have a different spice blend which is adapted to each type of meat. Wild boar is still eaten in this part of the country and Pandi curry is the favourite. He also taught me to make the Pandi curry surprising me with the unimaginably minimal use of kachampuli – just 4 drops! – in the dish. Rice is the predominant grain and steaming in cardamom leaves a favored technique. The subtleties of the cuisine are not lost on the uninitiated and it’s really great to sample the different kinds of soups, chutneys, breads and curries made from local ingredients like wild mushrooms, hog plums, jackfruit seeds, banana stem, bamboo shoots and mangoes preserved in brine, river fish and desserts like the luscious Maddu Soppu Payasam.
I spent the evening looking through the well-curated conservatory in the hotel, and getting acquainted with the history, lifestyle, rituals and beliefs of the Kodavas, with Nitin as my guide. The community has had an illustrious history and the culture is based on the “living only in harmony with nature” philosophy. They do believe in rituals and idol worship but their ultimate ideal of the divine is their ancestors, whom they immortalize in the form of a small monument at their doorsteps. Nitin told us about the various traditions, ceremonies and festivals
that the Kodava calendar is filled with. He took me completely by surprise when he said, “I’m getting married in 3 weeks. Do please come to my wedding. You’ll get to experience my culture firsthand!” I stood stunned. Nitin had not thought twice before asking a complete stranger to be a part of such an intimate occasion. I again noticed the almost naïve trust and affinity towards outsiders and was overcome with the same inexplicable feeling I had in the morning when I met the old lady who opened up her house and kitchen for me.
As I walked back to my room for the night the only regret I held was not having enough time to explore the place more. However, I take that as a silver lining to the cloud. After all, a rushed trip is the best excuse for a longer sojourn again.