To Coorg For A Hot Cuppa
My first memory of visiting Coorg is from a few years ago when Mum and I travelled by road from Bangalore to Kochi with a few friends for my then newborn nephew’s christening. We had taken an unplanned detour to Coorg or Kodagu (as it is now known) and the breathtaking landscape and friendly hospitable people had left a deep impression on my mind. Being unplanned, the trip was quite chaotic and the fact that I was the only man in the company of 8 old women meant I had to be polite and content with just visiting coffee plantations and sampling coffee – Coorg’s main agricultural produce. I had promised myself I would come back, and earlier this year I did go back.
This time two occurrences led to my trip. One was a visit to the Karavalli restaurant at the Taj Gateway, Bangalore for a review. Not only had the restaurant impressed me, but Chef Naren Thimmaiah had given me a fabulous culinary and cultural introduction to his homeland. He had shared interesting tidbits of information regarding the various communities that formed the Coorg cultural fabric. He also fed me signature dishes inspired from the kitchens of these people – dishes that used ingredients sourced from the place itself! And the list went well beyond just coffee; there was pepper, cloves, cardamom, kodampuli (a souring agent similar to kokum), kachampuli (a vinegar made from kodampuli), vanilla, forest honey, bitter gourd, several types of cucumbers and Kodagu oranges! I sampled dishes which used techniques and ingredients which I found astounding like Pothi Choru (ghee rice), Moplah chicken curry wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf, Denji Pulimunchi (rice flour coated soft shell crabs tossed in a spicy masala), Oggaraneda Aritha Pundi (steamed rice dumplings flavoured with coconut and cumin, and tossed with mustard and curry powder), Patrade (colocasia leaf rolls brushed over liberally with pan-roasted spiced lentil paste and cooked), Maavinakai Mensukkai (preserved mango curry of Havyaka origin) and the Haagalkkai Kabbu Saaru (an astonishing combination of bitter gourd and sugarcane in a mild curry).
Every bite was a burst of fresh flavour on my palate, and by the end of the meal I completely understood what Chef Naren meant when he said: “There’s much more to South Indian cuisine than coconuts and curry leaves!”. The second occurrence that led me to Coorg was an invitation to visit the Tata Plantation Trails. This one caught me completely off guard: Tea? In Coorg? For most of us, Coorg and the surrounding districts have been coffee country. During my first trip, I remember walking through the coffee plantations with our guide who explained that Coorg was home to “shade-grown coffee” - that hardly any forest had been cleared to make way for the plantations and that coffee cultivated in the shade tasted different. He had also pointed out how the coffee plantations were home to pepper vines, cardamom and vanilla too as it grows as a creeper on the very tress which form a shady canopy over coffee plants. The trip to the tea estates were full of just as many surprises. The Tata Plantation Trails though famous, were not yet frequented by too many visitors. Not only are they breathtaking, but their close proximity to Bylakuppe (the Tibetan settlement), a forest and a beautiful waterfall make them a paradise.
A morning walk through the misty plantation came with numerous rewards. In addition to watching the tea workers at work, one came across numerous birds, wild flowers and wild mushrooms growing peacefully on many a tree. The most exciting moment was stumbling upon an elephant footprint near the forest patch! The long walk had worked up a good breakfast appetite and the cooks at Glenlorna cottage (named after the daughter of the man who planted the first tea saplings in Coorg), where I was put up, had ensured a scrumptious Kodagu breakfast of rice flatbreads with chutney and curry with an assortment of teas (of course!) and fruits. I was waiting for lunch as I had been promised the famous Pandi curry with Kadambuttu (a type of rice dumpling). Rich, dark and spicy, this curry was like nothing I had ever tasted before. The meat was marinated in kachampuli which though many say is India’s answer to balsamic, has a distinct flavour of it’s own. There were other dishes too and preserved mango and preserved jackfruit made an appearance yet again. And as I ate, I understood that the cuisine of Coorg was simple but the flavours were pretty complex owing to techniques. The use of sesame oil gave the food yet another distinct character. The cooks were natives of the region and hence the food was as authentic as it could get. The cottage itself is a delight and the people make your stay extremely comfortable.
It’s true that Coorg or Kodagu holds the title of being the “Coffee Cup of India”, however, if you get a chance, do go an sample a hot cup of tea here as well… it’s worth every minute! Michael Swamy is a Cordon Bleu Graduate & Chef, intrepid traveller, author and food stylist. He loves good food art, culture and food history.