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A rich culture in a state of flux comes alive through a visual book and an intense culinary collaboration

The elegant Kaveri Ponnapa is no ordinary food lover. Qualifying in social anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, she also wrote independently for major publications covering food, art, travel and design, over the last couple of decades. Then she turned her attention to researching the history of her people — fiercely independent Kodavas with a zest for life, war and good, hearty cuisine. Fifteen years of intensive research later, the finished book, The Vanishing Kodavas, is a beautifully documented account of a people whose rich traditions are in danger of becoming unrecognizably homogenized. “Having lived in different parts of India (her father was Lt Gen (Retd) Biddanda C Nanda) and later travelling around the world, I began to appreciate more deeply the Kodava way of life — laws, customs, worship, history, songs and stories which were all passed down orally. I began to feel the growing concern of the community elders that the younger generation would soon have no reference point to hold on to. Our customs were becoming indistinguishable from our neighbours and our uniqueness was vanishing,” she laments.

Pleasures of the table
Ponnapa is not just a detail-oriented writer but an ardent cook with a fine appreciation for cooking techniques. You can hear it in her voice when she speaks of cooking in general but especially when she describes Coorg dishes she grew up with — the predominant “sourness” that comes from the dark, vinegar (kachampuli) made from the fruits of garcinia gummi gutta, or from squeezes of ‘native’ limes or kaipuli – local bitter oranges. About the way spices were ground by hand, food was cooked in earthenware pots known as curry-chattis or steamed in copper steamers called sakalas. Of smokey kitchens full of dried meats hanging from the rafters, gradually gathering a flavour of their own. “My passion for food was inspired by my grandmother who was a superb cook and later my mother-in-law who loved to share her wonderful recipes,” she tells us.

Shared project
It is an extension of this same spirit that prompted Ponnapa to participate in a holistic collaboration with the culinary team from ITC Windsor’s Dakshin, already known for their fine Southern cuisine. And along with the expertise of chef George Jayasuriya, she has put together an interesting variety of locally available meats, vegetables and spices.

Dishes range from intensely flavoured wild mushrooms cooked in a mild creamy sauce to tender mutton chops gently seasoned with pepper, onions and a dash of the famed kachampuli, which an Italian chef once compared to beautifully aged balsamic vinegar. Plus, scrumptiously cooked wild greens, pumpkins or raw bananas, game meat slowly braised in robust spices and a surprisingly varied selection of fish and crustaceans considering the Coorgs are a landlocked people.
The book is priced at Rs7,500.

All proceeds go to towards an education fund. Details: coorg.com

—Jackie Pinto

 

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