Fragrance of rice, with a whiff of pepper

The rich and distinct culture of Kodagu, the land of dense hill jungles, is reflected in the clothing and food habits of its inhabitants. Historically, paddy is the major crop in the region. Though paddy fields are gradually disappearing in these fertile valleys owing to many reasons, rice is still the staple food in Kodagu and comes on the platter in various forms.

The traditional staples like kanji (Conjee or ‘rice gruel’) and koolu (boiled rice) are served along with salt and pickle. Other rice dishes like paputt (steamed rice cake, cooked with coconut gratings), noolputt (rice noodles), kadampoott (rice dumplings, also called kadamboott), etc are served along with a curry. Votti (akki roti) with pajji, a mild spicy chutney is a popular breakfast item. Sannakki — fine, small rice grains with a sweet fragrance — is commonly used in these preparations. While some rice dishes have just ceremonial significance now, many find a place among popular recipes. 

Curried variations

Curry is a word with Dravidian origins for the Indian spicy sauce preparation of vegetables or meat. A number of South Indian languages, including the Kodava language, use the word karri (curry) while in Kannada it is called sambhar. Grated coconut and seasoning are the inescapable features of a quintessential Kodava curry. While kooth (mixed vegetable curry) is a common vegetarian dish here, any sort of rasam, sambhar or dal curry is called kanni.

Pepper is grown in Kodagu and is one of the common spices used. Parangi malu, a small but fiery chilly, is grown in the kitchen gardens. This ‘chot-mensin-kayi’ spice is used in several preparations. 

A majority of Kodagu people consume non-vegetarian food as well. Koli (chicken) curry, meen (fish) curry, kuri yerchi (mutton) curry or pandi (pork) curry are prepared from small cut pieces of meat which are well-seasoned and curried. While the gravy meats are called curry, the fried variants are called barthad.  There is one vegetarian variant made of brinjal called the baine barthad.

For dessert, there is thambutt (a sweet dish prepared from bananas and grated coconut), kuvaleputtu (a sweet dish made of jackfruit, steam cooked and served in banana leaves), baale puttu (another sweet dish prepared from bananas), akki payasa (a sweet pudding made from rice) and others. Akki payasa is a traditional dish made for almost all the festivals. 

There are a few other sweets that double up as snacks in Kodagu, which are however not native to the region. Some of them are the round chiroti, the crescent-shaped kajjayya and the doughnut-shaped badava kajjayya.

Festival food

Thambutt (also called thambittu) is popularly made during Puttari, the harvest festival which occurs in the month of November or December. During the wedding feasts, and especially during the annual feasts of Kail Polud (a martial festival) and Putthari, meat is permitted. Pandi curry is prepared for both these festivals. 

But on Kaveri Changrandi, the feast of the river goddess, meat and alcohol are strictly prohibited. Neer dose (which is of Tulu origin and is a crepe made of unfermented rice batter) and kumbala (pumpkin) curry is made during the festival. 

Certain fruits and vegetables are generally cooked in the months when they are readily available. Baimbale (bamboo) curry, kaad mange (wild mango) curry, kemb(colocasia) curry, therme thoppu (fern) curry, kummu (mushroom) curry and pineapple curry are some of the seasonal vegetarian delicacies.

There are seasonal chutneys such as mange (mango) pajji, chekke (jackfruit) pajji and kaipulli (lime) pajji as well. Kuvaleputtu is usually prepared around May, in the season of jackfruit. Some dishes are prepared from chekke kurru (jackfruit seeds) as well.

Chana Kande (elephant yam), tapioca and Puttari Kalnji are also grown in Kodagu. Puttari Kalnji is a kind of yam plant which grows as a creeper. Its fruit is cooked during the Puttari festival, hence the plant gets its name. 

Kakkada (Karkataka or ‘of the crab’) is a month in the Kodava calendar which is similar to the Aashada month in the Kannada calendar. On the eighteenth day of this month (called Kakkada Padnett), a certain herb called the kurunji thoppu (Justicia wynaadensis), also referred to as maddu thoppu (medicinal leaf) or aatisoppu (Aashadha leaf), is plucked and an aromatic, purple juice is obtained from it. This juice is believed to have various medicinal benefits and is hence consumed on that day. A dish called madd-putt and a sweet porridge, called madd-payasa, are prepared with this juice. A fattened chicken, labelled as kakkada koli, is cooked on this day and eaten.

A kind of vinegar called puli neer is prepared and used in several dishes. A special native kind of vinegar called kachampuli (Coorg vinegar) is peculiar to Kodava meat dishes. This vinegar is made from a Garcinia gummi-gutta, a wild fruit. Kachampuli gives the pandi curry its unique taste.

Orange, butter fruit, guava, papaya and other fruits are also widely grown and consumed in Kodagu. But they have not gained the culinary popularity of the traditional three: banana, jackfruit and mango. Any visitor to a home in Kodagu gets a welcome coffee drink. Of late, Kodagu has become famous for homemade wine, prepared from different fruits, and chocolates.

Chef Naren Thimmaiah says, “Awareness about regional Kodava cuisine is high since it is distinct. The classic combinations — noolputtu and koli curry, kadambuttu and pandi curry, paputtu and erachi curry never fail to please. Crab and fish curries are usually eaten with akki rottis or rice. We take these pairings for granted, but they owe everything to uncounted generations of gifted women.”

The people of Kodagu have developed their cuisine from what was readily available in Kodagu and in the best way possible. Various curries and other dishes are prepared from the fruits, vegetables, plants and meats found in the region. While some of the food items of the region have evolved locally, some have been inspired by the food culture of the neighbouring regions.

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Fragrance of rice, with a whiff of pepper

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