Coorg food blogger Shalini Nanda shares her recipes and memories of food. And reminds us that with any traditional cuisine, so much depends on the terroir

If you are a recipe seeker on the Internet you couldn’t have missed the site Coorg Recipes that takes you into the world of the Kodava community who love their food and drink and celebrate the produce they grow in their inimitable cuisine.

The newly re-launched avatar of the site features more than 40 traditional recipes from the Coorg region of Karnataka. P.T. Bopanna, a Kodava who’s been running the site says there is a “recipe of the month” section featuring recipes from contributors that’s been made interactive.

The new recipes come from well-known Coorg food blogger Shalini Nanda Nagappa, who now lives in Canada. “Growing up in an Army family, we were stationed in and travelled to various places in India. This provided wonderful opportunities to indulge my natural curiosity about all things related to food. My mother’s interaction with ladies from around the country, and abroad, invariably led to recipe exchanges that fed this fascination,” says Shalini in an e-mail interview.

At every opportunity she travelled home to Coorg to her maternal grandparents’ home. Under the watchful eye of her indulgent grandmother she enjoyed whipping up cakes and desserts for family. She self-published a cookbook in 2010, called A Cookery Year in Coorg (she runs a blog by the same name). Excerpts from an interview:

What is it about Coorg cuisine that sets it apart from others? What’s its distinguishing characteristic?

As with any traditional cuisine, much depends on the terroir, so to speak. Rice, grown in the fertile valleys of Coorg, is the staple, and it was eaten at every meal. I think there is an amazing number of ways in which rice is transformed into flatbreads, crepes, noodles, steamed cakes and more. Some are echoes of preparations found in the cuisines of neighbours in coastal Mangalore, North Kerala and Malanad. Others are quite unique, like paputtu, maddputtu, and oduputtu.

Rice and puttus are accompanied by curries of mutton, poultry, pork, (both fresh and preserved), salt fish, freshwater fish and crab, bamboo shoot, and wild mushrooms. Farmed produce like pumpkin, and fresh and dried beans are popular too. The recurring notes in these preparations tend to be that of fragrant cassia, cloves and cardamom, the brightness of fresh green herbs and green chillies, the sweetness of fresh coconut, the deep warmth of pepper, and dark roasted coriander, cumin and mustard.

Add to this the clarifying effect of sharp citrus, or powerful kachampuli, (a souring agent made from Garcina gummi-gutta). In all these, every cook has a unique take on how, and how much. With changing social norms and the physical environment, some significant elements of Kodava cuisine like wild game, once abundant in the forests of Coorg, are no longer viable. Foraged potherbs, and the use of coconut oil and lard are also not as widespread today. The cuisine continues to evolve, though, with cooks recreating traditional dishes by making use of what is readily available. For example, if one does not have access to wild bamboo shoot one can substitute with farmed bamboo shoot, imported from Thailand. It's not quite the same, but it works.

Why is it that the “pandi cury” has become almost a synonym for Coorg cuisine, outside the Kodava community?

The short answer to that would be “because it’s so good!” Joking aside, for the uninitiated, a quick glance through the range of recipes on coorgrecipes.com should tell anyone there is much more to discover. Still, the combination of dark roasted spices, pork, and the unique sharpness of kachampuli combine in pandi curry to create something special.

What made you take to cooking? What kind of dishes do you like to cook?

I’ve always loved food, so I suppose it was natural to hang around in the kitchen picking up on the goings on. I’ve also always been curious about the entire process of preparing food, even before I was old enough to handle things on my own. My maternal grandmother indulged that interest and encouraged me. When I was young I was always whipping up cakes and desserts for the family. I enjoy most cuisines and like to cook anything that catches my fancy. I love seafood, and living on the coast of the Pacific NW, I am privileged to have access to some of the best out there. I also have a particular interest in the vast range of regional Indian cuisines.

Among the recipes you have shared, which are your most treasured ones, and why?

I feel every recipe has some special association, whether it evokes memories of meals past, was shared by a friend, or is just some fun innovation. Oduputtu is a particular favourite. I didn’t eat this when growing up, and it isn’t commonly made these days. I would hear my mother recall how she and her siblings were welcomed home from school long before they actually reached the house, by the delicate fragrance of the resin used to scent this unusual rice pancake. Her descriptions spurred me to seek out the clay pan it is traditionally cooked in, season it, and set about practicing getting the batter just right.

With the kaipuli recipes, I enjoyed the process of testing how exactly to substitute one locally found citrus fruit with another that is more widely available where I live and has a similar flavour profile, but different physical characteristics. Palya, which is the simplest style of preparation of vegetables, is applied to a variety of wild greens that once were commonly eaten, each for known health benefits. It’s been wonderful discovering some of these, like thaaté thoppu (Cassia tora), for myself.

For people living outside Coorg, will ingredients/cooking apparatus you have featured in recipes in coorgrecipes.com be easy to come by?

Coming from an army family and having lived outside Coorg for much of my youth, and now living in North America, I am familiar with many of the limitations as well as the possibilities in recreating recipes. Many ingredients are specific to the Coorg region, but on my blog I make it a point to try out, and offer what in my opinion may be the closest substitutes for both ingredients and equipment wherever possible. In India, there are online sources like coorgshoppe.com to help source ingredients like kachampuli and spices.