Vellan Nellara brings the cuisine of the Kurumba tribals of Wayanad to the city

It’s his friendly call of “Kappa and nadan Wayanad kozhi curry here!” that catches our ears while wandering around the food festival at the ongoing ‘Mambazhakalam’ fete at Suryakanthi grounds, Kanakakunnu. The voice turns out to be that of Vellan Nellara, a Kurumba tribal hailing from Nellarachal ooru (village), near the Karapuzha reservoir dam, some 15 km from Kalpetta, Wayanad. In his ooru, Vellan is known for his superb cooking skills and has even won an award from the Kerala Folklore Akademi for the same. Vellan, his wife, Gauri, and daughter, Shyamala, are in the city to introduce traditional Kurumba cooking to the natives.

“Among the various gothras (clans), the Kurumbas are known for their cooking,” says the affable and chatty Vellan as he hands us a cup of piping hot and aromatic marunnu kaapi – essentially black coffee brewed with 27 different herbs, roots and condiments. The coffee (Rs.20) is an instant refresher that actually leaves you rejuvenated, despite the heat. As with all his cooking, the coffee too was brewed on a wooden fire, set up behind the stall, which gives it (and all the other dishes too) a scrumptious smoky flavour. “I find it very difficult to cook on a gas stove. Food never tastes as good as that cooked on a wooden fire with herbs and roots found in the forest,” says Vellan, who learnt cooking from the elders in his family. “For instance, to make chutta kozhi (roast chicken), we make an impromptu skewer out of the stem of a chulli plant, string the marinated chicken on it and roast it over a wooden fire,” he adds.

Unfortunately for us, chutta kozhi is not on the menu for the day, but kozhi varutharachathu is. It’s finely diced chicken sautéed with onions and smothered with Vellan’s signature masala that he has made of green pepper, cloves, forest cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic, sarvasugandhi, and so on. “Less than a teaspoon of oil has been used in the preparation,” says Vellan. He ladles a huge portion on a paper plate that already holds steaming kappa and chutney made of kanthari chilli and shallots (Rs.70).

As we tuck in with relish savouring the wealth of spice in each bite, Vellan tells us that food is a very intrinsic part of Kurumba culture. “After a wedding, the bride’s family give the groom stacks of kallupittu [a sort of a dosa, made on a flat-bottomed iron vessel]; the wealthier the family, the more kallupittu they can afford. Only the maternal uncle has the right to tie the kallupittu together. Kallupittu is also given as offerings to the Gods during the Uchar (Makar Sankranti) festival. On the 10th day [of the Malayalam month] of Thulam, we have our Puthari festival, where make an offering of newly harvested Gandakasala rice…,” explains Vellan.

Payasam made of Gandakasala rice, vennakallappam, karakondappam, pothi chicken, kuzhi chicken, honey pathiri, and honey sherbet are some of the items available on Vellan’s menu. However, the menu changes everyday. It’s always best to give Vellan a call beforehand to find out the day’s specials (contact: 9847107896).

The fete is on till May 12.