It is something of a privilege for a city dweller to live in the middle of a coffee plantation, as I did for four days in the lush Karnataka district of Kodagu last week. I watched the early morning mists roll in, shivering lightly as the wind whipped in over the coral trees and silver oaks, and the air filled with the insistent “tsees” of Orange-headed Thrushes, the “zweets” of Oriental White-Eyes and many other strange and wonderful creatures.
The journey to Madikeri, the district headquarters, evoked mixed feelings . The cool winds and rolling hills of south Karnataka are always a pleasure to drive through but it is hard to ignore patches of rubbish, rubble and construction. Progress in India is not a pretty sight. Even the once sylvan Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe boasted double-glazed glass on mansions that evoked the architecture of their distant, lost land.
It is best to focus instead on more pleasurable things, such as reading aloud, and compulsively, the signboards along the highway, a disease that afflicts my family. So, I could not help but point out to my unfortunate travelling companions the whimsical ways of Karnataka’s highway proprietors and municipal officials: wayside lunch stops called Hotel Stop And Taste, Hotel Le Ruchi, Hotel Purple Delicacy (only because its walls were painted purple) and—to our perplexment—Hotel Silent Zone; and settlements called “Town of the Divine Goddess” (Periyapatna), “Toy Town” (Channapatna) and “Historical Town” (Srirangapatna).
At the base of the Kodagu Hills, we stopped for lunch at a little eatery that simply called itself Fish Curry And Rice Hotel. They brought us lacy neer dosas, tawa-fried kane or silverfish and surmai or kingfish pulimunchi, a tangy, fiery coastal curry that derives its flavour and name from tamarind or puli.
That lunch was the harbinger of the meals to come.
At our destination, Captain K’s Getaway, perched on the edge of a verdant valley, we found a host who was not just an accomplished chef but cooked our dinners herself, helped by her son and daughter. Leila Alvares, as it emerged, was a well-known name back home in Bengaluru, where she has produced many musicals. The daughter of a former mariner—hence the home-stay’s name—she ran a coffee estate, hosted guests and offered sublime food, spanning Coorg to Continental, with a barbeque thrown in. Captain K’s has only two rooms, so even when it’s full—we took both rooms—it’s empty.
I was also lucky that my old friend Kavitha Muthanna was a 20-minute drive away. It was for her wedding that we were last in Kodagu, 12 years ago. As we drove in to Madikeri, we stopped at a modest one-room home she and her husband were creating for themselves in a former storehouse for grain and coffee in the middle of the family plantation: a bed, tiny kitchen, tiny living area and a great, glorious outdoors, bounded by a paddy field and old-growth trees that towered over the coffee bushes.
One afternoon, Kavitha’s mother, Veena Muthanna, invited us to lunch at her hillside home in Madikeri. As we admired the sylvan views, she told us how things had changed over the last decade, pointing to buildings over the treetops, including many ugly ones sporting those double-glazed, sealed windows—why anyone would block the air in breezy Madikeri was a mystery.
We focused our attention on Mrs Muthanna’s welcoming lunch table. There was, of course, a traditional and most delicious pandhi, or pork curry, and fried fish but what stood out was the vegetarian spread that I normally tend to ignore. There was a bamboo-shoot vegetable and a kuru, or kidney bean (of a local speckled variety, pictured), curry produced by Eliza, a smiling, robust woman who does the daily cooking. Instead of mutton pulao, there was a soya nuggets pulao, and there were fluffy akki or rice-flour rotis.
As we retired for dessert—home-made caramel custard and gulab jamuns—we noticed eaves of paddy behind Mrs Muthanna’s photo frames. They had been taken from the harvest and placed there for blessings and good luck. Tradition, the Madikeri breeze, welcoming hosts and fine food—what better way to prepare for the week ahead.
Eliza’s Kuru Curry
Made with kuru, or fresh speckled kidney bean
Half kg shelled kuru
In a mixie, grind
A handful of grated coconut
Half tsp chilli powder
One-fourth tsp dhania (coriander) powder
One-fourth tsp turmeric
One-fourth tsp jeera (cumin) powder
A pinch of saunf (aniseed)
Half tsp ginger paste
One-fourth tsp garlic paste
(Grind well. Do not add water to this mixture)
1 onion, sliced
1 tomato, chopped
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp curry leaves
1 tbsp vegetable oil
Salt to taste
In a pressure cooker, heat the oil, splutter some mustard seeds, then fry a sliced onion until golden brown. Add the ground masala and fry further till it smells heavenly (Kavitha’s description) and the colour changes. Add the tomato and sauté for another minute. Add salt. Add water till above the level of the mixture. Add the beans and curry leaves. Close cooker. Let steam for two whistles, then simmer for five minutes. Open cooker and enjoy madi with a lashing of ghee.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11
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