The country life down south
Under a sky filled with stars, the joys of a self-catered family holiday with rare and restricted meats
The banner fluttering over the market entrance first grabbed my attention. “Society for Krishna Consciousness," it said. Beside it were flower sellers and a clock tower; beyond, a market where beef curry, freshly cooked beef biryani and beef fry were being advertised and sold—at 10.30am. There were no murderous cow protectors and nary a hint of tension. After all, this was not the cow belt but Denkanikottai, Tamil Nadu, or D-Kottai, as I shall call it.
I digress. I was not there to probe traditional culinary habits or evaluate India’s new nationalism. I only wanted a few eggs and a country chicken, or nati chicken, as local breeds are called in these parts. But digression was easy in D-Kottai. The butchers held forth in Tamil, Kannada, Dakkhani Urdu or English. The offerings were varied—goat heads, entrails, brain, chicken feet and bubbling vats of the beef I mentioned; I couldn’t help but have two plates of biryani packed.
Ah, finally, there was the country chicken. The butcher sized me up and started talking in Kannada. Considering I am only a naturalized Kannadiga with spotty Kannada, his assessment was remarkable. There were no stored packets of chicken. He swiftly grabbed a squawking bird, weighed it and handed it to his assistant. I hastily walked off to buy the eggs, and when I returned in 10 minutes, the squawk had gone from the bird, which had been reduced to small pieces, “curry cut", as they say.
I had driven down to D-Kottai from a farmhouse that was hosting us for a weekend break. The owners live in Bengaluru, and there were no catering facilities. The caretaker and his wife popped in with an unidentifiable fruit from the farm but otherwise left us to ourselves. This suited us fine. The kitchen was large and airy, two men (a friend and I) were going to run the kitchen, there were large, traditional brass vessels to cook with, we had carried enough supplies, and there could not have been a better place to dine out than the stone dining table beneath the trees.
The two six-year-olds were delighted at being away from home and routine. There was a large, amiable cow, three excitable dogs, who delighted at being fussed over, chickens roamed the farm, the mango trees were laden with raw fruit, and the night sky, bereft of light pollution, was full of stars. We were also in an elephant corridor. “Caution: Elephants crossing," said a sign on the road outside. Other farms had electric fencing, sobering reminders of human intrusion into ancient migratory lands.
A little depressed, I turned my attention to the task at hand. Everyone pitched in with making tea and coffee and cooking. We tossed salad in one of those big, brass vessels, my friend toasted gourmet sandwiches on a tawa (griddle), and we all kindly adjusted to what was available. There was a compact but heavy mortar-pestle that I fell in love with, as it reduced the spices I had roasted to powder. I had not cooked country chicken in years, and I relished the challenge.
Nati chicken are the furthest from broilers. The meat can be stringy, it does not fall off the bone when slow-cooked, but those antibiotic-laden broilers cannot match its heavy feel and flavour. I hefted one vessel atop another to seal in the chicken’s juices, a jugaad pressure cooker of sorts, as I explain below. Even steam found it difficult to escape all that thick brass.
There is a joy to making your own food, even on holiday. You can tailor-make menus, make sure the food is healthy, the cooking fun-filled, and the clean-up communal. Things get done quickly when everyone pitches in, and there is nothing better than a holiday centred around the kitchen to get children interested and involved in food.
The afternoons were warm, but ankle-deep water in a small pool with frogs and spiders cooled off and delighted the six-year-olds. The heat did little to take away the charm of lunch under the trees and an afternoon siesta, never mind the frequent power outages and stilled fans. As evening fell, the air cooled and echoed with the symphony of crickets. Wine was passed around, and the conversations became more intense, interrupted only by the need to make dinner.
I do not say that I do not enjoy being catered to now and then, but, sometimes, at that time, in that place, with those friends—and to truly experience family time—there is a particular joy to doing it all on your own.
Country chicken with roasted spices
1kg country (nati) chicken
3 tsp vegetable or olive oil
15-20 garlic flakes, crushed or chopped
2 onions, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp garam masala
2 green chillies, deseeded and chopped
1 cup coriander, washed and chopped
Salt to taste
For the masala
(Roast until the spices crackle, cool and grind in a mortar-pestle)
4 red chillies
5 green cardamoms
1/2 star anise
1 piece mace
1 tsp cumin seeds
Mix coriander powder and chilli powder in some water and set aside. Heat oil gently in a heavy brass vessel and sauté the garlic. Sauté onion until it is translucent. Add the coriander-chilli powder mix and sauté for a minute. Add the roasted and ground masala and give the onions and garlic a toss. Sauté the tomato for 3-4 minutes; dribble water to keep it from drying if needed. Add the garam masala. Then add the green chillies and chicken. Mix well, add salt. Seal in the chicken with another heavy vessel placed on top, or cover with a weight on top. Lower the flame and cook for 40 minutes. Nati chicken takes time to cook and will never become truly soft. If required, cover and cook for another 10 minutes. Sprinkle coriander and serve.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
The writer tweets at @samar11