The lunch that was hosted by Sagar and Kavita Muthappa at their well-appointed estate bungalow served as a house-warming for the Muthappa’s family and friends. Coorgs or Kodavas (“But please don’t go calling us Coorgis!” Sagar Muthappa warns me, mock-threateningly) are a close-knit community, with members of each extended family thinking up excuses for periodic family get-togethers.
Conversation was lively: expectedly so as the group was composed of those who had lived on their estates all their lives and those who had made a living outside the state and had just arrived back. Sumi and Nanaiya, her husband, of Ked Estate had moved back to Coorg so cautiously that they still retained a house in nearby Mysore just in case they couldn’t cope with life on a plantation after decades outsides the state. “Now we find that we don’t really require it, but we do like to be out of here during the monsoon months.”
Sumi seems to have struck the perfect balance between the outside world and Coorg. In her kitchen, she has three grades of “tari” or pounded rice flour: fine, medium and coarse, the better to make a variety of Kodava dishes. On the other, she makes the occasional trip to capital Madikeri to pick up oyster sauce for the occasional indulgence.
Sally and MA Bopanna too have lived their life outside Coorg. Bopanna has lived and worked in Munnar and Bangalore, and Sumi is surprised to see how little Coorg has changed in all these years. “It is marvelous to see how self-reliant each estate family is. Paddy fields attached to the plantations meant that rice never had to be bought. In the monsoons, mushrooms grow wild around the coffee bushes. The pickers unerringly know which ones to pick and which were poisonous and they always find their way to our table. Bamboo shoots grew everywhere in the rains, and we make a delicious vegetable with it, in which the natural texture of the vegetable is brought into prominence with a minimum of seasoning. If you encounter bamboo shoot during the rest of the year, you’ll know it’s canned and hence not a patch on the real thing. Besides, vegetables were cultivated, cows and pigs were reared and I hardly have a free moment through the day.”
However, it is precisely that which turns off Dr Cama Muthappa. Sagar’s parents, Vasoo and Dr Cama Muthappa have lived in Bangalore where Dr Cama has practiced medicine. The prospect of holing up on a plantation busying herself with “Jams jellies and butters” as she refers to them is more than she can bear. She is probably not alone. Life in Coorg, unless you live in capital Madikeri, within driving distance of the Club, demands a high degree of isolation.
Coffee plantation land is a series of ridges atop a plateau, which means that there are no really deep valleys just as there are no seriously high hills. Varuna Plantation (the Muthappas have named their coffee and pepper estate after their adorable, precocious seven year old) has a locational advantage: the approach road slopes steeply uphill and the mint new bungalow has a bird’s eye view of the serried ranks of the surrounding ridges. The Muthappas cannot see their neighbours, but then, nobody on a coffee plantation can wander over to their neighbour’s house for a spot of gossip! The average size of an estate (coffee, pepper, cardamom) is between 30-50 acres, so you neither hear your neighbours nor see them. When you do meet, it is an occasion to be celebrated with much food and more drink!
While the Muthappas, both in their 30s, live and work in Bangalore and visit Varuna Plantation whenever the opportunity arises, there are other young people who have returned to Coorg directly after further studies, realizing that not all the riches of Croesus were enough compensation to live in a boxy apartment in some polluted city. Dr Sunil and Urvashi Muddaiah have built the only dental college in the region, in the small town called Virajpet, and it is here that Dr. Sunil performs cosmetic dental surgeries. Some of his patients are reported to be leading film stars, but question Dr. Sunil further, and he feigns deafness.
Urvashi Muddaiah reckons that there are 300 clans among the Kodavas, who, she estimates, number about 80,000 within Coorg. “Not very much is known about our origins,” she explains. “We don’t seem to have either a priestly class, so there’s not much ritual in our weddings. Neither do we have a business class, which is why we are so bad at making money.” The group erupts into laughter: it is clear that owning a plantation is enough to ensure a genteel lifestyle but no more than that. The clans that Urvashi refers to may well be a throwback to the origins of this community who, some feel, may have Greek blood. The Muthappas themselves are from the Bottolanda clan. The clan is a useful identification tool, but hardly all-encompassing: at the lunch, there were people from other clans like Biddanda, Allapanda, Iychettira and Kanjithanda and the Muthappas don’t even claim to know all the members of their own clan.
Conversation came to a standstill once lunch was served. Kavita is known to be a fabulous cook and her rendition of the cuisine of her husband elicits admiration all around. Originally from the strictly vegetarian community of Palakkad Iyers, in the years since her marriage into a Kodava family, Kavita has been adopted as an honorary Coorg – a high honour indeed. Not only does she speak Kodavatakk, she cooks the food and observes all the customs. Beyond everything else, Kavita has an abiding love for Coorg and cannot wait to shift there permanently.
You cannot have a Kodava celebratory meal and not have a few favourites. Pandi Curry with Kadamputtu and Chicken Curry with Nulputtu are must-haves. In addition, Kavita had prepared Otti, Green Mutton Biryani, Chicken Fry, Vegetable Curry with Paputtu, Brinjal Fry and Inji Pachadi: her magic touch is in knowing where to add her special touch and what to leave in its original, traditional form. Thus, the Pandi Curry, an almost dry pork curry that every housewife makes, differs marginally from house to house, with all the relatives either secretly smug that their version is better or privately griping that their version has a lot of catching up to do!
Kavita’s Pandi Curry is unanimously declared to be the tastiest in the family, though it goes easy on the kachimpuli – a locally-grown species of kokum that is boiled down to the consistency of a 40-year old aceto balsamico. Kachimpuli is every bit as precious as Modena’s balsamic vinegar and is used drop by drop as a souring agent in pork, chicken and fish dishes. Urvashi Muddaiah attributes the prevalence of kachimpuli in the Kodava diet as a protection against tapeworms that pork carries. The one feature of a Coorg meal is the presence of rice-based accompaniments – our lunch with the Muthappas had biryani, a thin, supple rice pancake, a version of the iddiappam, the little round balls that are so small and light that you eat them without realizing how many you’ve had and regular chapattis made with rice flour.