Call a native of Coorg a “Coorgi” and you’re asking for trouble. “I’m Kodava”, you’ll be told haughtily, “or, if you must, a Coorg. There’s no such thing as a ‘Coorgi’.” Make the same mistake twice, and you’ll be excommunicated from the Kodava party schedule for life – and that, my friend, is a hard-drinking, heavy-eating scene you really do not want to miss for anything in the world.
Yet an inconspicuous little eatery on the junction of Museum Road and Residency Road proudly proclaims that it serves “Authentic Coorgi Restaurant.” Far from having the place shut down, Kodavas actually recommend it. If, that is, you are particularly skilled at extracting information in, ahem, somewhat unconventional ways (think Hitler’s storm troopers).
Wild Spice is located in the basement of Field Marshal K M Cariappa Bhavan, the rather nondescript building adjacent to the St. Patrick’s Church compound on the opposite corner from the Sacred Heart Girls’ High School main gate. The entrance is on the Residency Road side of the building.
I suppose it must have been a cheerful yet simple place at one time; now, though, it just looks down at heel. Laminated table tops and metal chairs; ochre-and-blue walls that have obviously seen better times; inadequate ceiling fans; an unsightly heap of boxes near the cooler.
The four of us were starving though, and our food-loving Kodava friend Kashi Nanjappa had assured us that the pandi kari served here came as close as you could get to The Real Thing – available, of course, only at aforementioned wild Kodava parties. Décor was the furthest thing from our minds.
The menu card was simple enough, as you can see – a single sheet of paper in encased in a protective plastic sheet. The only kind of rice available was ghee rice (plain rice? what are you, anyway? a wimp?) A line at the bottom caught my attention: “For a healthy life, choose your restaurant like you would choose your spouse.” Ohhhh-kayyyy…
We went to town. Three portions of ghee rice, two of pandi curry, one pork thali, one koli (chicken) curry, one plate of “hot snowballs” – which we discovered, after some prompting, were the steamed rice dumplings known as kadambuttu. And, of course, ginger lime sodas and lassi to wash it all down with.
Unlike the ghee rice that we have come to associate with bright red chicken kebabs a la Hotel Empire or Hotel Imperial, Wild Spice’s ghee rice is redolent with the fragrance of spices that have been tempered in ghee (cardamom, clove, cassia bark). The nutty brown color of the rice is testament to the fact that it is fried in the ghee instead of simply being tossed in it after being boiled. The flavor is delicate; the chef is not heavy handed.
The kadambuttu were rather dense, and for someone used to the taste of Konkan cuisine, hard to appreciate without the flavor of coconut.
I don’t have enough experience of Kodava cuisine to know if they are supposed to be that dense; all I know is that I prefer the Mangalorean version, made with coconut and called undi, or pundi (if you belong to the Bunt community).
The Spouse’s pork thali (he chose the roti thali) consisted of four dry, layered akki vottis, a pork masala fry, a bean sambhar, a greens dal, a dry aubergine dish resembling yennekai, a garlic chutney, and a payasam.
The chutney was simply amazing. They should sell it fresh, in little banana-leaf packets; they’ll make a fortune. I know this, because I will buy them out. Every day. The waiter seemed amused that I wanted to know how it was made. He came back and recited the list of ingredients “garlic-ginger-green-chilli-grated-coconut-chana-dal-salt-lemon-juice”. And then walked away.
As a whole, the thali is tasty, wholesome fare – with the chutney lifting it above the ordinary. Certainly more than adequate for a working person’s lunch; not the kind of food you’d dream about or return specifically for.
Likewise, Mr. Small’s chicken curry had a home-cooked vibe about it, from its no-frills presentation to its simple, uncomplicated flavor. There are enough chicken pieces in it, and it’s neither boneless nor thickened nor artificially colored. This is a curry reminiscent of Ye Olde Bangalore, in the days before chicken came neatly pre-packaged. Satisfying, but not something that you’d want to compose poetry in memory of.
Coup de grace
That honor is reserved for the pandi kari.
Although Wild Spice’s version of pandi curry is neither as dry nor as dark in color as it should be, it smells exactly the way it should. Should you visit and order a portion, I highly recommend holding the dish up to your face and taking a deep whiff. It’s enough to make you cry tears of happiness.
How does it taste? Terrific. The pork has been slow cooked, the meat:fat ratio is perfect, and the curry reveals itself in complex layers on the tongue. It brings the kadamputtu to life, but tastes much, much better with the votti.
The reason that this particular pandi curry isn’t dark: it probably doesn’t contain kachampuli, a black specialty vinegar made from the kokum fruit and used in Kodava cuisine. Tamarind pulp is frequently substituted when kachampuli isn’t available, and I suspect that this is what has been used here.
Does it diminish the pandi kari in any way? Only the most picky Kodava would say that it does.
At Rs. 560 for our entire meal, including the soft drinks, you can afford to argue with them as often as you like! And the service? There’s a guy who puts stuff on the table and comes when called. What? You expect more than that? At that price point? Dude, get a life.
96, Cariappa Bhavan,
Phone: 080 41127404