Indigenous Dishes Of The Nilgiris & The Slow Food Movement

by Team TNF

We wanted to share some of our enjoyment of the cuisine through this brief exploration of some indigenous dishes from the Nilgiris. Many of these will have ancient roots. Others are clever culinary innovations that are still tied to local and seasonal rhythms, and may be the result of various threads of history and change. For instance, many types of produce were introduced to the Nilgiris during colonial times, including potatoes, peas, carrots, beans, brinjals and pumpkins. Some of these are known colloquially as “English vegetables”. All of these found their way into the regional cuisine and became staples. Having been cultivated for centuries, and having been proven to take well to the land and to generate more revenue streams for local farmers, they now also qualify as slow food ingredients here.

When we discussed the slow food movement – a grassroots international movement that is all about conscious cultivation and consumption – in this post we talked about how the traditional food systems of the Nilgiris are beautifully supported by the ethos of this initiative. Bringing slow food concepts together with indigenous wisdom is an intuitive and rewarding process, one that we have had the privilege to participate in through a variety of activities – from the serious aspects of helping to streamline the intricacies of supply chains to simply partaking in the fun of food festivals!

Herbaceous dishes, such as sautéed medicinal wild greens like povi keerai (sage- leaved alangium), offer a richly nutritious element to a standard indigenous meal. Greens are usually seasoned lightly with chillies, one or two spices and salt, so their true flavour shines through. Jackfruit curry, with fruit pieces that are famously meat-like in texture, is another popular dish. On the subject of fruits, pickled wild mango is often served as a condiment. A mixed vegetable or avare (broad bean) sambhar, a kind of lentil stew, will also be served. These will all be eaten as accompaniments to millets, cooked until fluffy and served with ghee.

For a more festive main course, here’s a dish that we know many patrons and tourists to Place To Bee, the indigenous-owned restaurant in Ooty, have relished: samai millet chicken biryani! You will no doubt be familiar with the biryani, a savoury rice dish brought to South Asia by the Mughals, prepared in varied renditions across the subcontinent. This is a local variation – an aromatic and delicious biryani made with samai (also known as little millet), free range chicken and fresh vegetables, and seasoned with local spices.

Finally, there simply must be dessert! How about puffed thandu – a treat made of amaranth seeds and honey brittle, both locally harvested ingredients? Or ragi (finger millet) flour balls cooked and sweetened with ripe bananas, cardamom, jaggery and coconut?

When it comes to plating, here in the Nilgiris, the banana leaf that is a symbol of South Indian cuisine is replaced by the teak leaf. The trees grow abundantly in this region and are suited to its climate. These organic plates are smaller than their compatriots from the banana tree, but serve the purpose equally well. It goes almost without saying that they are eco-friendly, sustainable and fuss-free.

An example of a full, nourishing indigenous slow food meal from the Nilgiris would be served on a teak leaf, and feature some of the delightful dishes above. We invite you to imagine every step of this experience: from the sowing to the harvest to the preparation to the pleasure of eating… That’s slow food, Nilgiris style. Just the thought of it fills the heart, doesn’t it?

Photos: Ramya Reddy, Soul of the Nilgiris

[Inputs for this article are drawn from the book Soul of the Nilgiris by Ramya Reddy.]