I got a taste of the Toda's tribal culture, along with some curd rice.
Darkness takes precedence inside this small stuffy hut. The sole source of light is the hobbit-sized door at one end as the weak zero watt bulb struggles to fulfil its duty. Grandma Rysil Poof sits across from me near the stove. A cackling sound emanates from the pan within which she is frying twelve dry red chillies in oil.
The resultant pungence in the air, thick with smoke, reminds one of a typical Indian kitchen. The bed within the 10ft by 7ft space occupies nearly half of it, and on it are seated my brother and sister coughing incessantly. Ooty had been our second home and we had spent many months bunking school here.
The Toda settlement in Avalanche
Grandma Rysil lives in this hamlet alone. Her features are unusual not like the common Dravidian physionomy prevalent in South India. At a glance, her straight sloping nose and high cheekbones on wheatish skin set her apart from the people of Ooty. Her hair is curled into two locks on either side and the deep-seated creases on her tiny face stand testament to wisdom of ages. Wisdom that is ebbing away with her, because she is one of the few remaining elders of the secretive Toda tribe that dwell in the upper reaches of the Nilgiri mountains in Tamil Nadu.
Few get the chance to meet this great clan and even fewer have the privilege of being invited for lunch. Invited upon a humble request that is, and only because my folks have known a few of them closely for more than a decade.
Grandma Rysil is one of the few remaining elders of the Toda tribe
Who are the Todas?
Ooty was only discovered in the early 19th century. It had until then been impenetrable due to dense forest cover. It was considered the abode of the giant god-like people – the Todas. Locals would rather die than set foot in their land. After many failed expeditions it was finally penetrated by the British who were invited by the Todas to live there. Even today most of the land in the upper Nilgiris, belong to these gentle giants. The six other tribes who lived in those forests, looked up to this graceful race who would never hunt or farm. Unlike most tribes all over the world, they were strictly non-violent and vegetarian. Their physical and social aberrancy can also be seen in the way they dress, their hairstyle and language. While their hair is curled into thick locks, they drape their clothes, similar to the Greek way of wearing a Toga. Their numbers have been steadily decreasing over the years. Most of the younger generations have moved to cities to find work and have started living in brick houses instead of their traditional oval hamlets. Only the few remaining elders in every village still live the traditional way. Experts say that the culture will die out within the next decade.
Hobbit sized door
Today, one of their elders, Grandma Rysil, is preparing an ancient Toda dish called Otidoor, which I am told is a type of curd rice. The Todas are a primarily pastoral tribe which means that every aspect of their culture, may it be social, economic or religious, is intrinsically linked to a special breed of water-buffalo which they herd and worship.
Four feet short grandma Rysil lifts a heavy metal pot and sets it upon the stove for the rice. She seems a little absent sometimes but occasionally looks up and gives me a wide toothless smile while nodding lovingly. A look that only grandmothers can give you.
A younger Toda woman called Vitya comes by to help our old lady. She takes out a large traditional grinding stone and settles down with it. The chillies in the pan are replaced by coriander seeds and are transferred onto the grinding stone. A litre of buttermilk is prepared, of which a little is kept aside for the paste that Vitya is getting ready to make.
When the coriander seeds are done she adds them to the chillies and starts grinding them with a palmful of buttermilk. The red chillies break into yellow seeds and slowly merge, changing colour by the minute. Meanwhile a whole tomato has now taken its place in the pan and is roasted like in a bharta. You can smell the chillies as the smooth paste turns orange and the seeds have disappeared. Buttermilk is added at frequent intervals to wet the paste and give it a deeper flavour.
The steaming tomato
Now blackened on both sides, the tomato makes a sound as it bursts, indicating it is ready. After 5 minutes of cooling, the steaming tomato is squashed whole into the paste along with some fresh coriander. Each consecutive ingredient is ground till it merges identity with the paste. The last two ingredients, garlic and salt, are added. My mouth has already turned into a waterfall as the scent of this potent concoction decides to tease my olfactory nerves. It might not seem much as I write about it but this grinding process took 45 minutes. We have Vitya’s strong arms to thank for its fibreless consistency. Meanwhile the huge pot of rice is almost done.
Otidoor - the chilli buttermilk-infused rice
Grandma Rysil and I are locked in deep conversation. She in her language and me in mine. One man sitting close by roughly translates it as her telling me how she thinks an evil spirit has attached itself to her. I wanted to know more but the random man disappeared within seconds. Five minutes before taking the rice off the stove, she pours the remaining buttermilk into the pot and folds it into the rice.
While the rice cools, she smashes it with a wooden ladle. Our eyes follow the food greedily as she takes the cooled rice and makes clean mounds on separate plates and presses the centre in like a volcano. From a container she pours a spoonful of homemade buffalo butter in each mound and tops it with the chilli paste. After an hour of tantalizing agony, we finally dip our hands into the lukewarm rice, mix it with the paste and take a bite.
Otidoor, like a miniature volcano
The butter has a distinct sense of buffalo; it coats the paste, not dulling but enhancing the comforting flavour of garlic and chilli. The buttermilk-infused rice has a slight tang that brings the recipe full circle. The grandmother smiled at us as we eat and no one utters a word till every plate is wiped clean. Although curd rice is the quintessential comfort food of the south, this rendition sends you right back to the womb. My grandmother was the best cook I knew and I felt a tinge of guilt as I ate this simple but delicious preparation. Grandma Rysil sends out plates with similarly presented mounds to other houses in the village.
The dish was always meant to be shared.
Vitya in the traditional Toda weave
Rice- 3 cups (cook with 3 tbsp salt)
Buttermilk- 850 ml
Dry red chillies- 12 pieces
Coriander seeds- 2 tsp
Buttermilk- 150 ml
Salt- 1 tsp
Garlic- 6 big cloves
1.Prepare rice with salt
2.Grind the chillies and coriander seeds with buttermilk until a smooth paste
3.Roast a tomato whole, until it releases water and then cool and add to the paste along with fresh coriander
4.Add salt and garlic to the paste and grind well
5.Add buttermilk to the hot rice and smash it
6.When it cools, make mounds of rice with a depression in the center and within it put a dollop of butter and the chilli paste. Serve.
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By Karishma Goenka
Photographs by: Karishma Goenka
Video by: Eshna Goenka