A first-of-its kind Badaga restaurant in Coimbatore is attempting to revive the traditional cuisine of the Nilgiris’ original inhabitants
My taste buds are on fire. I am biting into ragi Hittu (or ragi flour balls), made of finger millets dipped in sandege — a fiery chutney-like gravy made using roasted garlic and pepper — at Nanga Hittu; a newly-opened restaurant in Coimbatore that serves the traditional cuisine of the Badagas, a native tribe of the Nilgiris. The buttery Hittu has a small depression on top into which molten ghee is poured. There is also a choice of avarai uthakka, a curry made with three varieties of seasonal beans and potato, or kappa koi uthakka (chicken gravy) and adu baadu uthakka (mutton gravy) to go with it.
Paintings tracing the origin of the Badagas — the original inhabitants of the Nilgiris — adorn the walls as we dig into white rice after adding avarai uthakka to it; this nutritious and wholesome gravy is a staple at Badaga weddings. There is also ghasu soppu (mashed potatoes and spinach) that bursts with the freshness of wild greens harvested from their farm.
It is believed that the Badagas have lived in the Nilgiris for thousand of years. Throughout the Nilgiris, they live in nearly 400 villages called hattis, a cluster of of houses surrounded by tea on low hillocks. Unlike the other hill tribes like the Todas, and Krumbas, the Badagas embraced change that came with the British.
- Badaga farmers are known for their mixed farming of millets, barley, wheat and vegetables including potato, carrots and cabbage, and hence the food they eat often uses seasonal and locally-grown vegetables. They also took to cultivation of beans and cauliflower on a large scale besides spices like cardamom and pepper, till the British-owned tea and coffee plantations took over the landscape.
The restaurant started by Vignesh Chandran, a Badaga, along with Deepa Sudhakar from Udhagamandalam, is an attempt to revive and promote forgotten recipes of the community.
“This is the first time anyone has come up with an exclusive restaurant for Badaga cuisine,” says Deepa, adding, “Our restaurant is a talking point among the members of the International Badaga Association in the US now.”
The cook, Uma Murugan,who sports traditional Badaga attire: a white cloth wrapped around her shoulders and another worn as headgear, says, traditionally, Badagas consumed varieties of millets.“We used to make a steamed dish with ootukudi (bamboo shoots) once a year. It is collected after trekking deep into the forest. With people moving to the plains for education and jobs, the dish has been forgotten now,” she sighs. Another forgotten dish is hatchike, a dessert made with little millet or saamai; it involves roasting, boiling and pounding the millet to de-husk it before soaking it in hot milk and topping with grated coconut.
Uma and her husband Murugan Palani, who are from Kinnakorai village in Udhagamandalam, have stuck to tried and tested recipes. The result? A delicious and honest taste.
A special spice powder they call hatti maas hudi, which is made from roasted chillies, coriander seeds, cinnamon, asafoetida, and khus khus to name a few, is used in the vegetarian reparations. For the meat-based curries, a deep black masala made from a similar set of spices, pepper, and cloves is used.
“This is an effort to revive forgotten recipes and keep the memories alive, and to also give a taste of our food to non-Badagas,”says Deepa. She describes the aroma that fills homes when they make thuppadahittu, a deep-fried snack from maida dough mixed with sugar, khus khus, elaichi and mashed bananas.“We make small balls with the batter, press it on our palms and then deep fry it,” explains Uma. They are also reaching out to elders in the villages to retrace recipes that have been popular in the last five decades.
At the moment, Nanga Hittu serves lunch and snacks like thuppadahittu, ragi Hittu and pothittu (wheat dosa served with a sweet concoction made of coconut milk and khus khus). As we talk, a platter of thuppadahittu and hutti kaapi (black coffee sweetened with jaggery) makes its way to the table. I tear a piece, dip it in the black coffee and then eat it, just the way the Badagas do.
The restaurant is at Thangam & AMP Junction Mini Mall, Cheran Nagar, Mettupalayam Main Road, Coimbatore.
For details, 99529-98443/ 95002-69697.