Markets here teem with fresh spices and local ingredients, while tigers and elephants roam the jungles. Away from the madding crowds, Kongunadu, the northwestern region of Tamil Nadu, is a delightful find. By Marryam H. Reshii
The only problem with having Kongunadu as my favourite spot in the entire universe—one of them, anyway—is the blank stares I draw when I announce it to people. Most disconcertingly, even folk from Tamil Nadu seem uncomprehending, when I declare my love for Kongunadu. It is all in line with my hypothesis on the creation of hype. Put simply, hype forces a single element out of many, to become famous. That way, everything else can effectively recede into the background, while the object of fame becomes hyped to the exclusion of all else. Thus, while the Chettinad region in Tamil Nadu has risen to pre-eminence, Nanjilnadu, Pandyanadu, Cholanadu, and Thondainadu, besides Kongunadu, remain firmly in the shadows. It took me three visits to get up close and personal with the full range of the region’s charms.
The first time was when I was researching my book on spices; I was told that Erode and Salem were where I would find the golden spice being grown and processed. The second was when I was a guest of ITC Hotels’ then brand-new venture, the Welcomhotel Coimbatore. And the third, when I finally decided that enough was enough and I just had to see for myself this corner of the country where the wildlife reserves of Mudumalai and Anamalai housed elephants and tigers respectively; Coimbatore was the second largest city in the state and had, charmingly, one of its largest flower markets; Tirupur was an industrial town whose mills churned out fabrics and garments for such brands as Levi’s and Mango; and everywhere I looked, I would see locally-grown spices and ingredients like coconut, rice, ghee, and curry leaves that found their way to the rest of the southern states; and not to forget the region’s cuisine that is unlike any other in Tamil Nadu. Most people return from their travels with saris and bedspreads. Visitors to Coimbatore return with the mandatory idli grinder!
On my very first trip to the region, I found out that Kongunadu is in the northwest of Tamil Nadu. Bordered by the Nilgiris, it is watered by several rivers, all of which have their origin in the hills that are not only scenically pretty, but give Kongunadu its rich alluvial soil. Erode—not just the town, but also the countryside around it for miles—is where much of the country’s turmeric is grown. Broad leaves that resemble those of the gladiolus plant, cluster together for miles and miles, without any distinguishing feature; the turmeric roots are, of course, underground. If they are disappointingly unspectacular while they are growing, once the bulbs are separated from the leaves and dried, their golden colour is unleashed. And then, that quarter of the town of Erode where the turmeric factories, godowns and warehouses are located, smells astringent and piercing, and there is scarcely a person in the area who is not speckled with golden yellow dust.
Not surprisingly, haldi makes its way into the cuisine of Kongunadu more than in any other part of the state. It is whispered that Coimbatore’s homegrown chain of idli-dosa restaurants, Sree Annapoorna, uses only fresh turmeric in their sambar (75, E Arokiasamy Road, R S Puram West). Served in tiny bowls with idlis, dosas, and as part of thalis, it is the sambar that is delicious to the point of being addictive. It is whispered (Annapoorna, being the giant in the city, is constantly whispered about!) that when the brand expanded to Chennai, their sambar was so different from what it is in Coimbatore, that they had to fold up operations in the capital and resolve never to stray far from home again.
Dvara Resort, which was to become home to me during my stay in Coimbatore, ran an unbelievably good kitchen. “We do not marinate our meat before we cook them,” executive chef Sheik Mohideen told me, which explains why Kongunadu food is radically different from any other part of the state. Arisi parippu saadam, or home-style rice and lentil, is the local variant of khichri that makes homesick residents weep with longing, while the sophisticated narukattu gola urundai is made in several painstaking stages involving frying, pounding, mixing the meat with a melange of spices, including several heaps of red chillies, and then tying the plump meatballs with banana leaf twine. There is nothing frugal about the preparation that calls for Pollachi coconuts, reputed to be the sweetest in the state, and pure ghee made from cow milk from the lush fields of Kangeyam, the town that is famous for the eponymous breed of cow and the fragrant ghee it yields.
Dvara Resort turned out to be a marvellous restorative—slightly outside Coimbatore, with only the hills in the background that go on to join the Nilgiris. Besides the incredible fare of well-researched dishes from various nooks of Kongunadu, it was my jumping off point to
Ooty and the forests of Mudumalai as well as the base for forays into Coimbatore. I could hardly leave the city without a visit to the deservedly-famous flower market. The scent of the flowers is carried in the air all the way to the nearby temple, and indeed, many of the flowers in the market end up there and at other places of worship around the city. The other projects that require quantities of blossoms are matrimony and politics: bridegrooms and politicians both have to be garlanded at appropriate occasions!
In hindsight, the next time I visit Kongunadu, I will pass up the charms of Ooty and head, instead, to Coonoor, Kotagiri, or Gudalur. They are all situated at considerable heights, and while Ooty is the highest, the other three are less populated and have all been British ‘stations’—with the trademark tea-planters’ cottages, miles of verdant tea plantations, and tall firs standing sentinel. The original people of this region were tribals—the Todas, Irulas, Badgas, and Kurumbas, who were once farmers, honey hunters, and livestock breeders, and who have now joined the boring mainstream.
This is the part of the state that grows temperate region fruits and vegetables, and the vegetable seller sitting on the side of the road with a basket can be seen selling avocados, English carrots, and iceberg lettuce. Inside the market, shops selling great quantities of unripe bananas attached to their stems, reminded me that I was still in Tamil Nadu. Everywhere I looked, mangosteen, Brussel sprouts, tree tomato, and pomelo were being bought and sold.
My trip through the forests of Mudumalai showed me yet another facet of the endlessly fascinating region of Kongunadu: thick jungles where wild elephants roamed, as did huge bison and surprisingly nonchalant spotted deer, unlike their counterparts in other parts of the country where the predator population keeps them on their toes! For me, however, the forest itself was the attraction—the silence, the foliage, the undergrowth, and the sun shining through leaves.
Shopping constituted a large part of my last day. My shopping list was unashamedly eccentric: uthukuli ghee from the most famous ghee-producing region in Peninsular India, and parutti vithai halwa or cotton seed halwa, which is squishy, dense, intensely homely, and caramelised, almost like burnt honey! That was my nod to the black alluvial soil of Kongunadu that is good for cotton to grow—both for the textile industry as well as for sticky halwa! I headed next to the supermarket for Sakthi turmeric powder. The company was started by the eponymous lady, and though she and her husband are now the leading brand for spices and sambar masala mix in the state, the company is still run like a mom-and-pop outfit, where small-time spice-farmers are treated with respect and differently-abled employees are given tasks that are carefully matched to their abilities.
The pale grey grinding stones and mortar and pestles that line the sides of several roads in Coimbatore are said to come from a nearby quarry, where the granite has the property of not heating up in spite of repeated grinding. True or not, but the local industry for wet grinders for idli and dosa batter, said to employ almost 20,000 people in 116 different units in the city, is well-known across the state. I was not aiming for one of those (though constant innovation has made the smallest ones exceedingly compact and light), but I did want to add to my mortar and pestle collection. On second thought, I have already decided to visit Dindigul on my next trip to Kongunadu, and who knows, an idli batter grinder sounds ideal for the probiotic diet I’ve been dreaming about!
Coimbatore has the largest airport in the region with flights from all parts of the country; Salem has a small airport with ATR flights operating from other southern cities.
November to April; the Nilgiris (Ooty, Coonoor, Gudalur, Kotagiri) remain cool throughout the year.
Dvara Resort is the finest resort on the outskirts of Coimbatore (starts from INR 8,000/USD109). Residency is a well-regarded group of hotels in the state (starts from INR 6,000/USD81). Dindigul has a highly recommended homestay called Cardamom House (INR 3,000/ USD41).
Road trips and culinary tours.
The Konganadu region is known for its British-era bungalows, clubs, and tea plantations.