Shashi Tharoor, politician, writer and former diplomat writes, “Nostalgia is a middle aged affliction; it attaches importance to the memory of experiences which mean little to the majority who did not share them.” On this part nostalgic food trail through the hills, we are looking at dishes which stood the test of time and tastes as good as it did way back; and is as popular with the youngsters as it with the middle aged.

Mount Road, Coonoor’s arterial road, which starts at the bus stand clock tower, skirts the teeming market and makes its way up the hill to the more genteel environs of Upper Coonoor.

On this road, right opposite the market, stands Ramchandras, or Rams as it is affectionately known in these parts; home to the famous Wellington Special. 

Philip Abraham, a Kochi- based retired banker, alumnus of Stanes School, Coonoor and one who doesn’t miss an opportunity to revisit his boyhood haunts, says “I was reminded of the Wellington Special by a rotund friend who obviously lived well and knew the good things of life…”

Recently on a visit to Coonoor, Philip decided to walk down the gastronomical memory lane. He writes, “Within ten minutes, a plate with the largest parotta ever and a bowl of mutton gravy was set before me. The parotta was piping hot, and as I gingerly touched it, the waiter informed me that it was stuffed with mutton mince and had a coating of egg. “I know,” I said, as I took a piece, dipped it in the thick gravy and put it in my mouth. My taste buds erupted in bliss.”

This parotta is special mainly because of the stuffing of mutton mince and the egg coating. The finely minced mutton is juicy and flavorsome. Spices are used in right measure so there is no overkill. As you tuck into the parotta, which is crisp on the outside, you experience not just the taste of myriad spices, but also of the texture of crisp and soft parotta. 

 Nikhil Suresh, hotelier and third-generation owner of Ramchandras, said that many of his regular clientele are alumni of Coonoor schools. “It is the memories that bring them back,” he adds. Isn’t that great that you visit an old haunt and find a dish which tastes as good as it did all those years ago. Not surprisingly, the Wellington Special is by far the most popular item on the menu. The parotta is large enough for two people to eat, and many an old student who has returned to eat it once more has wondered how, as a student, it was possible to eat more than one at a sitting.

The next dish on the trail is the Ooty Varkey biscuit, which began its existence, rather humbly, as a poor man’s biscuit. It went national, last year, when the Ooty Varkey Producers Welfare Association filed an application for a GI (Geographical Indication) tag. There are a lot of stories about how the Varkey came about. The one I like the best is this: On a cold winter’s day in Coonoor, when the sky was a light blue with little lamb shaped clouds, a baker misfired on the consistency of the puff pastry. To escape detection, he rolled them into balls and baked them. The result was light, flaky biscuits which he displayed along with the day’s goodies.  A customer stopped to try these new creations, liked them, and asked what they were called. And the owner of the bakery, with his tongue firmly in cheek, replied, “Varkey”, the name of the baker who had created it.    

There is another, a more prosaic explanation; that it takes its name from the warqi parotta which is a layered flatbread, and this being a layered biscuit. But that’s not a story we hear too often. 

Some of the bakeries in the hills have been around for a long time. Most of them are located in the heart of the towns and often it is the aroma of freshly baked bread, chicken puffs or biscuits which draws you in. In the evenings, there is a crowd at these bakeries as the baked puffs, cakes and biscuits are brought fresh from the ovens on large trays. It is best to pick up your goodies from the bakeries at this time of day, still piping hot. Nowadays, I guess, it is warmed in a microwave. The goodies are packed in newspaper or brown paper packets, which absorb its grease and leave your hands smelling of essence and yeast. Crown Bakery in Coonoor, is right in the heart of Coonoor town, quite close to Rams and has been baking delights such as Varkeys, honey cakes and hot cross buns since 1880.

So what makes all these things different from their more mundane counterparts in the plains? The Ooty Varkey Producers Welfare Association claims that it is the water in the Nilgiris that gives it its distinct flavor and texture. The water is sourced from the many streams, which originate high up in the mountains and drain the district. The Varkeys, like other biscuits, are made of refined wheat flour, sugar, salt and water. The biscuits are handmade; only the mixing of the flour, sugar, salt and water is mechanized. After hours of fermentation, they are baked in a wood fire oven at moderate heat. It cannot be produced in any place where the temperature is above 25 degrees Celsius.

Nowadays, there are variations. You get masala Varkeys, flavored with onions or other spices, and tea Varkeys, which are small, round or square, and finally the classic, which is mildly sweetened. Whatever else, the clean eucalyptus-scented air and walking around the long roads definitely gives you an appetite.  

Jude Thaddaeus, long time resident of Coonoor, wild life enthusiast, and master mariner, extols its virtues: “It’s the best of snacks, crisp on the outside and softer inside!” The classic variety, warmed slightly, served with a dash of homemade butter and a drizzle of sugar along with an aromatic cup of Nilgiri’s best, is what tea times are made of.

Valerie Lamoury, teacher, Army wife and whose parents lived in Wellington endorses this: “The Varkey is as delicious as it is famous—flaky, crisp, sweet and salty mounds of goodness sprinkled with sugar—great with a cup of steaming hot Nilgiri chai.”

Off the Varkey path, we have the Appus. Suchitra Koliyot, a Chennai-based voice artist, who did her schooling at St Joseph’s Girls’ High School, Coonoor (often referred to as The Convent),  walks down memory lane as she recalls another delight, “Appus, from what I remember, were delectable roundels of sweet, flaky puff pastry with sugar and coconut between the layers. They were about an inch high and were also rolled in sweetened grated coconut!” Many of the bakeries in the hills sell this pastry and variations of it, but all the Convent girls would swear that the credit for its creation goes to Appu, the Convent baker. She says, “For us boarders this was one of the treats with hot chocolate, after midnight mass on Easter Sunday!

And then of course, there’s the one thing every visitor to the Nilgiris picks up—besides high grown Nilgiri tea—the Ooty chocolates. Chocolate making today is a cottage industry in the hills and chocolates are available just about anywhere. In the old days, King Star, a small shop on Ooty’s Commercial Road, was the only place where you could find these chocolates. And if you know your Ooty chocolates, you’d ask for the fudge from King Star. 

If you are on the food trail, make your way to Baker’s Junction, or better known as Cedrick’s shop, in Upper Coonoor. This cosy little hill shop stocks everything delicious you can hope to find in the hills; the pink coconut burfi, special locally made cheese, and if you go in time, a loaf of freshly-baked bread from National Bakery. A thick slice of this soft, wood-oven baked bread, generously lathered with plum jam or peach preserve, and a fragrant cup of Nilgiris will soothe the frayed nerves of visitors from plains, who might be reeling from the shock of seeing a wild gaur ambling down the road.

I’ve saved the best for last, my favorite: the pink coconut burfi, which is not just any coconut mithai; these small pink squares of sweet, juicy coconut with minute crystallized sugar peaks have a history of their own. A big favorite with young and old, the burfi is a quick sell out; older customers will eye the pink squares, reminisce of school socials, paddling in the streams, picnics under the evergreen, and silently rue the day they became aware of the glycemic index.

I went on a hunt for an authentic recipe for the pink coconut burfi . It took me to Rani Paul, one of the best burfi makers in Coonoor, whose pink coconut burfis and other goodies are sold in many stores here. While most other recipes for coconut sweet include milk, condensed milk or water; this one is, well, different.

A recipe for the Pink Coconut Burfi

Two coconuts, grated fine

Sugar: 1.5 lbs (0.68g)

A dash of pink coloring and a drop of vanilla essence

Ghee to grease the dish

Method

Mix the two ingredients well and stir continuously on a slow fire till they combine. Take it off the fire once the mixture solidifies. Don’t wait too long as it will become very hard; too early and you will have to eat the sweet with a spoon! Spread the mixture on a greased dish or flat plate and when cool, cut into small squares.   

Featured illustration by Tasneem Amiruddn

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NINA VARGHESE
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28 Comments

  1. Philip Abraham Reply

    Nina , thanks for your marvelously evocative writing.
    Next stop , Coonoor !

  2. Ida Apirutvarakul Reply

    Thanks Nina, it was wonderful to travel down memory lane. Yes I still remember the Wellington special, varakies with a cup of Nilgiris tea and of choose as an alumnus Convent girl, the famous Appus! You can’t get any of them here in the States. I’m beginning to think that they are only available in Coonoor. An incentive to make a trip to visit the old haunts again, don’t you think?

    • Nina Varghese Reply

      Hi, The Varkey paayasa sounds intriguing.. wonder whether it was the same Varkey who came to Coorg.. will definitely drop by with the requiste Varkey biscuits..

  3. Chessy Cherian Reply

    Now that took me back to Coonoor… interesting and nostalgic read.

  4. Usha Pillai Reply

    Nina does it again! Such a nice article that takes me down memory lane!

    • Nina Varghese Reply

      Hey Usha.. does bring back memories of our long walks doesn’t it

  5. This just took me in nostalgic trip.. I could smell and feel coonoor.. So beautifully written… If you’ve ever been to coonoor or you want to go , this article is a must! The culinary beauty of the little town lies in its local haunts! Great article.

  6. Nice one Nina:)
    Do you remember the sweet called stick jaw? and fruity from Primrose at Bedford..loved them..can’t get find them anywhere:(

    • Nina Varghese Reply

      Harsha.. definitely remember the stick jaws, even tried making it, without success, of course.. Cant remember fruity, though. was it a sweet. Used to love the store Primrose.. so many comics and stuff

  7. Shashi Lakshmanan Reply

    Very well written indeed! We are just five months old to Coonoor. As a child I remember eating varkey in mettupalayam, the non sweet ones. Loved them but can’t find it anymore.

  8. Its really amazing blog with some great food trail from Nilgiri, very nice food. Thank you very much for this great information.

  9. Super article! Re-lived my Coonoor days. Took me back to our wonderful College days.Thanks.

  10. The smell of the bakery as you pass Bedford circle is something that I’ll never forget. I’m a little miffed that the sweet biscuits from Needs aren’t given a mention here, especially since I had to con my younger siblings into eating only salty ones and leaving the nice sweet white ones for me ?

  11. Sheila Rajubettan Reply

    You have captured the very essence of Coonoor ! We must’nt forget the Archie comics from City stores

  12. Nimi Kurian Reply

    Enjoyed reading about the Coonoor treats as much as eating them.
    Oh! To be in Coonoor,
    Eating Varkey biscuits
    And drinking Nilgiri tea!

  13. Natasha Raj Reply

    That story just made me smile and wonder what those days were like. I also remember the famous varkey biscuits, the chocolates, jams, butter beans and japanese cakes! We had to bring back a brown bag with all these goodies! But after you explained what that parotta and mutton curry was like.. I am dying to go there and try it now!!

  14. sunu charles Reply

    it’s true. we lived well, and we ate well. i guess i am the rotund one who got phillip salivating for the ramachandra menu.

  15. Saraswathi ramakrishnan Reply

    Wow!well articulated thoughts.really nostalgic.I feel proud to have settle in Coonoor after years of traveling!

  16. Shobha Jacob Reply

    Lovely reading about the Varkey ..would visit Ooty some time soon.

  17. Hi Nina….Loved your article. Thanks for the amazing memories. Appu was the bestest baker ever…remember the freshly baked bread we used to run away with and “hog” on the lab steps!! Coconut and jaggery toffee…yum! Kamarcuts…1 pisa sweets and thise little packets of pickle….Memories are made of this?

  18. Not to forget the treats from Primose and Sharmugam stores and then there was ‘Eat and Enjoy’ bakery near Central bank… fresh loaves of large slices of white bread. The healthier offerings of passion fruit cordial and local fruit from the small shop on the right walking up from Bedford talkies to Sims park (closer to Sims park).
    The Chinese in Ooty -Shinkows? Was a special treat on day trips from Coonoor……

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