Fresh catch

Many years ago, on our first visit to Chilika lake, we stopped at a small and unremarkable looking eatery on a side road. Our guide and driver was clearly looking forward to the meal. One of the three tables was occupied, and we parked ourselves on one under a tree in the little yard. The lobster and crab were the freshest I’d ever had, and cooked lightly and with a delicate touch. I went back on every visit to Odisha which took me near Chilika, and it remained wonderful. The single soft-spoken owner-cook-waiter was later joined by a couple of assistants to wait on tables, but the kitchen remained the exclusive domain of the old man.

In early March, on my last trip before the lockdown, I passed near Chilika again. This is a huge lake, with a surface area of over a thousand square kilometers. This time I was on the end near Berhampur, not Puri. But I was told that there was a Chilika dhaba nearby. Late in the evening we dropped off the highway and detoured into something quite different. This was one of the large productions which cater to busloads of tourists.

Fortunately, in rural Odisha, freshness is a fetish, as a result of which I’ve seldom had bad food on the roadside. The dhaba was out of lobster, but crab and two varieties of fish were available. We decided to share one of each thing on offer. The ingredients were as fresh as I’d expected; they can’t be otherwise next to one of the biggest fishing grounds in this part of India. Although the cooking was uninspired, the freshness of the crab was good enough to keep us plodding through the meal. I resolved to go back to the other dhaba as soon as possible. Now this is a promise to oneself which seems hard to keep.

On the way out I passed this large image of Kali painted on one wall. I find the simplification of this image wonderful. In Odisha it is enough to draw the eyes to signify Kali, time, the goddess of death. Every other piece of this image is dispensable. The dhaba had emptied out, and it was time to hit the road again. Kali stared at us as we climbed into the car.