As I write this, a couple of birds are distracting me.
They are perched atop a white, silk cotton tree, belting out their metallic call, “chick-a-dee-dee”, which is why they are also called chickadees. Birdsong is just one of the joys of leaving Indian cities, along with crisp, clean air, the lack of people and their detritus.
But that’s not entirely correct. The detritus of the Indian traveller is visible not just along highways but in the most deserted country lane. Indians love throwing trash, polluting even the most pristine surroundings.
I remember once standing on a bluff in Meghalaya, admiring the majesty of creation in the form of the vast floodplains of Bangladesh in the haze beyond—and suddenly realizing I was ankle-deep in trash.
For a people who once shunned long-distance travel since it was considered polluting—how many Indian conquerors do you know of, save the Cholas, whose distinctive stamp remains across South-East Asia?—we have taken to journeys with a vengeance.
I was amply reminded of this when the family and I made our first trip since the pandemic began. We took two days to make a 19-hour journey from our home in Bengaluru to my cousin’s lovely home overlooking the Arabian Sea near a town called Nandgaon on the Konkan coast. We drove over plains, mountains and rivers and—save for a few deserted back roads that Google maps took us down—new India’s garbage was ubiquitous.
Packets of chips and plastic bottles came flying out of cars on deserted mountain roads and bikers thought nothing of emptying their trash alongside sparkling lakes. But even this landscape of despair cannot overwhelm the enduring beauty of the land and its people (yes, possibly the same ones discarding all that trash).
Few places on our 1,100km drive were free of construction, but within a few metres of the road it was obvious that the India once eulogised by writers and poets hung on, underpinned by the solidity of peninsular gneiss.
Thus it was that we found ourselves at the Arya Fish Kitchen, after a backbreaking two hours descending the rutted road down to the plains from Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar, once beautiful hill towns now awash in concrete and other ugliness.
After loading ourselves with 2kg of fresh strawberries, small, brilliant-orange carrots and fresh figs from the mountain, we looked for a place to eat. There were isolated little eateries nestled among the forest, staffed by charming families offering a variety of local food, a great relief from the multitude of dhabas in Karnataka offering Rajasthani—vegetarian—food and the restaurants offering unlimited Gujarati and Jain thalis in Maharashtra’s mountains.
The people in these parts tend to be calm and generous, with outsiders at least. In Mahabaleshwar, a kindly, aged strawberry farmer selling his own organic produce under a red umbrella offered the wife a eat-before-you-buy deal. At Arya’s, the somewhat thuggish-looking owner turned out to be a smiling, solicitous man.
“Are you the owner?” I asked cautiously, after I saw him observing us and telling the only waiter to give us as much sol kadi—the refreshing, tangy pink brew made from kokum and coconut milk—as we wanted.
“Yes I am,” he said.
“We are from Karnataka,” I said, picking and choosing my Marathi words with care. “And I must tell you the food was superb.”
He beamed and said, “Our food is made fresh every day, and we try to make sure it is as traditional as possible.”
That we were the only customers in his airy little restaurant at what should have been peak lunch hour made no difference to him. Everything on the two thalis we had—one vegetarian and one fish thali—was fresh and freshly made. The fish curry was smooth and piquant, the rice bhakri soft and the fried fish crisply done with minimal spice.
When we finally rolled into Nandgaon later that evening, our bodies tortured by the unrelenting battering from the bad roads, we were welcomed with a stocked bar and a pot of simmering mutton.
The journey melted away quickly as the cool air of a November night descended on us, and the cicadas lent their voices to the nightly chorus. The peace and cool of the evening gave way to bright, humid days. It was on one of these steamy days that I found myself with Kumud tai, a fisherwoman who sold me tiger prawns, rawas and kingfish in Murud fish market, a haven of dried and fresh fish.
An effervescent woman with brilliant, dangly earrings and the salty manner of fisherfolk, she quickly sized me up, offered the right fish, cut the price and offered to clean the prawn. There was little to do but accept the offer and make my way back to the kitchen.
“Parat ya,” she said with the brightest of smiles. Come back. How could I not?
MALWANI FISH CURRY
1kg kingfish (surmai), marinated in 4 tsp fish masala from Nandgaon, Alibaug (you can replace it with 2 tsp red-chilli powder, 1 tsp turmeric powder, 1 tsp cumin powder)
1 onion, sliced into rings
Salt to taste
1 tbsp oil (1 tsp, if a non-stick wok)
2 cups coconut milk
Grind the following into a paste
1 coconut, grated
2 tbsp coriander seeds
10-15 garlic cloves
5-6 dried red chillies
2 small onions
Fry the paste for 10 minutes in hot oil. Add coconut milk, kokum and salt. Add a cup or two of water depending on how thin you want it. Reduce to a simmer and slide in the fish. Add onion rings. When cooked, serve hot.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.