he earthy red of manganese dust around Karwar port, echoed in the colour of the fish curry served here, dominates your visual experience of this slumbering coastal Karnataka town. If the tangy curry, cooked with the wild spice jummana kalu, is a taste of the past, the red dust is all about the pressures of the present.
And the pressures are many. They have all come in the name of development. The Kadra dam, the Kaiga nuclear power plant, the caustic soda factory and most recently, the Seabird naval base. These projects have led to bustling new settlements and have inexorably altered the traditional palate of a town where even Brahmins survive on a daily diet of fish. In the last couple of decades, jummana kalu (zanphoxylum rhepha) has had to fight the advances of ajinomoto and tandoori masala.
Ecologist Pandurang Hedge, who lives in Sirsi nearby, says he came to Karwar regularly once upon a time just to feast on its staple Konkani shellfish varieties, rice bakri (thin crusted rice-rotis) and shagoti (chicken in gravy) and the wild spice fish curry served with boiled rice at the city's most famous landmark—Amruth Hotel. "But now Amruth serves everything from chicken Manchurian and fish tikka, to fried rice and butter chicken masala. The Punjabification of food is an indicator of the changes the city has seen," he says.
Local editor Ashok Hasyagar says that Kaiga saw an influx of 8,000 families and Seabird brought another 3,000 in its first phase. A vegetarian, he came to Karwar as an employee of the caustic soda factory in 1975. "I struggled at that time because we did not get vegetables and milk in Karwar. Fish was the staple and fish-eaters hardly needed another calcium supplement. But now we have three streets selling vegetables and milk," he says. The same, he points out, is true of sweets—they came in with the Gujaratis and Marwaris, and almost swept away kaju miji, a local sweet made of jaggery and ginger.
S.R. Neelavar, the 87-year-old patriarch who started Amruth, admits to having diversified, but swears by the authenticity of his Konkani dishes. "I was inspired to start Amruth in October 1978 after the shagoti and rice bakri that I used to sell in Karwar twice a day, on my cycle, became very popular. Then, my wife Amruti was the cook. Now we have grown big, but my wife still keeps an eye on the cooking." To prove the point, he treats us to some delightful estuarian fried fish, a rare variety found where the river Kali meets the sea, and bangda (mackerel) curry rich with coconut milk, another important ingredient of this coastal cuisine.
Neelavar is a Daivagna Brahmin, traditionally a goldsmith. Just as the cuisine seems to be under attack, the jewellery, too, is facing pressure from competitors. "Karwar-style jewellery has a very special place but with Bengali goldsmiths coming into town, their style has begun to dominate, and perhaps their fish masala too," says Deepak Shenvi, a jewellery exporter.
But nobody can take away the teesra sukka (a small clam) delicacies from the Karwar people. This is evident when you visit the fisherfolk of the Kali riverbed. "We prepared teesra biriyani yesterday," say members of the Waingankar family. But Ashok Hasyagar rings an alarm bell: "Land erosion, sand mining and Seabird's break-water wall to stop waves have altered the undercurrent, and affected the abundance of shell fish."
A good number of the Saraswat Brahmins, another important community in the Karwar region, have migrated to Maharashtra. But their food survives, as we discovered at Shweta Homely Food, run by Shyam Sundar Basrur, a Chitrapur Saraswat. He served us delicious thoy, a yellow dal tempered with coconut oil and mustard and solkadi, a drink made of kokam and coconut milk, which tastes divine after a good karli or surmai fish curry. There are other wonderful fish curries, but also Chinese fried rice and kebabs. "We added chicken and mutton to cater to the demands of my clients, mostly bank and government officials transferred here," explains Shyam.
Amidst this torrent of seafood, there is a small pocket in Karwar untouched by fish, called Habbuwada. The Habbus are strict vegetarians who migrated from Bijapur during the Adil Shahi reign. In this 'wada', the talk is about rice porridge, the spicy saru, local greens, papaya, cucumber and sweet gourd. "Other vegetables were alien to us until recently," says Ramachandra Habbu, a college principal.
Tagore, who visited Karwar in 1873, when his uncle was the first Indian judge in the area, wrote of the sea beach: "It reflects the joy of the infinite and thus draws us to lose ourselves in it." But the universe of Konkani cuisine is not exactly infinite, at least not any more.