Thursday, November 12, 2015

Jungle View: Bamboo Mutton and Emu in the Odiya Hinterland

Odisha's a strange place when it comes to food. Especially urban centres like Bhubaneswar and Cuttack. Not that they are starved of eateries, far from it: I guess food lies in the second rung among lucrative business ventures, right after clothes. But invariably, the array of preparations they turn out tends to be - call it what you will, homogenised, standardised - I call it boring. The same old stuff: mostly misbegotten "Mughlai" and faux-Chinese, a few hackneyed Odiya dishes like Dalma and Mutton Kassa, perhaps one or two equally hackneyed Bengali fish preparations, and that's it. The State's rich, diverse culinary heritage gets showcased so rarely in these joints that it's futile to expect them to display any true identity or personality. At best they'll have a couple of signature items they do really well, and then beyond that the same old gunk. Even Jungle View, one of the few truly offbeat eateries I've encountered in the vicinity, now stoops to quasi-Chinese preparations. Incipient Kaliyuga, that's what it is.

The place's name is entirely appropriate: it is sandwiched between Nandan Kanan and the adjoining Chandaka Elephant Reserve. You may not get to see (or 'view') much jungle, but that is a minor nit. The point is, it is located miles away from anywhere, literally, even the most recently urbanised parts of Bhubaneswar. So how do they manage to run a prosperous eatery business so far away from cities, that too cities not especially known for offbeat dining? Tourists from Nandan Kanan cannot contribute all that much by way of custom. As a matter of fact, most diners seem to come all the way from Bhubaneswar or Cuttack, or even farther places, just to eat there.

It started out as a nondescript dhābā , then evolved to offer a nice little line in local meaty preparations or, as this blog calls them, 'rustic tribal delicacies'. These include mutton - technically chevon or goat meat - cooked in bamboo logs, in earthenware pots, and wrapped in leaves of some sort. Over time the place's reputation began to spread through word of mouth, it expanded its repertoire to include Japanese quail (locally called gunduri) and emu, apparently sourced from a farm in Ganjam. Also, to accommodate its steadily-growing upmarket clientele, it took over an adjacent tract of land and converted it into an open-air dining space where you get the same food at marginally marked-up prices.

Let's face it, the upmarket side of things is tacky in the extreme. Mainly due to the excessive use of moulded concrete masquerading as unfinished log. Right at the gate you encounter this rude post-and-lintel arrangement made even more hideous by the two concrete birds perched on top and looking slightly bored. Inside, you have a garden with two thatched gazebos, each capable of seating about twelve. Rather pretty, really, and for once the concrete used there looks like concrete. Beyond lies the central dining area. This comprises a vast awning propped up on concrete pillars trying their best to look like bamboo clumps. Beneath the awning lies a marble dining table large enough to seat thirty-five comfortably. Around it are concrete benches looking vaguely like split logs. The backrests are even more strange, featuring moulded concrete trelliswork made to look like er, what? Mangrove roots?

After you cross this you encounter another stretch of garden with more creative landscaping, notably a hill made of concrete and boulders, which reminds me irresistibly of grottoes I have seen at some churches. This stretch also contains cages full of birds, mainly gunduri, which also features prominently in the menu. Along the left edge of the tract run a series of air-conditioned prefab cabins, available to groups at no extra cost. Each can seat about twenty or so. Spartan furnishings notwithstanding, they do provide a modicum of privacy and comfort especially in the summer months.

So much for the decor - it's obvious that's not why we keep going there. We go there for the food and, despite the distance, we've been there so many times I've lost count. Most of the photos posted here are from an impromptu visit last March. There were five of us, including colleagues Bishwa, Millan, Ram, and Sudatta. We had little work that afternoon, the weather was still pleasant, so it was not difficult to persuade the rest of the gang, particularly Millan who readily agreed to get his car along. The drive was most pleasant, two long halts at level crossings notwithstanding. On this occasion the air-conditioned cabins were not available. We sat beneath the central awning instead, and passed time most convivially taking pictures and cracking stupid jokes till the food arrived. Emu was off that day, much to our disappointment. We contented ourselves with Bamboo Mutton, quail, some Dal with egg in it, some Dal without egg. And Naan and rice.

The mutton is clearly the place's signature dish, and also the most expensive at around four hundred a serving. Small chunks of mutton are liberally smeared with spices, ginger, garlic and (very discernibly) mustard oil, and then stuffed into hollow bamboo logs. The logs are then sealed, tossed into smouldering embers, and left there for the meat to cook. Once done, the logs are fished out of the embers and brought directly to the table, where a waiter ceremoniously scoops out the meat onto a plate. Cooked this way, it remains chewy, even tough at times. It absorbs the smokiness of the embers, and the bamboo imbues it with its own subtle grassy fragrance and moistness. The mustard oil's pungency also remains discernible, albeit subdued. The result is surprisingly harmonious, perhaps because the individual notes are all understated. All in all, the preparation as well as the final results are not something one is likely to encounter elsewhere. Definitely a high-point of my stay in Odisha.

I am not so fond of quail. It is a bony bird, with not all that much meat on it. Its flavour is interesting but not remarkable, at least not to my palate. The chefs at Jungle View coat it in a spicy paste, and then cook the bird whole in loads of oil (not mustard oil, though). The spice levels do little to help matters; for one, they tend to block out much of the meat's intrinsic flavour. Still, an interesting preparation, and justifies an occasional foray if only for novelty value.

On subsequent visits I had occasion to sample the other stuff on the menu. The Emu wins hands down, beautiful stuff it is. They serve it boneless, braised in much the same spices as go into the quail. But the meat's darker, discernibly more gamey flavour goes well with the spices. It is pricey at about 260 Rupees for a small plate, but more than worth the spend. The mutton cooked in earthenware pots is also excellent. Once we tried some prawn. It turned out to be so spectacular we promptly ordered another plate. I don't know how they cook it, but it was soft, not over-spiced, and had this distinctive smoky flavour. I have not managed to try the leaf-wrapped mutton yet. Certainly the next time I go across I shall make it a point to try it out, and also renew my acquaintance with all the stuff I have only mentioned in passing here. Do stay tuned for an update.


santwana said...

Bamboo mutton...😍😍
Wow..The way you described it..the flavours and the taste..sounds heavenly..!!!
Know what, I was supposed to go there once but the plan got cancelled because of some extra class.If I knew I missed such an excellent place, I would have made plans again.Also, I didn't know an Emu is called Gunduri in Odia.Have never had emu meat.Sounds interesting from your description.Please let's plan a visit to this place whenever I am in Cuttack.Pretty please..!!!

Abhik Majumdar said...

Thanks so much for that comment, Santwana!

Emu is called 'emu' in Odiya: Gunduri is Japanese quail.

You seriously missed something if you've never been there. Getting there is not easy, but it's well worth the effort. Would love to arrange a trip down there when you come down to Cuttack next :)

Snigdha Samal said...

Love the elaborate description of the concrete covering! I would have similar feeling about tackiness of decor. Why ruin it. I think they should get stone slabs or small boulders instead if they don't care much about maintenance. And of course I wont want wooden logs this would mean killing few trees.

Regarding food...I think I would love the bamboo mutton and the prawn you have mentioned. Next time you go there let us know how the leaf wrapped mutton tastes.

Snigdha Samal said...

Also instead of spending money worthless concrete monstrosity they should spend it on cutlery. Who serves in steel plates now a days...Next time you are there please give your feedback to them. Though from my own experience I have noticed to my Odisha the restaurant people usually consider it's an offense if you point out the plates don't look clean enough. They are so prickly that they almost take pride in bad job... :(
Another reason, I stay away from these eateries...

Abhik Majumdar said...

Snigdha, thanks so much for your comments :)

About the hideous decor, perhaps they had it made to their own sense of 'posh'. If you travel in the hinterland, you'll notice houses generally tend to carry a grace and beauty in harmony with their surroundings, except the ones made by people who aspire to higher rungs on the social ladder. That lot build to showcase their status more than anything else, which is how you find these monstrosities dotting the countryside and sticking out like so many magenta or parrot-green sore thumbs. There's a lot of creative things they can do with aboulders and natural wood, but for that you need an experienced architect.

About the cutlery and crockery, I confess I'm quite comfortable with steel plates. It remains a dhābā at heart, and steel plates are what you usually get at such places. As long as they keep it clean (which they do) I am satisfied.

Regarding leaf-wrapped mutton, in fact I was discussing the very same thing with Millan (part of the gang) when I came across your comment! Yes certainly I need to check out all that, also some more of their prawn. It would be even better if you came along too :)

dustedoff said...

Oooh. This sounds fantastic. Especially that bamboo mutton. I have never been to Odisha; this sounds like good reason to visit... :-)

Abhik Majumdar said...

Madhu, Bamboo Mutton tastes just as terrific as it sounds. Do come down when I'm marginally free; could give you a comprehensive tour, culinary and otherwise.

Alboy said...

The mutton is clearly the place's signature dish, and also the most expensive at around four hundred a serving. Small chunks of mutton are liberally smeared with spices, ginger, garlic and (very discernibly) mustard oil, and then stuffed into hollow bamboo logs. The logs are then sealed, tossed into smouldering embers, and left there for the meat to cook.

Wallah Abhik, Jeete Jeete maar diya........I am already famished......

Abhik Majumdar said...

Ali, why don't you come over to Odisha? It'll be my pleasure to give you a thorough guided tour of its culinary delights.

Alboy said...

Definately Abhik...what a time u wrote about this....we were planning our vacations...will definately make plans. :)

Abhik Majumdar said...

Good. That's settled, then. Do give me some notice of your plans.