The fascinating story of 'Sukhua'

No Odia food story is complete without the indulging feast made of the dried, fermented delicacy – and its popularity has made it take up a pie-size slice of Odisha’s rich culinary ledger.

By Madhulika Dash; Photographs by Shamim Qureshy & Alka Jena

Consider Sukhua, a colloquial word for dried fish in Odisha. Appearance-wise not the most appealing of ingredients; aroma-wise, repelling to say the least. When it is cooked, it can empty a kitchen faster than an alien attack. And yet, when it comes to the Taste Corridor, there isn’t a better palate player than Sukhua – a quality, which while makes it an integral part of the Kalinga Food Odyssey, but an ingredient that turns our meal into ‘soulful and nutritious.’

Ancient texts like Charak Samhita prized Sukhua for its antidotal and curative properties and used it extensively for treating a variety of conditions including arthritis. According to many old timers like Manju Das and Minati Parhi, the dried delicacy remains one of the most effective ways to gain calcium, Vitamin B9, essential protein and even a good chunk of Vitamin E and fatty acid to take care of any imbalance in the circadian rhythm of the body. Take kokoli for instance, says Das. “Look-wise, it resembles the mandeli of Maharastra and is perhaps the richest source of calcium, protein and even minerals. Likewise, is for kharpania, which in traditional medicine prescribed for maintaining the health of your kidney and also better hair, skin and eyes.”

Another example of the brilliance of Sukhua is Karandi and Kharpani. Found in abundance in and around Puri and Cuttack, this beloved combination of small shrimps (former) and rainbow sardine (latter) is an essential winter meal because of not only the interesting taste profile but also because together they work in strengthening the bone and supplying the body with enough Vitamin E. In fact, adds Parhi, “karandi, which is usually turned into a nice ‘chinduri checha, a dish made by pounding mustard oil roasted shrimp and then pounded with lime juice, garlic (with skin), onion and chillies, is not just a winter must-have for Bada Noila community where it is considered to be the best source of wound healing and bone strengthening, but also among others in the country where it works as a palate zester. The other dish that was created to harness this very goodness of Sukhua, especially those made of the shelled fish and Kantia, a Southern Odisha estuaries, is the pagaw, which is much like the checha with the addition of mustard and a dash of ambula (dried fish).”

The tanginess, adds the culinary custodians, “not only lends these delicacies their unique characters but also the appeal across generations.” Perhaps the reason why, checha, which in western Odisha transforms into Sukhua Jhuri Hendua Chutchuta with the addition of dried bamboo shoots, is a common dish found across Odisha.

Fascinatingly, it isn’t just the checha or the pagaw which finds pan Odisha popularity (and presence), other preparations like the rai ambula, khatta meetha (a Baripada special), sorisha, alu besara (mustard paste) and the simple bhaja, which is done after the fish is rehydrated in warm water, are found in equal measures across the state. What changes, says Odia masterchef Chef Ajay Sahoo (The Leela Ambience Gurugram Hotel & Residence) is in the quantity of the garlic and the spice paste, and of course the use of the variety of Sukhua, which comes in luni (salted) and aluni (unsalted) versions.”

Take the case of Khainga, says Chef Sahoo, “which is considered the king of all dried variety because of the sheer quantity of flesh it can retain and the delicious roe. This fish is mostly used for besara and rai ambula because either of the preparation needs a bigger size that can last not only the time of cooking but also have enough estate for the masala to penetrate and create a tasty bite.” A similar story is with Paniakhai sukhua. Adds culinary custodian Alka Jena, “Thanks to its size and the amount of this Chilika variety, which uses a generous amount of salt in the making, it is an apt selection for most of the curries, chutneys and bhaja – as it continues to rehydrate on slow cooking over a period of time. Chinguri Sukhua, which is made of the smaller prawns and makes for a larger slice of the aluni pie of dried fish, on the other hand is used for either checha or with poi saag, where it lends the dish it's interesting flavour and texture thanks to the concentrated flavours in the shell of the prawns. “

Of course, there are the gourmet varieties like the illish Sukhua, the queen of dried delicacy, the best version comes from the shores of Puri, Ganjam and the villages around Chandbali, the Tuari, Pohala and the current favourite the Pomfret, that are for finer delicacy like the patrapoda (wrapped in banana leaf or saal patta and grilled), tarkari (cooked with root vegetables) and masala, where the fishes are fried and then slathered with a spice paste made with onions, garlic (with skin), chillies with an addition of either tomatoes, ambula-rai or soriso (mustard seeds paste).

But is that all to the Sukhua trail of Odisha, a seafood rich state blessed with 482-kilometre-long coastline where of the 71 varieties of fishes, 48 are caught from consumption, of which roughly 30 % go into sukhua making, a tradition that easily dates to the early years of Kalinga?

Traditionally, Sukhua, says Jena, “culture was developed for two reasons: First was preservation of the excess catch, which meant constant supply of food during the season when the yield falls; and two, it provided trade opportunity, especially for mainland areas where fresh fish was considered luxury and sukhua was not only an affordable ingredient but in supply round the year.”

Sukhua in Odisha is an annual activity started by homemakers, who have since ages created the ledger that defines not only the different fishes to be dried but techniques as well.

Elaborates culinary revivalist and researcher Chef Sabyasachi Gorai , “The thing about sukhua making is that isn’t just a matter of ‘have enough, let’s dry it’, the choice of fishes for this is determined not by availability but also the shelf life they have in the sea. For instance, the Gadisha, Kala Bainshi and Todi are tastiest, due to the rarity and are often not used for drying. Another such variety is the Mohurali, which has a shelf life for two days, even inside the pond it is harvested and hence is eaten fresh. Also fishes that are too fleshy like the Rohu are a bad choice given that it would take longer to dry and hence would often spoil.” This is the reason, say the Odia food experts, “that most sukhua are either small variety of fishes chosen from the sea, which have enough salt to dry on their own and come under the alunia variety like Chuna Maccha, Olei and Lamba Lancha; or have enough bones that when treated with salt can dry up soon like Chila and Marua and come under the lunia (salted) variety.”

The trick of making sukhua is still traditional, which includes washing the fish and drying it in the sun covered with a thin mesh to avoid skin burn. The bigger, fleshier fish are often soaked in salt water post which their bellies are cut and filled with seasalt. This hastens the process of curing, while the hanging of the fish on set tied over propped bamboo stands help draw the moisture quickly.

Usually, adds Chef Sahoo, “it takes about a little over a week for sukhua to be ready- which in case of small fishes is as less as three to five days. And given the extreme weather in Odisha, winters – especially the month of October is best suited for this process as the sunlight is apt to get the finest result.” This explains why Odias opt for a sukhua meal during winters, as quality wise it has a better taste feel than the ones available rest of the year.