Life Beyond Fiery Red Fish Curries: A Discovery of Konkan Food

Kalyan Karmakar  |  Updated: September 11, 2017 15:00 IST

Life Beyond Fiery Red Fish Curries: A Discovery of Konkan Food
  • Konkan region includes coastal Maharashtra, Goa and parts of Karnataka
  • Coconuts and seafood features prominently in Konkan cuisine
  • Gourds grow in wild abundance in the Konkan as do green vegetables
I had recently gone to the newly opened Toast and Tonic restaurant at Mumbai's Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC). One of the dishes that I tried from Chef Manu Chandra's menu was the Poached Shrimp in a Kokum and Coconut Broth. The dish really stood out in terms of the texture of the shrimp. It was neither over-done, nor raw. The shrimp had a buttery taste which was balanced beautifully by the contrasting sharpness of the tangy kokum and coconut broth. As a dish it seemed very different from anything that I had tasted in the city before. Yet, the ingredients, prawn, kokum and coconut are so typical of the food from this region that it left behind a sense of familiarity. 

A ten-minute auto ride away from the futuristic glass and chrome world of BKC is Bandra East. Unlike BKC, which is the central business district of today's Mumbai, Bandra East is a sleepy and relatively green residential area, home to those belonging to the Maharashtrian community. The two neighbouring suburbs are as different from each other as chalk and cheese as are their restaurants. 

Located in Bandra East is a restaurant called Sadichha which is a local favourite. I often take folks from out of town, who want a taste of 'local seafood', to Sadichha. Prawns, kokum and coconut feature prominently in the Sadichha menu too though the renditions and cooking style there are very different from that of the dish that I ate at Toast and Tonic. Written on the board of Sadichha in the Devnagiri script are the words, 'Malvani and Konkani food'.
Aren't the two the same? I wondered when I read what was written. The truth is that while I have lived in Mumbai for close to two decades now, I am still trying to learn more about the local food here and each day is a new discovery. So, I decided to make the understanding of Konkan food my latest project.

Mumbai's Konkani presence

To know more, I reached out to Saee Koranne-Khandekar. Saee is a food writer and consultant who is the curator of the Facebook group Angat Pangat. This is a group dedicated to 'rediscovering' Maharashtrian food. 'Konkan', Saee explained, refers to the west coast of India that includes coastal Maharashtra, Goa and parts of Karnataka. Malvan, on the other hand, refers to a part of coastal Maharashtra and is a sub-set of Konkan. This would mean that Malvani food is Konkani too but all Konkani foods are not Malvani!

Adding to the presence of Konkani food on offer in Mumbai are the tiny Gomantak restaurants that are located primarily in areas such as Dadar and Parel in central Mumbai and along with Fort in south Mumbai and Bandra. Gomantak refers to those who belong to the Saraswat (primarily) and Maratha (a few) communities and who hail from Goa and parts of coastal and north Karnataka and are Hindus. 

It was Saee again who had once told me that Malvani and Gomantak food are not the same. You can't blame an outsider for getting confused though. The masala heavy, coconut based curries with over cooked seafood, that you get in both Malvani and Gomantak restaurants in the city would seem to be similar to a less discerning palate.

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Adding some more tadka to the discussion was actress and food writer, Tara Deshpande Tennebaum. She has written a book called 'A sense for spice, Recipes and Memories of a Konkan Kitchen.' The book covers Konkani recipes including those from her grandmother's hand written recipe books which also feature her great grandmother's recipes! Tara made a 'sensational' announcement to me and said that the dosa and idli that we get in Mumbai's Udupi restaurants are Konkan too and not just any 'South Indian' food and definitely not 'Madrasi' or Tamil. 

Udupi in Karnataka falls in the coastal Konkan belt explained Tara. Vegetarian Tulu (a community belonging to the region) food is usually referred to as Udupi and is based on Satvik principles.  Certain Udupi dishes such as kosambari, gashi, upkari, koddel and saaru are also seen in the repertoire of the Konkani Gaud Saraswat community who belong to Goa. The Saraswats of Konkan Karnataka or Kanara are called Chitrapur Saraswats. Mangalore is the hub for this community. 

Konkan beyond Konkani

Technically, one could argue that it is the cuisine of the Saraswat communities that one should be called 'Konkani',says Saee. The Saraswats are the ones who speak Konkani after all, though the dialect changes dramatically across the region. 

There are many, on the other hand, who live in the Konkan belt but do not speak Konkani. Some examples of such folks would be the Pathare Prabhus and the Kolis, who were the original settlers of Mumbai and the CKPs (Chandrasena Kayastha Prabhus) and the Konkanashtha Brahmins.  'Konkan', and not 'Konkani' cuisine, would be a more apt descriptor for these sub-cuisines of the Konkan belt feels Saee.

This is a thought echoed by some food experts belonging to the non-Saraswat Konkam communities whom I spoke to. 

The many flavours of the Konkan diaspora

Anjali Koli, who painstakingly documents recipes belonging to the Koli community in her blog, Anna Parabrahma, says that the Koli community are part of the Konkan region but their cuisine strictly cannot be called Konkani as they do no speak the language. The Kolis are, traditionally, the fisher folks of Mumbai and seafood dominates their cuisine though the preparations of the same often differ from that of the Saraswats.

Soumitra Velkar, who blogs on his native Pathare Prabhu food and cooks it too, harbours a similar sentiment. The Pathare Prabhus, like the Kolis, are based in Mumbai which is at the northern tip of the Konkan coast. However, they do not see themselves as Konkanis, says Soumitra. This is possibly because their ancestors migrated to Mumbai from Nepal via Rajasthan and Gujarat. There are variances in their cuisines too from that of the Saraswats. For example, while a Konkani dish would use a roasted coconut powder based spice mix called vaatan to thicken their curries, the Pathare Prabhu coconut based curries often use coconut milk, which is referred to as shire (shee-ray). 

Unlike in the case of the Saraswats, a number of Pathare Prabhu or Koli fish curries do not even use coconut as their ingredient.  "Even our desserts don't use coconut," says Soumitra. "They have a Marwari influence instead and you will find memories of churma and ghevar in them instead."

There is also a sect of Konkani Muslims whose food, as a food blogger from the community Saher A K points out, has Arabic and African influences married to local Maharashtrian flavours. Tara Deshpande points out that large sections of those who live in the Konkan region today have a diasporic identity. Even the Saraswats are believed to have migrated to the Konkan belt from Kashmir, the land of the mythical river, Saraswati.

The heart of Konkan food

So, is there a certain common strain to the food of the Konkan region? I wondered. I put this question to some of the experts I had reached out to.

To Saee Koranne Khandekar, the terms made popular by western chefs and food writers, 'eat local' and 'respecting the produce', is what lies at the core of Konkan home cooked food too. She gave me some examples to make her case. The first is the use of fresh coconuts in Konkan cusinine. This applies to both the vegetarian Brahmin cuisine of the region as well as in the non vegetarian (seafood and meats alike) preparations of other communities. Coconut trees dot the Konkan coast, of course.

This observation reminded me of a story from Mumbai's Sindhudurg restaurant. Fresh coconuts are brought in here regularly from the owner, Prabhakar Desai's farm in Sidhdurg. This is used in the food cooked here.

As expected in the cuisine of a coastal community, seafood features prominently in Konkan cuisine. This is eaten both fresh as well as in dried form in curries, chutneys and condiments. Konkan food is not all about seafood though and vegetarian food plays a big role in it. Gourds grow in wild abundance in the Konkan as do green vegetables, and  form a part of the everyday cuisine points out Saee. Gourds (bottle gourd, ridge/snake/sponge/white and yellow pumpkins) are made into curries by themselves or are paired with sprouts and dals. A few examples that Saee gives are snake gourd with bitter beans and ivy gourd with toor dal. 

Sprouts provide the primary protein to vegetarians while fish and mutton are more commonly eaten by non-vegetarians. Chicken is a very very late entrant into the cuisine.  "Grains include rice (Ambe Mohor- named so because of its fragrance reminiscent of mango blossoms), barnyard millet (vari), sorghum (jowar), finger millet (nachni) and a host of other millets that are now dying a slow death. Bhakri (a local flatbread) made of these are more commonly eaten than polis (wheat chapatis), which were earlier reserved for special occasions. This of course, is because wheat came to Maharashtra much later," says Saee. 

"We also make porridge using rice, finger millets, and jowar (sweet and savoury ones), which are light on the digestive system and absolutely delicious! Poha (rice flakes) are used not just for Kaande/Batate Pohe but also Dadpe Pohe, Dahi Pohe, Kolaatle Pohe and at least 10 other variations) and are a pantry essential. Kulith (horse gram) is used to make saar (like a rasam), usal, and pithla," says Saee as she points out the wealth of local grains that form the base of Konkan cuisine. 

The locally grown kokum berries and tamarind, are popular souring agents, along with lemon juice, and freshly churned buttermilk. Kokum is used in many formats in fact. Its concentrate is used as a syrup for drinks (sherbats). It is used in digestive drinks such as the sol kadi, where it is mixed with coconut milk, and also in a warm rasam like soup called sar. Kokum is also used in cooking, and the petals are dehydrated to add to curries. 

Tirphal (a variant of the sichuan pepper) is more commonly used in the southern parts of the Konkan, especially in fish curries. In Mumbai, I have seen the owner of Kshirsagar, Mr. Gopal Totaram Gore, use tirphal as a part of the spices for his mutton masala mix. This spicy goat meat dish is based paired with a multi-grain, and often gluten-free, puri called vade. 

Apart from fresh chillies, fresh tamarind and fresh ginger which are used as spices, there are some dried masalas typical to the Konkan region Saee adds. The goda masala is one. It is a Konkan Brahmin condiment that goes in several everyday preparations. The Malvani masala, with its characteristic fiery orange colour, is another and is the secret behind the orange seafood curries of Malvani restaurants. The Koli masala, Pathare Prabhu Masala - all form distinct bases for curries and rice dishes. Lichen (Dagad Phool) is commonly used in the dry masalas.

Milk is available in abundance in the Konkan region and the dairy products are used liberally across says Saee. Right from the colostrum, which is used to make a sweet dish called Kharvas (a jaggery one is the most authentic), to homemade cultured white butter (to top Thalipeeth, bhakri, etc.) and ghee(for dousing on modaks, on top of Aamras and of course on rice), buttermilk is used to make Kadhi and is had by itself with basic flavourings, and dahi is eaten with rice or Poha.  

Interestingly, unlike in my native Bengal, where curd is used in fish preparations such as the doi maachh, dairy and seafood are never mixed in meals in the Konkan region.  Jaggery and Kaakvi (liquid jaggery), and not sugar, are the sweeteners of choice. 

Chef Mayank Kulshreshtha, executive chef of the ITC Maratha Hotel, has researched Konkani food while working on the menu for guests at the hotel. An aspect that he found unique here is the use of tamarind and lime juice in the marination of meat. This is used for tenderising meats, especially red meat. Goat meat is popular in the region and Christian communities in Mangalore consume beef and pork too.

When it comes to cooking oils, peanut oil is used most frequently though ghee and Loni (white butter) are popular too. There is a fair variety to the cooking methods here which made me realize that there is more to Konkani food than the fries and curries one comes across in restaurants in Mumbai. Braising, roasting over a clay oven, steaming, pan frying and stir frying - all form a part of the Konkan granny's skill set. 

Saee also told me about an interesting practice of slow cooking that uses condensation. The vessel is placed on a fire in this case, while the food cooks in it. A thali (plate) half filled with water (at room temperature) is then placed on the cooking vessel while the food cooks.  No water is added to the main dish which is then allowed to cook gently over a long period pf time. This process ensures that the flavours of the dish are not diluted. 

A far cry from the masala doused dishes that we are exposed to in commercial kitchens offering Konkani and Malvan food. This cooking technique sounds to me like the beauty of home cooking at its most magnificent best.

Konkan food, the new frontiers

Looking at international food trends, Tara Deshpande feels that the grain, legumes and beans based Konkan dishes could be used to tap those searching for vegan and gluten-free food and even offer tasty solutions to the lactose intolerant. The  freshness first philosophy of Konkan seafood cooking, where marination and preservation is used most sparingly, could appeal to an international audience too feels Tara .

When I looked at some of chef Manu Chandra's creations at the Toast and Tonic, especially dishes such as the poached prawns in kokum and coconut, as well the millet based dishes served here in very international formats, I could visualise what Tara meant. This was food with a Konkan heart that could be at home across the globe.

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The start of a journey of discovery

The more I tried to learn about it, the more I felt awed by the sheer diversity that characterizes the food of Konkan, the region to which my adopted city of Mumbai belongs. I felt humbled by how little I knew of it and felt determined to try to know it more. I felt excited by the prospect of how much more that there is to learn and experience, and this added an extra spring to my step.

I reached out once again to Saee to know what I should begin my discovery of Konkan food with.  The following is the list she gave me based on menus of Konkani food immersion meals that she cooks for non-Maharashtrians:

1. Tandulachi Bhakri (rice bhakri) with unsalted cultured white butter
2. Sodyachi chutney (dried shrimp chutney with tamarind)
3. Kokum chutney (a lovely purple pink chutney made from Kokum and jaggery)
4. Carrot and Cabbage Koshimbir with Moong Daal and Saandgi mirchi (Salad with Maharashtra's version of curd chilies, fried and crumbled)
5. Padwal-Dalimbi (Snake Gourd with Bitter beans in Goda masala) or Alu chi Paatal Bhaaji (Colocassia leaf curry with peanuts and sliced coconut)
6. Phansachi Bhaaji (Raw Jackfruit with cashews)
7. Surmai cha Kaalvan (King fish in a Malvan masala  with roasted coconut and Kokum)
8. CKP style Mutton curry
9. Coconut milk rice
10. Sol Kadhi
13. Kharvas or Patole (Modak-like dumplings steamed in turmeric leaf)

I do not know about you, but this sounds like a great Konkan tasting menu to me.

About the Author:

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Kalyan loves to eat and he loves to talk about all that he eats. His wife urged him to start writing about it, otherwise she would have to hear it all. He blogs as 'finelychopped' and is the author of The Travelling Belly published by Hachette Publications.


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