If you travel south along the sea coast from Mumbai, not only will the trip reveal several delightful surprises but also expose you to a culture which is both unique and simplicity personified at the same time. Referred to as the Konkan coast, it is the narrow strip of land flanked by Raigad in the north and Mangalore in the south. Owing to being a coastal area, sea forms an important part of the habitat and is one of the leading factors that have defined the culture and cuisine of this region through ages.
Our tryst with Konkani cuisine occurred when, on an impulse, we decided to drive southward from Mumbai along the coast. Although we were expecting to come across picturesque beaches and quaint fishing towns, something that we were unprepared for pertained to the fun-loving attitude of people. Like the people who inhabit this region, Konkani food is simple, diverse, refreshing and yet full of zest and zeal that marks the way of life here. To say that Konkani people take pride in the cuisine would be an understatement â€“ cooking is an integral part of their culture to the extent that each creation is a well-thought-out and balanced culinary marvel.
Given the abundance of coconut in this region, it is but natural for this fruit to be included in the diet and courtesy of the creativity of locals, it is usually found in several forms. Since it is common for every house to have at least one coconut tree in its garden, this ingredient is available in plenty and hence used liberally in the kitchen. What is even more interesting is the diverse manner in which it is used wherein it could be presented in grated form, dessicated, cut into chunks or simply sliced up. Equally revered is coconut milk and it takes a Konkani to teach a good learner the various ways in which coconut milk can be employed to change the character of the dish.
Because the sea is interwoven with the social and cultural fabric, it would obviously have an influence on the eating habits of people too. Much of the contribution from the sea takes the form of marine life like different types of fish, clams, mussels and shrimps. Oysters are a delicacy too although these are relatively rare as compared to other varieties of seafood. Once handed over to the kitchen, these are first cleaned thoroughly and then magically transformed into a delectable dish by adding the right combination of spices.
Particularly noteworthy is the Konkani fish curry which bears a bright red hue and is delightfully hot. Of course, there is coconut in it along with onions and several ground spices all of which contribute towards its unique flavor and aroma. Fish is also eaten fried wherein it is marinaded, rolled in rava and deep fried till it is crispy on the outside and tenderly well cooked from within. Likewise, culinary creations of clams and mussels could be dry or with gravy and are loaded with a substantial amount of coconut.
There is a large variety in vegetarian section too and here again coconut dominates the scene as the main additive. Randayi is a popular preparation which can vary depending on the type of vegetable used and comprises of pulses floating in coconut gravy. In keeping with the spicy nature of this cuisine, most of the vegetable dishes are also hot and spicy even though the method of cooking might differ.
A typical Konkani lunch thali has to have a serving of rice in the centre with several accompaniments arranged around it. Roasted papad is a must with every meal and yet another must is a tumbler of buttermilk flavored with kokum which is not just supposed to function as a taste-changer but also as a digestive. Meals are invariably followed by a traditional sweet dish, like payasam, which is based either on sugar or jaggery.
The simple character of Konkani cuisine arises from the manner in which it is prepared. A peek into the kitchen would reveal that most of the equipment is still traditional wherein spices are ground on pestle and everything is done manually. Food is thus prepared with the most basic equipment in the simplest way possible and hence is able to retain all its flavour and aroma for which it is well known.
With the sea as its benefactor and coastal flora as its main source, Konkani cuisine is an epitome of delightful and spicy harmony between land and sea.