With each dish endowed with subtlety and refinement, one can enjoy a harmonious combination of different flavours and textures that makes Konkan coastal cuisine a world-wide favourite. Unravelling this cuisine, yet retaining its delightful aura of surprise, the freshness of its natural ingredients, subtle flavours and colours of the vibrant coast, is a challenge By Kahini Chakraborty
Today with a life full of convenience, it is possible to source ready-made masala powders for everything, right from getting flour mixes to making authentic items like ‘vade’, which otherwise would need a lot of effort of soaking, roasting, grinding. From Solkadhi to Upkari, from red coconut based curries like Ghassis, Fish Amti to stuffed Bombils, Tisrya, Kolambi fry, Chimbori (crab) curries, Shevanda (lobsters), Amboli, Ghawan (rice flour pancakes), coconut milk banana stew, puran poli with coconut milk, the cuisine has evolved and it is imperative to know the history and geography of this evolution. Konkani cuisine has a variety of dishes cooked with coconut, fish and vegetables. A combination of these is sometimes used in order to produce unique dishes. Being so intense and intricate in nature, the demand for this cuisine will only increase with time. Some of the well known dishes include Mangalorean Mutton Curry, Malwani Mutton Curry, Malwani Prawns, Khotte, Madgane, Bangda Amshe Tikshe. Besides these, Goa itself boasts of dishes like Caldine, Xacuti, Vindaloo, Goan Fish Curry, Fish Ambotik with Solkadhi and the likes.
The Konkanis were originally Aryans who lived on the banks of the Saraswati river and hence were known as the Saraswats. They developed their own dialect known as Shauraseni Prakrit – out of which evolved the present day Konkani. Many of them came down to Goa, western Maharashtra and Karnataka, which today is known as the Konkan belt, via the sea route. Over the centuries the Saraswats adopted the local culture and cuisine which has resulted in diversity in their food, language and traits. Till some years ago, Konkani cuisine was not much known outside the community. But once other people came to taste Konkani food, word of mouth spread and now it is appreciated by people other than the Konkanis. Since the Konkan region covers the western coast of India spreading from Maharashtra to Goa, the Konkani cuisine has a vast variety depending a lot on local produce. Foreign invaders have also left their influence on the food. For example, Goan food has been influenced by the Portuguese.
“The Konkanis are an adaptable lot and have adapted a lot of food habits and cooking styles from other states. And now with lifestyle changes, Konkani food has further evolved. Earlier, their cooking style used to be quite elaborate. Slow cooking was their mainstay. The masalas used to be ground laboriously on a round shaped grinding stone known as the ragda or on a flat stone called the paat. Nowadays, with more and more people preferring quick and easy ways, masalas are ground in a mixer-grinder and a pressure cooker is used to cook the food in a jiffy,” elaborates Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, celebrity chef, author, TV host and owner of FoodFood Channel.
Konkan food by virtue is sweet, salty, spicy and sour. Hence it has a lot of different components. The Konkan coast had contact with as many ancient civilisations and European colonisers as the Kerala coast. The Sumerians, Arabs, Persians, Portuguese, Dutch and English all came to this shoreline to trade and conquer. “The Greeks gave us saffron and fenugreek. The saffron flower grew abundantly in the cool Kashmir valley and fenugreek (methi) is now used more commonly in India than in the Mediterranean. The Arabs gave us coffee and dry fruits. The British prescribed afternoon tea and taught us all about sandwiches, cutlets, puddings, sausages and soups, many of which thrive on our menus, even today. Before the British, it was the Portuguese who made the greatest contribution to Konkan’s culinary landscape. They brought with them potatoes (the Portuguese word for the delicious tube), red chillies, vinegar, tomato, papaya, corn, capsicum, cashew and sweet potato. Today, you cannot imagine an Indian cuisine without tomato and red chilli paste or a Konkan summer without roasted corn. The Portuguese can also be credited for teaching Indians how to bake custards and pastries and yeast-leavened breads, still called as ‘pao’ (the Portuguese word for bread in Goa),” highlights Chef Sudhir Pai, executive chef, Holiday Inn Mumbai International Airport.
Adding to this, Chef Nilesh Limaye, chef culinaire, All ‘Bout Cooking, says, “Konkani cuisine can be determined as the cuisine of the Konkan region – expanse from the Malvan region in Maharashtra to Goa and Karnataka Goa border of coastal North Kanara (Karnataka) like Karwar. It can be explained simply as the cuisine of the Hindus of the coast. Basically the inhabitants are GSB, Karwaris, Malwanis, Kolis. So as generations migrated they settled in various parts of the globe but have mostly Konkani dialect. Hence there was quite a fusion of dishes and even similarities between the Goan, Malwani and Karwari food and yet can be distinguished by its variety and use of spices. Konkani food has remained traditional across the ages and seldom the recipes are tampered even today. Ask any Konkani and they will vouch for their curries and fish fries even in a fish and chip restaurant or a Thai eating joint. The (GSB’S) Sarawats or Konkani people are considered the best chefs in the community and fact is no one can beat their taste and knowledge of spices and quantities required for each of their dishes. The ladies take pride in cooking their delicacies and time is not the factor of importance. But quality is of utmost importance.”
Konkan region majorly being a coastal area has a coastal touch to it. Coconut being abundantly found in the region, the cuisine uses coconut in various forms, such as grated, dry grated, fried, coconut paste and coconut milk to offer the cuisine a taste of its own. The cuisine is spicy in nature and uses a lot of spices like dried red chilies, coriander seeds, peppercorns, cumin, cardamom, ginger, garlic, etc. This cuisine also uses a lot of fruits to prepare the dishes. Fruits like kokum, dried kokum (amsul), tamarind and raw mango are effectively used to make the dishes more delectable. Fish and sea-food are predominant items in this cuisine. The cuisine mainly depends on the local varieties of vegetables and fruits and the seasonal items found in the region. One thing that can be noted about this cuisine is that it does not use dairy products in the recipes. Many recipes are cooked depending on the seasonal produce of the year. “The Konkanis in Karnataka and Goa are mainly rice eaters and even a lot of their snacks are rice based. While those in Malwan have bhakris (rice and jowar) too to soak up the gravies. Then, there are fish eaters too and have a vast range of seafood delicacies. They do eat mutton and chicken but seafood is high on their priority list,” says Chef Kapoor.
“Though seafood has been popular in Konkani cuisine, there are other foods used, such as beef, mutton and chicken. Rice also has been traditionally or historically used in Konkani cuisine as well. In addition the main course meals would have a variety of fish, meat, chicken, and rice-based dishes. There are other integral portions such as desserts, beverages and appetisers that are included in Konkani cuisine. Indeed, those who try Konkani cuisine will know that through its history it has managed to encompass a wide range of foods in the region. Kombdi vade has been distinctly popular at the Konkan Café,” says Chef Ananda Solomon, executive chef, Vivanta by Taj- President, and corporate chef – Taj Premium Hotels.
Chef Solomon reveals, “Konkani cuisine is a tribute to the coconut-rich cuisine of the western coastal areas. Over the past decade, people are getting more health conscious and are moving away from coconut consumption, but still it’s maintaining its lead amongst the rest. Over the years, Konkani cuisine has carried down its traditional foods. At The Konkan Café, we thrive in the basics and believe in sticking to our roots.” While Chef Kapoor says that people have also become health conscious and there is quite a lot of tweaking done even in the traditional recipes. The elaborate cooking methods have been shortened. “Most people use non-stick cookware so that little or no oil can be used. People are adapting to a slight change in taste because certain ingredients are substituted with ingredients that are considered healthier. Like tomato puree and wheat flour slurry is used to thicken gravies so that less coconut can be used. Milk is used in place of coconut milk to make certain sweet dishes. Fish is grilled instead of deep-frying or shallow frying,” mentions Kapoor, adding that, the urban konkanis are quite adventurous when it comes to trying out new dishes and have adapted a lot from other cuisines. Like making palak paneer or matar paneer with mustard seeds-curry leaves-asafoetida tempering instead of using onion-garlic.
Chef Limaye opines that as of now the recipes have not been tweaked. “No Malwani likes to say his food is like Goan food and no Karwari will admit that this is Konkani. For each community their delicacy is the final epitome of Konkani cuisine. This is a regional cuisine and cannot be tampered. The base of this cuisine is so strong that if you try to tweak it you will only create a new version, not even a derivative.”
Demand & supply
With lesser joint family system existing and people moving to modernisation, there will always be a need/ craving to return to the roots. Traditional restaurants like TKC will slowly with time increase in number as people will crave for these with changing lifestyles. Chef Kapoor opines, “A whole lot of niche eateries serving traditional Goan, Malwan and Mangalorean dishes can be found in Maharashtra, Bengaluru and some other India cities. You do not find as many elsewhere in the country. But when these people visit Mumbai or Goa they simply gorge on the local delicacies. However, I am sure if someone takes the initiative to open eateries serving these delicacies they will do quite well.” On the supply side, there seems to be already quite a few doing good business. These serve Mangalorean, Malwani, Gomantak and Goan food. The fact that one can see scores of people waiting outside to get their turn at the tables is proof enough as to how well-liked the food served in these eateries is. Already Konkani restaurants like Gajalee, Highway Gomantak, etc are popular.
“The biggest challenge of all is to be in sync with seasonality as majority of the ingredients to procure are seasonal (The Konkan Cafe has a seasonal menu). Challenge is to procure the right kind of product and source from the right place,” stresses Solomon. While Kapoor feels that there could be a slight challenge in acceptability by the people. Region specific cuisines are peculiar in nature and one might not be that willing to try out the innovations made to the authentic dishes. Chefs and owners face the challenge in getting the right people who have an understanding about these ingredients and work with them to create the authentic taste. Since seafood is a major part of this cuisine, off lately, there has been great concern over quality and availability of a variety of seafood in the market. Also generally the North Indian community does not prefer this cuisine as it requires an expensive use of coconuts.