When a Facebook friend and I planned a trip across the Western Ghats, starting from Mumbai, it was surprising that we had never met before. But we had two things in common, the love for adventure and well, the love for fish. In fact, both of us being Bengalis, fish is the most important part of our diet and we knew that traveling along India’s Western coastline would give us ample opportunity to taste fish and seafood dishes that the region is known for. We eventually ended up having fish for lunch and dinner and even for breakfast, when available. Here is a low-down of some of the fish and seafood Thalis we had over the four days as we made our way along the Arabian Coast. I agree, I got carried away and could have been shorter and more precise, but since this is about fish, I would ask you to bear with me!
Surmai (Kingfish) Thali
This was on the first night of our journey at Murud, 165 kms from Mumbai, and after a long day spent traveling to Alibaug, spending time at the Kashid beach, and then missing the last ferry we were supposed to take to Diveagarh, we were pretty hungry. We went to restaurant named ‘Patil Khanaval’ that our auto guy recommended and ordered Surmai Thalis for each of us.
Surmai, also known as Kingfish, a variety of the Indo-Pacific Mackerel, is one of the most popular sea fishes and also slightly on the expensive side. For Rs 300, what we were served were rice and chapati, dal, papad, a fried piece of Surmai and Surmai fish in spicy coconut gravy. Along with that there was a bowl of solkadhi, a delicious pink coloured appetizer of coconut milk and kokum which would accompany almost every meal over the next few days. Incidentally, kokum, a fruit, is a very popular ingredient of Marathi and Konkani dishes and is also added to most gravies to give it a pinkish purple colour and a sweet and sour taste. The fruit has multiple health benefits and aids digestion. So used to fish fry and fish gravy( macher jhol) in our everyday lives, this was a treat, the fried Surmai tasting smooth, delicate and not too fishy and the spicy kokum gravy going perfectly with the rice. In fact, as we discovered, though the gravy is deep brown in colour and spicy, it is very tasty and also easy on the stomach. After the meal and a quiet walk on the breezy beach-facing promenade, we were ready to call it a day.
Bangda (Indian Mackerel) Thali
The next morning, after visiting the Murud Janjira fort, which mesmerized us with its magnificence, we took a ferry from the Murud Jetty to Divegarh and then a state bus to Sreevardhan ( 173 kms from Mumbai). We next had to catch a minidor to continue on our journey and it being almost lunchtime, we decided on a quick lunch break at this roadside restaurant. This time we tried a Bangda Thali, which cost us Rs 150 bucks and apart from rice and chapatti, had a piece of fried Bangda. Bangda is perhaps the most easily available and cheapest of all sea fishes but very nutritious!
On asking, we found that the fish is fried in Konkani style in a coating of sooji ( rawa or semolina) after being marinated in red chillies, pepper, cloves and garlic till it is brown and crisp. Actually, over the next few days we would be having a lot of rava fried fish. In Bengal we eat sooji and we eat fish, but rava fried fish is a typical Konkani thing.
Bombil (Bombay Duck) Thali
Our trip to Chiplun ( 247 kms from Mumbai), where we halted for the second night, was quite eventful. During the day we had travelled twice in a ferry, twice in a state bus, once in a minidor and also got a lift in someone’s car. We reached Chiplun at almost 10 pm after our bus broke down twice and the first thing we did after checking into a hotel, is hunt for dinner.
We found Hotel Abhishek next door and ordered Bombil (Bombay Duck, which despite the name is not a duck but a fish!) Thalis for both of us. Food always tastes good when hungry, and as I bit into the crispy exterior, I could taste the succulent flesh inside that so characterizes this fish. With some lime juice squeezed on it and raw onion, it tasted even better. The gravy had a tiny slice of fish in it and we were two hungry souls devouring our food in a hurry, so much so that we ordered more rice and curry.
Kalva (Oysters) Thali ( Malvan Style)
At Devgad, ( 425 kms from Mumbai) where we stayed the next night, we had our dinner and breakfast at this restaurant named ‘Santoshi’ which specializes in Malvani cuisine. Malvani cuisine, as the name suggests, is named after Malvan, a town in the Sindhudurg district on the West coast of Maharashtra, about 30 kms for Devgad and is a blend of Maharastrian and Goan cuisine.
This was undoubtedly the highest point of our culinary experience during the trip. We saw new fish names on the menu and wanted to try them out, since we had enough of Surmai, Bangda and Bombil. First we ordered Kalva Thalis, which is another name for rock oysters. The proprietor, a gentle white haired man explained to us that these are found attached to big rocks which need to be broken to collect the fish. The curry, we were further told, was cooked in the Malvani style in coconut and onion gravy, with kokum, red chillies and other spices. The shredded kalva was delicate and had a melt in your mouth quality, and I would say it went better with the chappatis than with the rice.
Saundale Curry with Rice ( Malvan Style)
After the Kalva Thali we were still in a mood to taste some other fish on the menu. This time we ordered a plate of Saundale curry and rice and my friend had fried Saundale with rice. It could be because of the restaurant, which I guess is one of the best of its kind, but this is one dish which I will cherish for a long time.
The rich Malvani gravy, featured a special Malvani masala, with a special blend of spices and slightly different from the Kalva curry, was smooth, yet delicious spicy and tangy. To quote from the food website vahrehvah.com, “Malvani cuisine features a lot of onion based curries and malvani spice paste or masala which is a special blend of spices that lends the cuisine its distinctive taste. Malvani cuisine uses coconut liberally in various forms such as grated, fried, coconut paste and coconut milk. Spices like dried red chillies, coriander seeds, peppercorns, cumin, cardamom, ginger and garlic etc are extensively used in their daily recipes. Dried kokum, tamarind and raw mango offer their tanginess to the dishes. Malvani gravy is reddish brown in colour and very spicy because of the usage of more red chillies.” Coated in sooji, my friend loved the fried fish so much that she could not stop talking about it!
Oyster Masala Thali ( Goan Style)
A day later when we were at the Malvan beach and slightly disappointed as the boat services to the magnificent Sindhu Durg we could see in the distance were closed due to the rainy season, we came across this restaurant called ‘ Only Fish’ and walked right in. We asked what varieties of fish were available and were told that not everything on the menu would be available as fishing was closed due to the rains and would resume in the first week of September. The chef recommended Oyster Masala Thali and Crab Thali. The Oyster Masala Thali, was in this case prepared differently, it was lighter in colour and spicier. The chef told us that it was cooked in coconut gravy and they used a special Goanese masala which was predominantly made of turmeric, red chillies, jeera and black pepper and it is this masala that makes it different from the Malvan style of cooking. We were told that many foreigners asked it to be boiled with little spices, and that might not be a bad idea, as I found that the spicy gravy was somewhat overwhelming the taste of the oysters. Again, this went well with the chapatis.
Crab Masala Thali (Goan Style)
Having tried other fishes, we decided to order a crab Thali too. There were two options of mud crabs and swimming crabs, depending on where they are found and we ordered the latter. The crab was juicy and succulent in spicy gravy, though we felt that the spices could have been more evenly spread. It came along with rice, chapati, salad and fish gravy plus a bowl of fish curry that had small shrimps and other fish, that also came with the Oyster Thali. The best part of a crab meal is slowly breaking down the claws and tasting the fresh, soft and delicate meat inside. As usual with any crab meal, it took a while to break open the crab and by the time we were done with lunch we were not only full but also tired!
Our trip had to be cut short and ended a few days before schedule. But the fish fest we had will stay with us for a very long time!