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Kokum, coconut and the sub-regional flavours of Konkan

Enriched by a plethora of subgroups, the food of western India's Konkan belt is an intoxicating blend of tastes, textures and aromas

A konkani thali with seafood and solkadi. (Istockphoto)

By Raul Dias

LAST PUBLISHED 04.10.2023  |  02:00 PM IST

A few years ago, recovering from a short-lived cultural identity crisis, I decided to call myself a Konkani. With one parent being a Goan from Mumbai and the other an Anglo Indian from Jaipur, I found that perfect sweet spot in simply being Konkani. This, having being born, raised and lived all my life in Mumbai.

For you see, extending from Thane in Maharashtra, right down to the city of Mangaluru at the northern tip of the state of Karnataka—passing though places like Malvan and Goa en route—the diversity in lifestyle, customs and culinary traditions make the Konkan belt seem like a long, sinuous buffet table of sorts.

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This is that omnipresent and defining aspect that adds plenty of heft to the region’s popularity like no other. Accentuated by its robust flavours thanks to its three main pillars—fiery red chillies, tangy kokum (dried mangosteen) and the unavoidable coconut in its myriad avatars, the food of the Konkan is like no other, despite several (futile) attempts made in the past to draw parallels.

Culinary conundrum?
This brings me to an important aspect that needs instant remedial action. There is plenty of conjecture with regards to the underpinnings of Konkani cuisine which I’ll hereby, hopefully attempt to set right. Simply put, Konkani cuisine is what is referred to as the food of the west coast of India that includes coastal Maharashtra, Goa and a sliver of Karnataka. The ultra-popular Malvani cuisine, on the other hand, refers to the food from Malvan, a small part of coastal Maharashtra that is a sub-set of the Konkan region. This simply implies that all Malvani food is Konkani, but all Konkani food is certainly not only Malvani.

With coconut being the corner stone of Malvani food, dishes like surmai cha kaalvan that sees king fish curried in a Malvan masala with roasted coconut and kokum, mori masala (shark curry), bombil (Bombay duck) fry and Malvani mutton curry shine the brightest. However, it would be careless to leave out the wide spectrum of vegetarian Malvani preparations. Malvani Konkanastha Brahmin style veggie dishes like the jackfruit-based phanasachi bhaji, kaju chi aamti, which is a spicy curry of fresh cashews and the simple, yet tasty black peas curry called kalya vatanya chi usal are best mopped up with either an amboli, which is a soft dosa made from urad dal and rice, ghawan (a soft handkerchief dosa made from rice) or Malvani wade which are puris made from multi grain flour.

Also read | Kokum is to Goa what tamarind is to Tamil Nadu

All this simply has to be chased with a glass of the blushing pink solkadi digestive drink which is made from coconut milk, kokum, ginger, chillies and spices. For after, two of the most popular desserts have got to be aamras or mango pulp and kharvas which is an acquired taste, as it uses cow or buffalo colostrum as the base for this wobbly, almost gelatinous dish sweetened with liquid jaggery known locally as kaakvi.

Go Gomantak
Taking things along a whole other delicious direction is Gomantak cuisine. The Gomantaks are a Hindu community who belong to the Saraswat and Maratha Konkan subgroups who hail from Goa and parts of coastal and north Karnataka. And while their food might seem similar to that of the Malvanis, thanks to the liberal use of strong masalas, seafood and coconut-based curries, the difference lies in the all-important treatment of spices.

Take for example the chicken shagoti. This version of our Christian Goan xacuti, eschews the palm vinegar used in the latter in favour of either kokum, raw mango, lime or tamarind as its souring agent. Here, the spices and coconut shavings for the Gomantak shagoti are first roasted and then ground into the masala paste before frying and not added directly. This gives the ensuing curry a more yellow, orange or brown hue as opposed to bright red as is the case of Malvani curries. Also, there is no use of garam masala in this style of cooking. Interestingly, Gomantak cuisine also favours a mixture of chillies in its dishes like the humann fish curry, chicken rassa and mutton sukke where one sees the use of Byadagi chillies and Sankeshwari chillies that are sometimes mixed with Kashmiri chillies to give the curry its robust taste. Combining two very disparate ingredients like fenugreek and mackerel, the fish dish uddamethi is an unusual Gomantak curry. A vegetarian version of this dish is also prepared using sour Indian hog plums called ambada.

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The omnipresent coconut also shows up abundantly in Gomantak desserts like the patole which are modak-like flat dumplings made from a rice paste encasing a coconut-jaggery filling. These are then steamed in a turmeric leaf. Called patoleo by us Goan Christians, this sweet even has its own day which falls on August 15 every year, when the community celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Assumption with great pomp and enthusiasm.

Thus, adding one more facet to a cuisine that truly is as culturally diverse as it can possibly get. 

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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