It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the average Goan pantry is a food hoarder’s wildest fantasy come true. Called the kothar, this dark, almost foreboding-looking room is a virtual sanctum sanctorum of all things deliciously funky and musty. It abuts the traditional wood-fired kitchen, generally situated at the back of the house. It’s laden with sacks of paddy and baskets of dried seafood to repurposed alcohol bottles brimming with sur (palm vinegar) and garlands of smoked pork sausages festooned across its wooden beams.
But there is no other time of the year, than the last few months leading up to the monsoon that the kothar sees the most action. Just before the rains make their all-pervasive presence felt in Goa, pantry inventories are accounted for at a military level to ensure the steady supply of monsoon provisions. These are called purument or provisão, loosely translated as provision, in our brand of Portuguese-inflected Konkani.
Catholic Goan cuisine has a wide repertoire of side dishes—mainly featuring dried seafood—that show up during the rains. It’s because we Goans, like a few other coastal communities in India, avoid consuming fresh seafood in months that do not have the letter ‘r’ in them (which, incidentally, are most of the monsoon months). A time when the weather is too inclement with choppy seas and gale-force winds for the fisher folk to venture into the deep oceans.
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So, it is then that a number of delicious ‘side acts’ are employed for their supporting role in jazzing up the mundane. Everything—from the orange-hued, seafood-bereft sorak curry (the quintessential coconut milk and turmeric-based orange coloured 'Goan curry' on restaurant menus) eaten with red ukde (parboiled) rice to the humble rice gruel dish we call pez or kanji—is elevated to gastronomic heaven with these edible accoutrements.
Besides an array of seafood-based pickles like the celebrated parra made from dried, salted mackerels called sukke bangde and the famous prawn balchão made with tiny dehydrated prawns called javla and oodles of the aforementioned sur, is another lesser-known side dish, kismur. Literally translated, kismur is a verb that means to “mix together”.
Generally made using the medium-sized prawns we call sungta, kismur is one of those dishes with a severe identity crisis. Erroneously referred to as a salad by some, or a dry chutney by others, it possesses a je ne sais quoi that makes it undefinable, for want of a better term. Essentially a dry side dish, kismur can be made in two ways.
For most, like my family, it is a mildly spiced coconut and dried prawn dish for the monsoon months. One that’s imbued with a subtle hint of curry leaf, the warmth of coconut oil and finished off with the tanginess of tamarind or sola (kokum). For others, it is one that is made with flaked, dried mackerel, red onion and tamarind, ending with a flourish of chopped fresh coriander garnish. But whatever be its iterations, it is a very easy to put together dish that lends a lot to any main dish served alongside it.
Not to be left high and dry, the rare vegetarian Goan too has their own version of kismur. Called papdachi kismur, it's usually made using gavti tarvoti papad by following the same seafood kismur recipe sans the prawns/mackerel. Made using the local tarvoti chillies, these papads are spicy and thicker than the regular ones and are normally roasted on a live flame before being drizzled with coconut oil.
Interestingly, though seemingly Indian in its composition and taste profile, kismur does have a few doppelgangers in foreign lands. In fact, in a few other former Portuguese colonial bastions, that I have come across over the years on my many travels, to be more specific.
In Sri Lanka, famous for its Malay-influenced sambols, I found not one, but two kismur-adjacent specimens. The Jaffna maasi sambol is a fiery red coconut sambol made with Maldive fish (flaked tuna) and served alongside string hoppers, pittu, or rice.
Similarly, a version of the famous chili-salt sambol called lunumiris, katta sambol is a spicy Sri Lankan condiment made from chillies, black pepper, and shallots along with Maldive fish and lime juice mixed together in a grinding stone.
Speaking of the Maldives, the closest dish to a kismur would have to be the dark hued, dried tuna condiment called masmirus. Here too, curry leaves, dried coconut bits and pandanus leaves are combined with caramelised onions, chilli, coriander seeds and other spices for a dish that’s also eaten with curries like the all -veg tharukaaree riha (a coconut-based curry) and a chicken curry called kandu kulkhulu.
Recipe for Sungta (dry prawn) Kismur
1 cup dry, medium sized prawns (sungta)*
Three-fourth cup fresh grated coconut
1 tsp red chilli powder
One-fourth tsp tamarind pulp**
1 finely chopped large red onion
1 tsp coconut oil
3-4 curry leaves
Salt to taste
1. Clean the dry prawns by taking off the head, tail and legs.
2. Roast the cleaned prawns on a frying pan on a low heat with coconut oil and curry leaves till prawns turn golden brown and crisp.
3. In a bowl, mix the rest of the ingredients using your fingers slightly crushing them. Just before serving, add in the roasted dry prawns and curry leaves. Mix well.
4. Serve at room temperature alongside sorak curry, dal or with pez.
* Can be substituted with the same quantity of dried, deboned mackerel.
**Can be substituted by using 2-3 dried pieces of kokum (sola in Konkani)
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