Several khanavals dot the Konkan coast and you&rsquoll find that it&rsquos hard to be impressed by their ramshackle exteriors. The word &lsquokhanaval&rsquo loosely translates to home kitchen. Eating in one of these kitchens is a customary highlight for anyone exploring the Maharashtrian coastline. The ones serving authentic Konkan food are extensions of old houses where families have turned their kitchens into flourishing businesses by serving homemade food to weary travellers.
At first glance, a typical khanaval seems like a rundown shed &ndash a few iron tables are covered with faded tablecloths, and some plain plastic chairs make up the interiors. The &lsquomenu&rsquo is scribbled in white chalk on a blackboard. A couple of kids playing with rickety toys are forced to get up and help their parents serve the guests. They protest, not giving a flying toss about who you are or how far you&rsquove travelled to enjoy their family&rsquos heirloom dishes. To the dismay of several patrons, alcohol is not served here. If you&rsquore a gourmand though, you can rest assured because the food is mouth-watering
The Konkan belt stretches from the coasts of Maharashtra to Goa and Karnataka. This area has always been incredibly fertile, thanks to the presence of seasonal rivers and heavy rainfall, which meant that the cuisine here developed to incorporate locally available seasonal ingredients. Besides, the sea promised a never ending supply of protein-rich seafood.
The people who reside here speak various dialects of Konkani along with Marathi. The belt was originally inhabited by Austric tribes such as the Kharvis, Mundaris and Kols. According to Vedic scriptures, Indo- Aryans from the north moved here around 2400 BCE after the mythological Saraswati River dried up. Dravidians from the Deccan Plateau moved here between 1700 to 1400 BCE.
Over the past 2,000 years the Konkan belt has been ruled by several powerful ancient Indian dynasties such as the Satavahanas, Abhirs, Chalukyas, Rasthrakutas and Shilaharas, amongst others. These ancient kingdoms developed a number of strategic ports along the Maharashtrian coastline, such as Sopara, presently located in the Thane district and Chinchani in the Palghar district in Maharashtra. This was done to facilite trade with other parts of India and, most importantly, initiating an exchange of products with the Greeks, Arabs and Egyptians. However, the medeival history of this region is quite murky. However, archaeologists and historians are slowly piecing together the colourful past of the Konkan Coast.
The region also endured invasions by the Mughals, Portuguese, Arabs and the Dutch. As a result, foreign crops and ingredients were introduced and eventually absorbed into the local cuisine over time.
When it comes to contemporary food, the Portuguese, who established their rule in Goa in 1510, have had the most influence on the cuisine of the Konkan stretch. Sweet potatoes, tomatoes, potatoes, cashew nuts and red chillies were all introduced by the Portuguese.
Flavour And Foodstuff
The trademark Konkani taste lies in the way the vatan and masalas are made. The vatan is a pre-made base mixture of onion and fresh coconut, which is browned and can be refrigerated and stored for weeks. This base is used to make the body of most gravies in the region. Meat is usually marinated and seared to lock its juices in before being cooked with the vatan. Vatan acts like stock, enhancing the flavours of the dish. Several variations of this base exist depending on the region and family preferences, but the technique of preparation remains constant throughout the belt.
There used to be a time when cooking would be a slow, meticulous process. Meat would be slow cooked in earthen vessels till it tenderised and masalas would be ground on stone mortars and pestles but it&rsquos a rare find in families today. Mixers and pressure cookers have made cooking a quick and easy task at home. Modern Konkanis are breaking away from traditional cooking and experi- menting with other cuisines, yet trying to stay true to their own roots.
The most common fish available in khanavals are pomfret, surmai (sear fish) and bangda (mackerel). All of these are deep water fish and weren&rsquot traditionally favoured by the locals. Because of the huge tourist influx from Gujarat and the central areas in Maharashtra, locals have started ordering fish from Mumbai as tourists aren&rsquot keen on eating locally available fish. Ironically, the taste of local fish, combined with masalas honed to suit them, is unparalled. The residents eat fish like mandeli (anchovies), which are small fish that are deep-fried to a crisp and work beautifully as a starter. Tamoshi or red snapper, which is stuffed and roasted on coals, is another Konkan classic. Mori or shark is textured more like red meat and is perfect for thicker curries. You need someone who really understands his fish to cook vam or conger eel, best prepared lightly stir-fried with a touch of masala to punch up the taste of the meat. Tisrya or clams are extremely popular all over the stretch, often prepared in a watery masala. Prawns are frequently dried and added to an assortment of dishes from khichdi to chutneys. Konkani sukat chutney (dried shrimp chutney) is also particularly famous.
The cuisine of the south Konkan region is called Malvani cuisine, and has some interesting dishes in its repertoire. When visiting the region, you must try sol kadhi, a great Malvani drink that is popular across the Konkan coast. Its base is made using kokum and coconut milk and it&rsquos spiced with green chilly and garlic paste. Every family has their own accepted measure of spice, garlic and salt, which they swear by. It&rsquos served along with thalis because the coconut milk and kokum neautralise the spice in Konkani food, making it a great digestive.
A classic Konkani thali will have a piece of fried fish (almost always sear fish or pomfret in restaurants), a small bowl of prawn or fish curry, rice, sol kadhi and ghavan (rice flour pancakes). Prawns, clams, crabs are usually served on the side. There are subtle differences in their preparation as one moves from the northern Konkan belt to the south. In the south, coconut is used as a way to thicken gravies and tirphal (a variety of Szechuan peppercorn, also called Sichuan peppers) is used more in masalas. An honourary mention is a dish called kombdi vade (chicken cooked in a dark onion and dried coconut-based gravy, served with vadas). Konkani vadas, unlike their south Indian counterparts, resemble puris in shape. Making one is a complicated, painstaking process of mixing five different flours such as wheat, rice and gram, to get the perfect dough, which is then rolled out and deep-fried. Kajuchi bhaji (cashew nut gravy) is another delectable dish from this region. Cashew nuts are dry-roasted and made into a gravy using goda masala, which gives a lot of Konkani dishes their iconic mildly sweet taste, though the masala per se doesn&rsquot have a sweetener like sugar or jaggery. It&rsquos made using dry coconut, coriander seeds, red chillies and roasted whole spices. It pairs perfectly with jackfruit (phansachi bhaji) as well.
Saraswat Brahmins primarily make pesco-vegetarian dishes &ndash they do not consume any land-dwelling animals, but consider fish to be vegetables from the sea. Funny as that may be, their fish dishes are spectacular. Though similar to Konkani cuisine, their dishes are less spicy. The cuisine of Sattvik Brahmins, which is a sub-sect of Saraswat Brahmins, is similar to Jain cuisine and does not include dishes made with potatoes, onions, garlic, etc.
The CKP community originally inhabited the region that spans from Kashmir to Sindh during the zenith of the Indus Valley Civilisation, but then migrated to central India in the 7th&ndash8th centuries CE. In the 12th century, when Mandu was conquered by Alauddin Khilji, about 42 families migrated to the Konkan coast. Although they were not Brahmins, they were awarded scholarly status. Since their religion did not prohibit them from touching meat, non- vegetarian cuisine developed spectacularly in the community, and their meat preparations are some of the finest in the belt. CKP garam masala, which is used frequently in their meat preparations, is made of a blend of tirfal, poppy seeds and fennel besides other spices.