“Don’t you think we have enough fish?” I scream over the chaos of Malvan market. We’re standing on a beach, surrounded by moustachioed men and haggling fisherwomen, giggling aais (mothers) and fierce ajjis (grandmothers), cats and egrets, all trying to score some of the day’s catch. A few feet away, wooden fishing boats lap up on the shore one after the other, hauling in plastic crates brimming with seafood: big fish, small fish, fat fish, flat fish. There’s an astounding variety to choose from, and I don’t recognise most of it.
I spend over an hour prodding at the unfamiliar ones, and chatting with fisherwomen about how to clean them, and whether they are best curried or fried with a smack of chilli. By the end of it, I’ve got a bag full of shrimp, a couple of gorgeous blue sea crabs, some white pomfret and shark, and a pair of rays. There are five of us for dinner, including Vinay Gaonkar, a Malvan resident and our guide for the evening. “You don’t want some eel?” he asks gesturing to a man surrounded by cane baskets with the snake-like metallic fish. “Too much,” I say, lifting the bags in my hands. Gaonkar laughs deeply, as if to suggest that there is no such thing as too much fish. So, we buy some waam (eel) and a clutch of mandeli—teeny fish with a silver line running along its sides—to fry up as a snack while we get our first cooking class.
I’m on a three-day excursion through the Malvan region of Maharashtra with the White Collar Hippie travel company. The coastal belt, which encompasses the districts of Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri, is flanked by the Arabian Sea. Over the next few days, our hungry crew of four will trawl local markets, walk through spice plantations, and cook with housewives and restaurant owners. The idea is to learn to make every element in a Malvani thali, from the appetiser sol kadi—a pink drink made with coconut milk and the tart kokum fruit—to the dessert modak, a steamed sweet dumpling favoured by the portly Ganesha, who is especially popular in these parts.
Adding to the excitement of the trip is our ride: a juiced-up campervan that takes us from Mumbai to Sawantwadi in the Sindhudurg district, and back again. It’s my first time travelling in a vehicle like this, and I’m pretty impressed with how much it packs in. Tables fold into the floor, chairs disappear into wall panels, and couches turn into full-size beds. It’s like road-tripping in first class. The perks are lovely of course, but my favourite part of the campervan is the sweeping views it affords. In the day, I see winding roads, brick kilns, and gulmohar trees bursting with crimson blooms. Later at night, when the flurry of food talk has waned, I soak in the shifting inky landscapes.
Thirteen hours after we left Mumbai, we arrive at Chiwla Beach, a relatively empty stretch of coast close to the town of Malvan. And a few hours later we’re in the heart of the Malvan fish auction with the jolly Gaonkar.
My mind swirls with the new words I’ve learned. I scribble them down in my notebook, so I can ask the fisherwomen in the market back home about them. If we adopt these lesser known varieties of fish (most of which are tastier too) we could save the pomfret, king fish, tuna, and mackerel from being overfished. Gaonkar meanwhile, shows us how to do a traditional fish fry. Slather the fish with Malvani masala, toss it about in rice flour, and shallow fry on a tawa until crisp. We also make a sour shark curry (an acquired taste), and pomfret stuffed with baby shrimp, but the highlight of the meal for me is the crab. Sea crabs are skinnier and softer-shelled than the mud crabs I have eaten before. To preserve their delicate flavour, Gaonkar simply smears the twosome with a little turmeric and tosses them on coals for a few minutes. The morsels of meat we get after hacking and chewing at the shell (no self-respecting Malvani kitchen will give you shelled and deboned fish) is soft and sweet. It reminds me of a meal I had at a small homestay in Goa, and drives home an important point: Technique is great, but keeping it simple yields richer rewards, especially with produce as fresh as this.
Between meals, we take long walks along the beach, laze on hammocks outside our rooms on Chiwla Beach and doze to the sound of waves greeting the shore. Eventually though, all we land up talking about is the meal we’ve just had, or what our next one will include. In the Malvan, jevan (Marathi for meals) is jeevan (life). And despite the glorious seafood on offer, we discover there’s more to Malvani cuisine than fish.
We sample scoops of rich jackfruit ice cream, see how boondi laddus are made, and make our way to Chaitanya, a local institution known to serve the best food in town. In the chatter of Chaitanya’s kitchen—manned by a gaggle of ladies in flowery saris and hairnets—we learn to make a mean crab curry and try our hand at modaks. The women dole them out like machines, making many per minute. My own measly efforts elicit a string of giggles and 20 minutes later, I manage a wonky dumpling with most of its coconut filling tumbling out. “I’ve been making modaks since I was seven,” my smiling mentor says. “I’m sixty-five now.”
Our next stop is Sawantwadi, the capital of the erstwhile eponymous kingdom. We’re staying at a homestay run by Culture Aangan, a social enterprise that uses rural tourism to preserve biodiversity and put local traditions in the spotlight. The home we’re living in is over 100 years old and remains largely unchanged, save for the floor tiling and bathroom fittings. More meals await us, and we spend much of our time here in food-induced coma.
Unlike Malvan, Sawantwadi isn’t along the coast. But the Mahashtrian town has plenty going for it. We visit a cashew factory, spend time with artisans who craft lacquered wooden toys, and call on a plantation owner, where we see the spices most frequently used in Malvani cooking in their natural environment. The farm offers welcome respite from the blazing heat and under the shade of munificent jackfruit trees, we examine cinnamon bark, plants laden with fiery red chillies, and gorgeous cardamom flowers. I think about how little we know about the food we consume every single day. The walkabout ends with another class where we learn to make sol kadi, using the skin of the dark purple kokum fruit we’ve seen drying outside so many homes over the past few days. The fruit fills the air with a deliciously tart, metallic scent.
The last stop of our trip is the Sawantwadi Palace, a handsome, deep-red laterite structure by the shimmering Moti Talao. It isn’t gaudy like other royal homes I have seen on my travels. The driveway is lined with leaning coconut trees, trunks bowing in welcome, and the walls and pointed arches are crawling with ivy. This, I imagine, is the sort of palace I would like to live in. Behind the heavy wooden doors, we are introduced to the kingdom’s rulers. A painting of a certain Maharani Parvati Devi catches my fancy. In addition to being drop-dead gorgeous, the spirited queen was a keen hunter and often accompanied her husband on trips to the jungle. Her regal portrait hangs in the palace’s Darbar Hall, above a large stuffed tigress that she captured in 1937.
A quick round of tea later, it is time to go home and we troop back into the campervan for the long ride back. By now though, we all have designated spots. There’s an ease amongst us that comes from sharing a small space. We play a few rounds of card games, make each other Nutella sandwiches for dinner, and eventually retreat to our corners to soak in the last of our Konkan views.
Malvan is a small coastal town in the Sindhudurg district in southern Maharashtra. It is 526 km/10 hrs south of Mumbai. Sawantwadi is 50 km/1.5 hrs from Malvan, and 521 km/9 hrs from Mumbai.
The closest airport to Malvan is Dabolim International Airport in Goa, around 190 km/4 hrs away. The closest railway station is Kudal (45 km/about an hour). Numerous trains from Mumbai and Bengaluru halt at Kudal; the journey takes from 7 to 10 hours. Regular buses ply between Mumbai and Malvan (12 hours).
Atithi Bamboo is a no-frills establishment with yellow walls, two dozen Formica tables and chairs, and a poster featuring pictures of various fish along with their English and Marathi names. Offerings range from rava-fried sardines, mackerel, king fish, and pomfret to lobster, shrimp, crab, clam, and rock oyster in rich coconut-flecked masala. A generous portion of tisriya masala (clams) costs as little as ₹60. So does a slab of surmai the size of a quarter plate. Chaitanya, another local institution offers lip-smacking food with the comforts of air-conditioning. Don’t miss their soft-shell crab fry or their prawn curry. Ruchira and Hotel Abhishek are known for their vegetarian as well as seafood fare. Malvan market, a busy stretch of road about a kilometre long, is filled with small street-side stalls selling prawn and squid pickle, Malvani masala, raw mango squash, jamun powder (good for diabetes), kokum juice, jackfruit and banana chips. At the end of the market road is the lively fish market. The fish auction takes place every evening on the beach outside the market from 4 to 6 p.m.
Guided food tours For details on a Malvan food trip in a RV (campervan) visit www.whitecollarhippie.com; 99302-60748; 3-day trip costs ₹13,500, including transport, stay, and all meals.
Appeared in the January 2015 issue as “Stuffed To The Gills”. This story has been updated in March 2016.