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Here I am, lounging around in a shack in Goa, drink in my hand and a belly full of food. The relentless boom of waves crashing in the distance and the soft rustling of the coconut palms sounds almost hypnotic. With every breath of warm, salty Goan air, I can feel my eyes getting droopier and movements more lethargic. Ah, Goa! It does that to you. I need just one more drink before heading home for the night. Fresh lime soda it is. I’m driving, you see.
But how’d I end up 500km away from our office, in a shack, living the susegado life? It all began the day earlier in Vasai. Armed with the keys to a Nissan Terrano and the gluttonous desire to explore the food along the Konkan coast, I was about to begin an extremely gratifying (at least my stomach thought so) road trip down the west coast of our country.
We start with the Koli fishing community in Vasai. Now, the people of this community are the original inhabitants of the seven islands we now know as Mumbai. They inhabited this land way before it became the cosmopolitan melting pot of cultures that it is today and are now but a minority in the city. They live in pockets along the seafront and continue to fish, using the same techniques and boats their ancestors used. None of that new fancy trawler stuff. Just some good ol’ wooden dhows, hand-made nets and the vast open sea.
Being a self-proclaimed seafood connoisseur, I got right down to business. When questioned about which restaurant would give me the most authentic Koli meal, all the locals pointed in one direction—Kinara Restaurant. And that’s where shutterbug Vikrant and I headed.
Now this was the first time I was driving a Terrano, and I must say I was impressed. While it may look large and imposing, it is actually very easy to manoeuvre around the city. It made quick work of Mumbai’s traffic and we reached Vasai just in time for lunch. The locals were right, Kinara didn’t disappoint. I ordered the obvious—prawn koliwada along with fried kingfish. Growing up in Goa and eating seafood all my life means I can sniff stale fish from a mile away. But boy, this seafood was fresh off the boat! The deep-fried koliwada-style prawns were absolutely sublime. Vikrant is a vegetarian, and that was great news for me – I had the fish all to myself. I absolutely did not hold back while chowing down on what I ordered. Living in Pune for so long has made me forget the pleasures of fresh, well-cooked seafood.
We left Vasai and began our adventure southwards along the coast. The road we took was the old Bombay-Goa road. I wasn’t really sure of the route so we put our faith in Google-ji. Now Google, in its bid to get us to our destination in the shortest possible time, took us through the shortest possible route. Beyond Chiplun, the roads weren’t in the best of conditions. We drove through narrow, bumpy, desolate roads in pitch darkness for more than 60km. There was not a soul in sight for the entire stretch and I’ll be honest, it was pretty spooky. Sharing ghost stories didn’t particularly help. The Terrano, however, didn’t mind at all. The suspension was more than happy and soaked up the bumps with ease, allowing us to make good progress despite the bad roads. It gave me a sense of confidence, sitting high up in that seat, chunky wheel in my hands. I know I’d easily be able to run away from (or run over, if necessary) any ghouls that decided to jump us. And no fears of the tank running dry either what with the excellent fuel efficiency.
When we came to the end of that stretch, Google-ji announced the next bearing. “In two kilometres, take the Maharashtra state ferry for 2.5km to reach your destination”. A state run ferry. At midnight. I was willing to bet my man-parts that the ferry wasn’t running. Incredibly annoyed with myself for trusting some algorithms created by a programmer who obviously didn’t know how India functioned to guide me, I turned the car around to backtrack 65km. Vikrant however had other plans. He wanted to go to the jetty and take a picture of the place where Google screwed us over. In no mood to argue, I drove the two kilometres up to the jetty. And you should’ve seen the incredulous looks on our faces when we saw a ferry plying up and down the pitch-black waters. Thank god for Vikrant and his obsessive photo habit!
In Ganpatipule, we were staying at the luxurious Blue Ocean Resort and Spa. We reached this sprawling seven-acre property after midnight and made a beeline for our rooms to catch some shut-eye. Ganpatipule is a tiny village about 30km north of Ratnagiri on the Maharashtra coast. Legend has it that the 400-year-old Ganpati idol at Ganpatipule is said to have sprung up from the sand. Unlike other temples that generally face east, this temple faces west as it is believed that Ganpati is the Paschim Dwarpalak, the god that protects the western gates of India.
But I wasn’t here for the temple; I was here for the food, Malvani food in particular. The guys over at Blue Ocean did not hold back. Vaishali tai and Rajashree tai (tai is elder sister in Marathi), two locals employed by the hotel to provide guests with the authentic Malvani food experience, cooked up this spectacular feast. They bombarded me with all sorts of food and by the end of lunch, I had lost count of how many dishes I had tried. Fried fish, mutton and chicken curry, bhakris, an assortment of vegetables (Vikrant was thrilled!), sol-kadhi, puran-polis and even modaks were served. The food was brilliant; neither was it unpalatably spicy or swimming in oil. It was a good, wholesome home-cooked meal, albeit much more elaborate. Just like most other coastal cuisines, Malvani food has plenty of coconut in it. All their curries have a coconut base, their sabzis are generously garnished with fresh grated coconut, sol-kadhi (a refreshing kokum based drink) is made with fresh coconut milk, and the modaks have a coconut and jaggery stuffing. A perfectly sweet ending to a delectable meal. It’s amazing how a single ingredient can be used with such versatility.
Call me a glut, but my craving for seafood had still not been satiated. I wished we could hang around the hotel a little longer; it was so relaxing, but Goa was calling. Now before I go any further, I want to clarify that I am not exaggerating about what I am about to tell you next. I drove to Goa via Hathkhamba and Lanja and it was easily one of the best drives I’ve ever been on. The roads were spectacular, the views were spectacular, and the car was spectacular. Everyone at evo India keeps talking about Chorla Ghat and what a brilliant drive it is. Trust me, this is better. I know I sound extremely gushy, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself that afternoon. The Terrano really surprised me with the way it handles. Not only is the suspension pliant and comfortable but it has great composure whilst being thrown round bends; it stays planted and true to the line you choose. If I have my way, you’re going to be hearing about this route quite often.
We got into Goa just in time for dinner and I dragged Vikrant straight to my favourite shack. Zeebop, which is bang on Utorda beach (in south Goa, well away from the chaos in the north), is a shack I have been frequenting for years now. The food is great, and the ambience even better. But what I love the most about this place is what happens when you ask them what fresh fish they have. Instead of showing you a menu card, or reciting the catch of the day, they bring out a platter of their freshest fish so you can pick and choose what you want to eat.
Now Goan food can be broadly classified into Hindu and Catholic Goan dishes. Hindu Goan food is very similar to Malvani cuisine and the food of other Hindu communities along the Konkan coast. They use turmeric-chilly marinades for their fish and use plenty of kokum and tamarind to add some zing to the food. Meanwhile the Catholics use a lot of chilly and vinegar in their cooking. Catholic food has been heavily influenced by the Portuguese; it is a blend of two very different cuisines, and this makes it very distinctive from any other type of food in the country.
While I could have gorged on all sorts of elaborate shellfish, I chose to have some soul food instead. Chonak (sea perch) in raechado masala and chicken cafreal are what I grew up eating and that’s what I dug into. While a lobster would have made for a spectacular finish to this journey, the chonak and cafreal, hit the spot and left me completely sated.
I’ve done the journey from Mumbai to Goa more times than I can count. But every single time I’ve taken the highway via Pune and eaten some barf-worthy burgers at Kolhapur. This was the first time I’ve driven the coastal route and I can’t believe what I’ve missed out on all my life. The combination is unbeatable: good food, good roads and stunning views. What they say about the journey being more important than the destination holds perfectly true here. And when you have a good car, you tend to forget you have a destination to get to. Not only is the Terrano comfortable, spacious and well equipped; it’s surprisingly good to drive with an excellent balance of ride and handling. And a tank of gas seems to last forever. I think we might have just found the perfect SUV for gastronomic road-tripping. L