From Kashmir to Konkan to Mumbai. A taste of the itinerant Saraswat cuisine at Matsya, The Saraswat Seafood Restaurant

Bombil stuffed with prawns and green chutney at Matsya

My first taste of Saraswat seafood in a restaurant in Mumbai 

Have you ever tried the cuisine of Saraswat community

I did so recently. This was at a restaurant called Matsya. It is located in Goregaon West in Mumbai. It claims to offer seafood dishes typical to the Saraswat community and is possibly one of the few places in Mumbai to do so at the moment. This post is about Matsya and what we ate there.

I went there thanks to a Twitter chat with Delhi based lawyer and food lover, Sanjay Hedge. He tweeted me about recent visit to Matsya and the fact that he quite liked the place. I had heard about Matsya a year back when I did a chat on Maharashtrian food on my Google Hangout called Adda with Kalyan. One of the panelists had told me about two newly opened Saraswat restaurants over there. One serving vegetarian food and the other non-vegetarian food. The non-vegetarian one was Matsya. I decided that it was time I try Matsya out given that Saraswat restaurants are so unique in Mumbai. You will get Mangalorean, Malvani, Gomantak and even Keralite seafood restaurants here but no Saraswat after all. 

One more thing, I have seen Bengali restaurants feature in listicles seafood restaurants in Mumbai. Yes, we Bengalis love fish but it is fresh water fish that we prefer and not seafood.

The chat that led to the trip


Who are the Saraswats you ask?

A picture from the owner's 'native village' in Goa
which is displayed in the restaurant

I put this question to my friend Dr Pradeep Rao who, apart from being a talented urologist, loves food, loves to talk about it and loves to feed people too. 

From what I gathered from him and Wikipedia links is that the modern Saraswat community originates from the Konkan region in coastal Goa. Some references suggest that the Saraswats had migrated to the Konkan from Kashmir earlier on. Then from Goa some migrated to Mangalore (like Pradeep's ancestors did) and some to Karwar. These were folks who wanted to avoid being converted to Christianity by the Portuguese when the latter ruled Goa.

Pradeep says that the dialect of Konkani spoken at homes might vary depending on where the families are based today just as could the taste of curries cooked and the composition of masalas used. This makes the definition what constitutes authentic Saraswat cuisine a bit difficult. Like many Indian regional cuisines, this can be quite nuanced

There are two types of Saraswats from what I understand. Gaud Saraswats and Chitrapaur Saraswats. The owners of Matsya, from the pictures at the restaurant, seem to be Chitrapur Saraswats.

Update: Soumitra Velkar, a finance professional who is also a professional Pathare Prabhu home chef, tells me that Chitrapur is located in north Maharashtra and not Goa unlike what the manager told me. If so, that might explain the presence of gassi in the menu.

Where seafood is vegetarian!

If one was to generalise, then one could say that the use of coconuts is integral to Saraswat cuisine. As is seafood.

This stems from the fact that the coastal Konkan belt offers an abundance of both. This is an example of the values of 'eat local' which native Indian food is all about. Some of what I read on the internet (a wikipedia post which I will share at the end) suggested that the Saraswats were vegetarians in the hoary past. They lived in the area around the mythical Saraswat river  back then from which I gather the name Saraswat comes. Agricultural production declined once the river Saraswati dried up. That is when they relaxed their rules and began to eat seafood. Eventually seafood or 'matsya' was defined as 'vegetarian' for them. An example of religion reflecting the realities of daily life.

This story reminded of my visit to the house of Manel Casanova in Barcelona a few years back. Manel was the director of gastronomic affairs in the Catalan government back then (and possibly still is). He had invited me over home on a Sunday for paella. He warned me that it would be a vegetarian one as his daughter was visiting him. She had recently turned vegetarian he explained. 

It turned out that his 'vegetarian' paella had mussels, clams, shrimps, cod and so on.

'Vegetarian' among the Catalans, as it does among the Saraswat folks, includes seafood too it seems!

Goregaon loves its seafood

Goregaon, a suburb of Mumbai, is already famous among food lovers in the know for another seafood restaurant. I am talking a decades old institution called called Satkar.

Anurag Mehrotra, with whom I had once gone eating in old Delhi, had first told me about it. Apparently his wife, Promilaa, had grown up on its food. Satkar offers Malvani food from the Malvan coast of Maharashtra. I am told that the food at Satkar is really good, is moderately priced and that the queues to get in are long, very long. I had considered going to Satkar but the thought of travelling such a long distance had put me of.

After I heard about Matsya, I decided that it was time I made the trek to Goregaon to try the seafood there.

The attraction of Matsya over that of Satkar for me was that I had never had Saraswat food in a restaurant before this while I have eaten at Malvani restaurants such as Sindhudurg (run by a Saraswat family) and Malvani Aaswad and Sachin. 

I added 'restaurant' before Saraswat in the paragraph before as I have had lovely home cooked Saraswat dishes such as crab masalas, prawn curries, potato bhaajis and bangda (mackerel) steamed in a turmeric leaf cooked by Mrs Bharati Rajadhyaksha. She sent it for us through her son and our friend and advertising professional, Harshad Rajadhyaksha. Harshad had designed the cover of my book, The Travelling Belly. The Rajadhyakshas belong to the Saraswat community. Harshad turned vegetarian a few years back thanks to his love for animals. His mom often sends lovely seafood dishes for K (Harshad's colleague) and me.

The story of three adventurous Bengalis

Rare sighting of three Bengalis males in a seafood restaurant

I co-opted a couple of young Bengalis - Diganta Chakraborty and Rajiv Ghosh - to join me on this foodie trip. They were were in the final year in the prestigious Institute of Hotel Management, Dadar. This was a few days before college ended for them and they wanted to explore more of Mumbai before they left the city to take up their new jobs.

Diganta was training to be a chef and Rajiv for the business/ managerial side. I had met them at their college fest and since then had many chats on food and one day planned to get out and eat together. Matsya offered an opportunity. As I have written earlier here, Bengalis prefer fresh water fish to sea fish and often meat to both. Thankfully the boys still agreed to give me company.

The three of us cabbed it down to Goregaon. While the drive down the highway to Goregaon from Bandra (W) was smooth and took less than an hour, it took us two hours to return because of a traffic pile up caused by an accident on the road.

Given how long it takes to travel in mumbai, I am all for 'eat local' and 'reducing the carbon footprint' when eating in the city!

'The restaurant at the edge of the universe'
with apologies to Douglas Adams
The Matsya story smacks of pride and passion 

When we reached Matsya, I realised that it offered nothing like what we had heard of Satkar in terms of 'snaking queues.'

It was 1.30 pm on a Thursday afternoon and Matsya was completely empty barring another table. I was later told that many locals, including those from the Saraswat community, do not eat non-vegetarian food on Thursdays and that it is not the best of ideas to go to such places on a Thursdays. Fridays. Saturdays and Sundays are 'safe days' for this. 

In terms of ambiance, the place is simple, clean, air-conditioned and has a fairly clean toilet. Given that reaching the place involved a long drive for us, this was a very important facility and I was impressed to see one in a small scale Indian restaurant. I wish this was more common.

The seating was comfortable and plusher than in the average Malvani or Gomantak place for sure.

I later got to learn that the owner of Matsya is apparently a fairly young gentleman. He didn't have a catering or culinary background from what I gathered. He wanted to open a restaurant to showcase his community's cuisine.  He went to Dubai to a catering college according to what I was told, got trained  there and came back and opened this restaurant a year and a half back. The recipes of the dish here are from his family. The first six months saw him and the members of his family stationed at restaurant everyday to help get things in place.

I reckon the clean toilet at the restaurant is a reflection of his modern sensibilities.

I got to know all of the above from the young manager of Matsya. He told me that he himself is a 'Maharashtrian' whose family belonged to Malvan unlike the owners who are Saraswats originally from Goa. We were really impressed by the way the manager took our order, guided us on the menu in terms of explaining the dishes and even told how long each dish takes to prepare and what do they best combine with. We spoke in Hindi.

In a restaurant where diners might not be familiar with the menu, this sort of handholding is very important. The sincerity of the service was spread through the rest of the staff too as was evident when the wait staff came out withe food and served it patiently and courteously and even waited while the three of us took pictures, shot videos etc etc. They seemed to be proud of working at the restaurant and no, they do not levy a service charge here.

I guess that this is the point at which I am sure you will be happy to lock me in the much touted toilet if I don't tell you about the food, so let me let get down to business.

How was the food?

Tival


We were offered a welcome drink which was similar to kokum serbat except that it was spiked with chillies and mint leaves. It is called Tival as we learnt later. We just loved it and found it very refreshing. We requested for repeats and got 3 more glasses each from the generous staff. We later got the recipe of the drink too. They apparently soak kokum berries in water every morning at Matsya and then add chopped fresh chillies, rock salt and sugar, coriander and and mint leaves. How much sugar? About 5, 6 spoons a glass! This would make it approximately 3 spoons per cutting chai glass in which they served the drink. Once I heard that, I didn't ask for a 4th glass despite the free sugar high. The manager explained that kokum berries are fairly sour and need a quite bit of sugar to balance the taste.

That's the tival in red and sol kadi in pink at Matsya



We later had the sol kadi too. The sol kadi was thicker and pinker than that served in Gomantak places and seemed closer to what I have had in Mangalorean restaurants such as Apoorva. Sol kadi is kokum based too but has coconut milk in it. It is had both as an appetiser and a digestive. It is an acquired taste and I quite like it.

Bombil stuffed with prawns and green chutney at Matsya

We were very hungry and asked what would be quick to bring to the table. The answer was stuffed bombil of Bombay duck. The fish is wrapped around and stuffed with tiny prawns and deep fried. It is similar to the stuffed bombil that you get at the Mangalorean owned Jai Hind chain of restaurants in Mumbai. The difference from the Jai Hind lay in the very thick green coriander and chilli and garlic paste that was oozing out with each bitedof the stuffed bombil at Matsya. This chutney, the manager, told us is a Saraswat specialty. The taste of the chutney dominated the overall taste. There were more stuffed bombils per plate than in the Jai Hind one. 

Surmai pedawan at Matsya

The other starter that we tried was the 'pedawan'. The manager insisted that we must try this. He had warned us, and the menu stated so too, that it takes about 15 minutes to prepare. The dish, when it was brought to us, did turn out out be a unique one. It consists of fish marinated with triphala, a sort of an India Sichuan peppercorn grown in the west and southern coast, and a red chilli paste. The fish then is wrapped in a tamarind leaf and steamed.  We chose to go ahead with surmai or king fish.

The dish reminded me of a dish that mama Rajadhyaksha had once sent us.  She had steamed mackerel or bangda steamed in turmeric leaves in her version but without the heavy chilli paste that the Matsya one had. The taste was more subtle in her's and had a visible home cooked feel to it. If memory serves me right, the 'native place' (as we colloquially say it here) of the Rajadhyakshas is at Belgaon in Karnataka.

Mrs Bharati Rajadhyaksha's turmeric leaf wrapped steamed fish

Two things struck me about the pedawan at Matsya.

One was the aroma of fresh turmeric that enshrouded us when the fish was unwrapped. Having grown up on powdered turmeric, many of us modern city slickers are unfortunately not that familiar with fresh turmeric which was once an integral ingredient in Indian kitchens. Ironically, the first time time I cooked with fresh turmeric was when I made a Thai curry in a cooking school in Chiang Mai. I then came back to India, bought fresh turmeric from the local market to make curries. Thai curries that is!

The other memorable part of the dish was sharp near stringent taste of the triphala peppers. This flavour did not dominate the taste of dish of the dish though and burst out in between bites instead adding an interesting dimension to the dish.

The surmai was rendered very juicy and was not dry or overcooked at all. My two young future hotel industry prospect companions seemed as impressed as I was and hopefully took away ideas for the future from the dish.

Crab bhurjee in green masala

We then had a crab bhurjee in a green masala. The green colour indicated ground chillies I guess and the dish did have a strong heat kick to it, though the over-riding taste was that of salt. This dominance of salt was a pity as the minced and scrambled crab meat seemed nice and juicy. We had the bhurjee bhakris, which are rotis made with rice flour and are white in colour.

Pomfret ghasi at Matsya

We also tried the pomfret ghasi at Matsya as we wanted to try out as many dishes as we could.

A medium sized pomfret was served in a red spicy curry as the ghasi. The pomfret was cooked nicely and was again not overcooked. The curry looked similar to gassi that one gets in Mangalorean restaurants but was not really sour unlike the gassis that I have had. The taste of chillies was fairly prominent once again as it was in most of the dishes here.

Pradeep later told me that gassi or ghashi means curry in Mangalorean homes and that it is likely to feature in the menu of Saraswats from Mangalore but not in those from Goa. These curries are coconut based. Unlike in the jhols or curries of Bengal, the fish is not fried before it is added to the curry.

The waiter expertly portioned the fish expertly into three. We had the ghasi with soft neer dosas which, like the gassi, is a Mangalorean staple too.

Matsya is not all about seafood. It has some chicken dishes but we skipped those. There was no mutton or goat meat on the menu.


Potato saung at Matsya


I wanted to try some of the vegetarian stuff at Matsya.

We had the dal with rice. This was the basic garlic flavoured dal which Banu makes for us. Must be a local Maharashtrian staple. It lacked salt.

What won us over, and was possibly the dish of the day for us was the potato saung. It is a potato bhaaji made with soft boiled potato seasoned with red chilli (but of course) and onions has a moist and buttery, ghee-like finish. We enjoyed having the bhaaji with the bhakri and the neer dosa and I even packed some to take back for K who loved it to too when she tried it at night.

So was Matsya worth the travel? 

If you are a seafood lover then keep in mind that at Matsya, the dishes, especially the curries, are as much about the masalas as they are about seafood, if not more. This is the case in most restaurants offering seafood from the west coast. The produce is often smothered with spices.

Fried fish is the best option if you want to get a taste of the seafood to the hilt. This applies to Mangalorean, Gomantak and Malvani restaurants too.

I must confess that I am not very comfortable with food that is high on chilli heat and spice.

The excess of chillies, the large quantities of food that we ate (it was rather tasty and we want to try as much as we could) and the long drive back in the heat in the trafficked road didn't sit well with my tummy and I stuck to curd rice at home at night. One of the younger uns in the group had a touch of acidity too. Some would say that we Bengalis tend to have rather delicate tummies.

If you are worried about being able to handle the spice then take smaller amounts of the curry and the masalas, go when it is cooler and maybe do not eat as much as we did!

If you are fine with food that is spicy then you should try Matsya out. The food is definitely different from anything I have eaten in the seafood Malvan, Gomantak, Keralite or Mangalorean seafood restaurants that are more common to Mumbai. You would be guaranteed to try dishes that you have possibly not had before. I was told by the proud and earnest manager that Matsya is quite the favourite with folks from the Saraswat community who apparently flock here for dinner.

If you are an adventurous eater, like bold flavours and like to try out new dishes and love seafood, then Matsya is the place to go.

Our mains at Matsya


Prices: In terms of pricing, we paid Rs 1600 odd for 1 potato saung, the crab bhurji, stuffed bombil, pedawan, pomfret ghashi, 5 rotis and rice and water which, compared to downtown Mumbai, would be a steal. The portions were larger than in traditional Gomantak/ Malvani places which would possibly be cheaper.

Here's the address of Matsya (Source: Zomato)

Address

Motilal Nagar 2, Near Datta Mandir, Off Link Road(Bangur Nagar Signal), M.G.Road, Goregaon (West), Goregaon West, Mumbai

Digging into the meal at Matsya

Future chef Diganta looks for inspiration

The gentleman in the lavender coloured shirt is the manager.
Then there are two of the waitstaff beside him.
The gentleman in the orange tee shirt and white shirt to his right are the chefs.
Flanking the chefs is future chef Diganta. Standing beside the front staff is
Rajiv who plan to join the managerial side of the hotel industry
Here's a phone video that we shot while at Matsya. Please check it out and do subscribe to my channel to get updates on more such videos



Also see:
1. Post on the cooking class that I had attended in Chiang Mai in 2010 where I had used fresh turmeric for the first time
2. Post on the lunch at Barcelona where Manel had cooked the 'vegetarian' paella
3. Wikipedia on Saraswat food
4. The video of my chat on Maharashtrian food where I first heard about Matsya:


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