Spices and seafood can't coexist in harmony they say. Or can they? Seafood hunting in Mangalore.

Crab masala ghee roast plus fish thali at Machali, Mangalore

This post is about three great seafood experiences in Mangalore. Two of these were Konkani. One in a restaurant, the other in someone's house. The other was in a Shetty restaurant. The Shetty community runs many restaurants in Mumbai and the restaurant I went to here is considered to be their precursor. 

The quest for peaceful coexistence 

Europeans will tell you that seafood should be treated with respect and that the best way to prepare it is to not do much to it.

In India we believe that spices are core to our cuisine and this applies to the way seafood is cooked too. Yes, yes, not all of India I know, but this is a prevalent kitchen philosophy here and those who follow it would be more than happy to tell the ‘respect your produce’ folks to take a hike. ‘Who wants bland food,’ would be their response.

Can these two schools of thought coexist is what I asked myself the other day. Can masalas and seafood both retain their individual brilliance and yet coexist in harmony in a dish? 

These thoughts, strangely enough, were sparked off in my mind when I headed home from a Buddhist discussion meeting the other day. The topic that day was 'inclusiveness and its role in establishing peace'.

Coming from the land of paatla maacher jhol (fish cooked in a light gravy the Bengali way) as I do, the seafood dishes available in the regional Indian restaurants of Mumbai do seem a bit unnerving to me at times. Be it Malvani, Malayali or Mangalorean, the jewels of the sea often seem to be tucked away behind truck loads of spices and ground and milked coconut when put on to a plate here. 

Then my trip to Mangalore came up. This was something my friend Dr Pradeep Rao and I were planning for a while. What was meant to be a road trip in Mumbai during winter ended up with our  finally taking flights to Mangalore a couple of weekends back and that's where I tried to look for some enlightenment on the issue.

The ownership of most of the well known seafood restaurants of Mumbai ... Trishna, Mahesh, Apoorva, Ankur, Bharat Excellensea, Gajalee and Jai Hind and countless smaller lunch homes ... trace their roots to the Shetty community of Mangalore after all. I was keen to go to the source to see how cooking traditions there compared to what plays out in Mumbai today.

To cut a long story short, I came back pleasantly surprised. 

If there is one place where masalas and seafood have made their peace with each other, I realised, then it has to be in Mangalore.

Let me give you three examples to show you what I mean.

Exhibit  1: Machali Coastal Karnatka Cuisine Restaurant

Machali is located next to the Ocean Pearl Hotel where we were staying. Along with Giri Manja, which is older and more basic in its ambiance I am told,  Machali was the restaurant  that most recommended to me for trying out seafood in Mangalore. Pradeep, who planned  the trip for me, chose Machali too for us to go to to during the trip. So we headed there for lunch one day with his wife and children and a young restaurateur couple I had met earlier that day through Instagram.

We reached the Machali at 2 pm and yet there was a huge, and I mean really huge, queue to get in with people sitting patiently in the balcony with a sense of orderliness that one associates with the south of India. Thankfully we got lucky as our new friends, Shriya and Varun, knew the folks who own the restaurant well and they soon managed to help us find a table.

The restaurant consists of a bungalow divided into many rooms and in to each of which many tables were fitted in. I did see the odd air conditioner around and it did not feel too hot or humid that day and it was overcast outside. 

We found out that despite the teeming millions around, the service was prompt, competent and seasoned with smiles.

Fish thalis at Machali and lots of seafood to go with it

The deal here is that you have to order a fish thali first and with which you get a choice of fish curry gravy, dal or rassam. The dal is a thickish one and is typical to the Konkani community whose food Machali serves. The thali comes with loads of red rice and a vegetable on the side and a fish bone infused curry.

Pradeep ordered everything in sight as he is wont to when he likes a place. This was not his first visit here. 

With Dr Pradeep Rao, a friend you would want to have in your corner for life

We had some fried fish to start with. Tiny kane or ladyfish with a very thin coating of rava or semolina. The coating was enough to hold the fish together but yet not so thick or crunchy that the end result would be all batter or no fish. The latter does happen in Mumbai at times and that upsets my wife no end. She likes to have her fish without anything coming in the way.

Then came the ghee roasts at Machali and those are what blew my away. 

I had first heard of ghee roast when I had begun exploring south Indian non-vegetarian food in the early days of my blogging. I had tried it back then at Deluxe, a Keralite restaurant in Mumbai’s Fort precinct. It was the only time that I didn’t like a dish at Deluxe, a restaurant to which I had returned many times after my first visit as it became one of my favourite restaurants in Mumbai. 

There was a brown swamp on the plate at Deluxe that day and some tiny prawns hidden in it somewhere. Why roast? Why ghee? Why prawns? The answers to these questions were beyond me that time and I had always been suspicious of ghee roasts since that fateful afternoon.

Till Machali made me change my mind with its ghee roasts.

Squid ghee roast at Machali

We had surmai slice ghee roast (the least impressive of the lot) and prawns, crabs, squids and gaboli (fish roe) ghee roast too. The ghee roast masala was moist and coated gently on the seafood. It hugged the seafood gently but did not drown it. The masala added a dash of chilli heat to each dish and this was beautifully balanced by the mellow notes of the ghee (clarified butter). The combination worked well even for someone like me despite my low tolerance level for chillies.

Shobha Kamath, whose culinary genius I will tell you about a bit later in this post, told me that moistening the masala with water before cooking the seafood with it ensured that the spices would not burn while the proteins were being cooked. 

This is a trick that I had learnt from my mother in Kolkata. She too would always add some water to spices before adding them to the kodai (wok) while making a maachher jhol. An example of the shared heritage of the kitchens of India.

What struck me about each ghee roast dish was how well the seafood was showcased. I marvelled at the beautiful texture of the squids for example. They were not chewy at all unlike what is often the case in restaurants that I have been to across the country. 

The crab meat in the crab ghee roast, once you cracked upon the shell and reached out to it, was enchantingly poetic and sweet and mellow. 

The ghaboli (fish roe) ghee roast, with its sheer buttery indulgence, would now rank right up there with seared foie gras now as one of the most hedonistic food experiences that I have ever had. The roe of small fish was used here. It was fatty and silken and combined with the oomph of the ghee to tell the story of fifty shades of the sea.

Move over foie gras. Gaboli ghee roast is here

On the other end of the taste spectrum from the ghee roast was the Konkani fish curry that we had. A coconut milk based one which had many layers added to its taste structure thanks to the onion and ginger infused in it. The texture of the fish used, lady fish, was quite pliant and was in perfect harmony with the demureness of the curry. 

The curry was just the the dash of the milk of human kindness that was needed to balance the fiery passion of the high spirited ghee roasts.

The Konkani curry 

Six of us ate for the princely price of Rs 2,000 or so at Machali and with no service charge levied for the exceptionally warm and efficient service. 

What struck me about the meal was that each dish was a beautiful confluence of the spices used and of the seafood too with neither dominating the dish, nor was either outshouted by the other. 

To me, this was a true culinary example of the Nicherinf Buddhist phrase, ‘many in body and one in mind.’

The post Machali smile

Exhibit 2: Shetty's Lunch Home, Kundapur

Kane frenzy at Shetty's Kundaput

We had driven down to Shetty’s Lunch Home at Kundapur from Mangalore, over a close to two hour drive, for a chicken dish and not fish one to be honest. That sounds strange as an entry for a seafood piece I know but hear me out.

Shetty’s at Kundapur, Pradeep told me, is considered to be the pre-cursor of the Shetty community owned restaurants of Mumbai. We travelled all the way there for one dish. The chicken ghee roast and that did turn out to be truly outstanding but there were many more surprises there and let me tell you about one of them.

Pradeep’s brother in law, Girish Kamath, who was with us that afternoon and who is a regular at Shetty's ordered a number of other dishes apart from the chicken ghee roast. One of which was Kane or lady fish. I am not sure if it was a fry or roast.

We got to enter the remarkably clean and cavernous kitchen of Shetty’s thanks to Girish while our food was being prepared. I watched the cooks seemingly torch pieces fish on a huge flat pan over a longish period in loads of Chairman Mao's Red Book-like masalas. 

“There we go,” I thought. “That’s going to be an over-fried spicy disaster.”

Finding Nemo in the red sea

I was soon made to eat the humble fish though and I was happy to have had my apprehensions proved wrong. 

The first taste of the Kane fish that I got was a searing bite of masala when the skin of the fish met ones tongue. Then it was unstinting love all the way. The fish was soft and juicy, well seasoned and not spicy at all. This turned out to be one of the most well balanced fish dishes that I have had in my life. 

By ‘soft’ I don’t mean ‘spoilt’ soft of course. Velvety would be a better descriptor perhaps.

What carried the dish through was its freshness of the fish, the beautiful balance of spices and the TLC and dexterity with which it was cooked. 

The dish smacked of mutual respect.

The majestic kane fry at Shetty's Lunch home

We later tried the mackerel at Shetty's and that was not as pleasant. This was because we were here after the fishing ban had been started for the rains and the mackerel was not fresh and was from the freezer. 

Waiting to be ordered by the odd tourist or by regulars who were many Monks down.

Exhibit 3: Shobha Kamath's Konkani Artistry

Shobha Kamath and the wonders of the sea that sailed out
of her kitchen

“This is the wrong time to go to Mangalore. The fishing season is over,” was the constant strain of the responses that I got from folks when they heard that I was heading to Mangalore.

“Well, I do want to try out the pork and the vegetarian dishes there too,” I replied defensively if not apologetically.

My two dinners at house of the Kamaths and which were cooked by Shobha Kamath, Pradeep’s cousin, showed me that I should not have worried about coming to Mangalore in the monsoons as I was in good hands 

The first dinner featured a million vegetarian dishes. Figurative of course but the array was rather wide. 

The second dinner had an equal, if not more, number of seafood dishes. Pradeep had told Shobha that she should not worry about our missing pomfret, surmai and rawas as we come from Mumbai where we get plenty of those.

So what Shobha did was present an array of dishes that the fish loving Konkani GSBs have when monsoon sets in ... when the fishing boats stay put and when deep sea fishing is given a rest and the fish are left to spawn in peace.

Shobha had kept dried fish such as prawns, anchovies and shark as a back up plan we later learnt but had luckily (for us) found prawns, oysters, lady fish, sardines, mackerels, silver fish and fish roe in the market that day and proceeded to cook up a storm for us.

Let me share the menu of the meal that she had cooked for us.

- Sungta human: prawns cooked in a coconut gravy with asafetida
- Bangude phanna upakari: mackerel cooked with onions in a thick spicy and tangy gravy
- Motiyala alle piyao ghashi- silver fish cooked with onions and ginger in a coconut gravy.  Very mellow and similar to what we had at Machali earlier that day.
- Pedve kothambar methi - sardines in coriander, fenugreek coconut gravy.
- Kalva maasa humman - oysters in coconut gravy. This was truly heady
- Kubbe sukke- clams in dry spicy coconut masala. My mom tells me that in Bengal, those belonging to the poor sections of society would have clams. This dish was pretty majestic though
- Gabbali ghee roast - fish roe in ghee and chillies. This was a slightly different version from Macchalis as the roe used was that of sardines and was more grainy.
There were a variety of dried fish dishes on the table too such as
- Sukkal sungta kisumi
- sungta vali papashpala ambat
- sukkal bhousha ghashi.

Lady fish fry, head and body separate


I must admit that I have copied the names of the dishes here from Shobha’s Facebook post and would be hard pressed to dissect dish individually for you. 

What struck me about the meal though was about how different the spice palate and taste structure of each dish was and how the seafood had been presented in each dish with so much care. The dinner was an expression of another Nicherin Buddhist phrase, ‘happiness in this world.’ The fact that Shobha did not rue about the surmai and pomfret which were not in season and instead had cooked such a wonderful meal based on what was available is why I say so. This is what living in the moment and making the best out of ones current reality is all about I guess and the Konkanis of Mangalore seem to know exactly this is to be done. The  meal, a very happy one at that, proved this .

The two elements, spices and the protein, came together in harmony in each dish Shobha presented to make for an outstanding taste experience which made me wish that I had a got a few spare bellies instead of just chins with me.

By cooking this majestic dinner, Shobha had conclusively proved something that I had come to realise by then in any case. The fact that they love and cherish both their seafood and their spices in Mangalore. This, I guess, explains why the two coexist here with such respect, peace and harmony and while retaining their own characters.

It was indeed my good Karma to have experienced this first hand and I owe Pradeep for this.

The Konkanis do love their seafood! That's Pradeep in the stripes shirt, Girish in
Black and Shobha to his right. The others are Pradeep's wife and children.
I was lucky to be welcomed into their home and heartd
Do check out this quick video I had requested Varun to shoot during our lunch at Machali

The story of the dinner as told by Shobha: