A restaurant that sticks to basics will see its customers stay loyal.
There’s this place on the Nerul, quiet and green, on the grey water. Actually all of Goa’s cool and green at this time of year; the worst of the rain is over, showers are intermittent and the coolness and greenery are constant. The sky is grey, like the water; the paddies are emerald; and every square centimetre of red earth is sprouting vines and ferns. Even the walls, soft red laterite, dark now with the rain, are covered with bright green tendrils.
On the river is this eating place, which local friends have begged me not to name, that serves fresh seafood and the day’s catch from the river. Sabita, the owner-cum-cook, is on the phone and, if you call her too late, it can happen that the river crabs you want to order are already reserved and you can’t have any. Her husband is a fisherman and what he catches she cooks. Anyway, the restaurant is small and used to be open-air but now has a tin roof. But no walls, so it’s open with an unrestricted view of the backwaters, the banks covered with mangrove, the only sound that of the occasional fish plopping back into the water. But as mealtime nears, the sounds from the kitchen inside get louder. Accompanied as they are by the smells of cooking, they’re appetising and welcome; you know the wait will not be long.
In the past we’ve been lucky and got crabs. They can be huge and meaty, and the best way to eat the mild, almost sweet flesh is without spices, just boiled, with, if you like, garlic butter on the side. And we usually have a fish or prawn curry. This time there was just one crab for three of us; we were lucky it was a huge fellow. We spent so much time extricating the flaky white flesh from the claws that the edge of our hunger was blunted a bit.
While we waited for the rest of our lunch we watched the others. There were two large groups: one a bunch of friends from Mumbai and another whose provenance we couldn’t guess. One of them disappeared for a while and returned with a clear plastic bag of what, from a distance, looked like smallish baguettes. When he came closer the baguettes were seen to have whiskers. So they must have been lobsters, which he took inside and handed over to Sabita. When their lunch was served, we noticed that all the men stood, and remained standing through the meal. All the easier to handle shellfish? Later, in conversation, we discovered that some of the group were local residents and the rest were relatives visiting from Mumbai. So obviously this was a good place; not that any corroboration was needed.
We were still waiting, and I went in to chat with Sabita and returned when I saw our prawns being carried out. These were the best kind: fresh and firm, medium-sized, crisp and golden brown. They were coated with a hint of red masala and rawa and then fried and though the rawa was mostly on the prawns, like a crust, some was falling off in crisp, oil-soaked clumps. I don’t know which was better: the juicy, flavourful prawns or the rawa crumbs that I salvaged every last one of by pressing my fingertips to the plate and licking them.
The next course was a whole red snapper. It was about a foot and a half long, tawa-fried to a rich, crisp brown. We had spent some time discussing the filling because we didn’t want the sharpness of the traditional reichade. So Sabita devised a gentler filling that complemented the fish. The fish had been cleaned and gutted but not skinned, and filled with just salt, turmeric and a handful of split fresh green chillies. The skin was crisp and brown, brittle in parts and deliciously chewy near the tail. We progressed through the entire fish, first cutting out neat fillets politely and eventually opening up the whole thing, picking off bits with our fingers. The inside was white, cooked through but not dry, smeared with the bright yellow of haldi and festive with green chillies that had plenty of flavour but little bite.
Then... there was no need, but we had a prawn curry. This was distinctly different from the “Goa” curries that abound everywhere else, with their preponderance of sharp spices that taste raw, as if they haven’t been given a moment to rest, mellow down and come together. This curry was milder, flavoured with coriander powder and coconut milk, and Sabita has started following the local tradition of using a hint of tamarind instead of kokum, which she was brought up with further south, in Margao. The curry is served with the sweet, nutty local rice, and, gratis, a plate of small rawa-fried lady fish or a steel katori of the seasonal vegetable. This time there were finely sliced green beans sprinkled with grated coconut. The entire meal was totally satisfying, affirming that restaurants that stick to essentials and what they know best, with an “honest” bill of fare, are the ones we return to.
Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi and works with Pratham’s ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).