The fact that you are reading this already elevates you to the position of a food lover; curious enough to go beyond the typical Konkani image of miles of beaches thronged by tourists who are sunbathing and drinking. You are ready to dig deeper and unravel the mystery behind the spicy and aromatic food of the region.
Of course, since we are talking about the cuisine of a coastal area, coconut and seafood are obvious ingredients in the preparation of any meal; however, region and seasons also play an important part in the selection of the rest of the ingredients. Let’s take a look at some of the common, and some not so common, ingredients used in Konkani food.
A. Spices: Indian food is incomplete without an assortment of spices and the local cuisine uses them generously, giving the dishes a distinctive flavor.
· Black pepper: Piper Nigrum, or black pepper, is used extensively in Indian cooking. In India, it is grown mainly in South India. The fruits of the plant, known as peppercorns, are dried and used as a spice both for their flavor and for their medicinal properties.
· Fenugreek: This plant, which bears the scientific name of Trigonella foenum-graecum, has been cultivated since ancient times: as far back as 4000BC in Egypt. It is grown in semi-arid climates, mainly in the northern and western states of India. This plant is used in many ways in Indian cuisine: as an herb, a spice (both dried leaves and seeds), and as a vegetable in its fresh form.
· Red Chilies: Red chilies or chili peppers are plants of the genus Capsicum. They are used to make hot ‘n’ spicy Indian curries. The plant was introduced into Asia by Portuguese traders and since Goa was, until the recent past, a Portuguese colony, local Goan or Konkani cuisine uses this hot tasting spice heavily. The varieties of chilies that are frequently used in Goan dishes include Byadgi, Bird’s Eye and others.
· Asafoetida: This is dried latex obtained from the tap root of a perennial herb called Ferula, which is commonly grown in Iran, Afghanistan, and India. The spice has a fetid, pungent smell, hence the name asafoetida. But despite this, when used in extremely small quantities in dishes like lentils, it gives a smooth and unique flavor.
· Turmeric: Turmeric, or Curcuma longa, is obtained from an herbal plant belonging to the ginger family. These plants are native to the southeast parts of India. While turmeric is used mostly in rhizome powder form to impart a yellow color to food, in Konkani dishes, turmeric leaves are used to wrap and cook special sweet dishes.
· Mustard seed: Mustard seeds find mention in many ancient texts, including the Bible and the stories of Gautama Buddha. Indian mustard, with the scientific name of Brassica juncea, is grown mainly in the northern states of India.
· Cumin: This spice is derived from the dried seed of Cuminum cyminum, an herbal plant from the parsley family. It is used both in whole and ground form and is believed to have a number of medicinal and digestive properties.
· Teppal: Also known variously as Tirphal, Szechuan pepper or Zanthoxylum rhetsa, these are dried berries that grow in grape-like bunches on a tree which is grown mainly in Maharashtra and Karnataka in India. These berries, minus the seeds, are used mostly in the preparation of fish dishes in the Konkan region, as well as from some vegetarian dishes.
· Coriander seeds and leaves: Coriander is also known as Chinese parsley or Cilantro and is native to many parts of the world including southern Europe, north Africa, and southwestern Asia. The plant’s leaves, as well as the dried seeds, are used in cooking, especially for making chutneys or as a spice.
· KhusKhus: This is the name for poppy seeds that have been used for thousands of years in food preparation. Obtained from the opium poppy, the seeds are supposed to have sedative powers.
· Cloves: These are flower buds of the evergreen clove tree which is grown mainly in south Asia. This aromatic spice is used in African, Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine to impart flavor to curries, meat preparations, and hot beverages.
· Cinnamon: What’s unique about this spice is that it is obtained from the inner bark of not one, but a number of trees belonging to the genus Cinnamomum. Its flavor is such that it is used in both sweet and savory dishes. This spice has been deemed fit to be consumed by gods and monarchs since ancient times and thus has been highly valued across the world, though it is native to South Asian countries.
· Bay leaf or Tej Patta: This leaf is different from the Cassia leaf/bay leaf known in the west. The Indian bay leaf is used to impart flavor to dishes like lentils and different types of khichris.
· Black and Green Cardamom: Both the black and green cardamom belong to the ginger family Zingiberaceae and is grown mainly in Asia. They are different not just in color, but also in size. Green cardamom is one of the world’s most expensive spices, behind only saffron and vanilla, and, like these two, it is also used both in sweet and savory preparations.
B. Herbs: Indian cooking makes use of a number of herbal plants to add flavor to dishes or for the purpose of garnishing. Below are some of the most important ones:
· Green coriander: Coriander leaf, besides being ground to make spicy chutneys and dips, is a must for completing the look of Indian curries.
· Curry leaf: This is not to be confused with the European curry plant. This particular leaf belongs to the sub-tropical Murraya koenigii tree and is used quite frequently in South Indian and Konkani cuisine.
· Mango Ginger: Called aamhaldi in local parlance, Curcuma amada, or mango ginger, belongs to ginger family Zingiberaceae and has a raw mango-like taste. It finds its use in Indian cooking in making pickles, chutneys, sauces and salads.
· Ginger: The root of the flowering plant Zingiber officinale is one of the most widely used ingredients in Indian cooking. The roots have a distinctive and hot flavor and they are used in curries, and added to hot beverages, etc.
· Garlic: Allium sativum, better known as garlic, is a pungent smelling species of the onion genus. It has been used in cooking for the past 7000 years and is a staple in many parts of the world, including Mediterranean, Asian, and African cuisine. From curries to stews and soups, and from chutneys and dips to pickles and flavored oil, garlic is used in all types of cooking.
C. Souring Agents used in Konkani Food
· Bilimbi: This is the fruit of the Avarrhoa bilimbi or cucumber tree and is a close relative of carambola. It is a tropical tree and grows in gardens and backyards. It is used frequently in Goan cuisine for making pickles or as a souring agent in soups and stews, or even curries.
· Carambola: The fruit of the Avarroha carambola tree, also known as star fruit, is used in a similar way as Bilimbi fruit; that is to make pickles and chutneys or for eating raw with salt. Some Konkani recipes use jaggery to counter its extremely tangy taste.
· Tamarind: Tamarindus indica or the tamarind tree is a leguminous tree native to tropical Africa but grown extensively in India. The extract of this pod – which tastes like sour tasting fruit, is used as a souring agent in many Konkani recipes that range from rice dishes, cooked vegetables, chutneys, lentils to seafood like crab.
· Green Mango: Though dried and ground, green or unripe mango or amchoor powder is used in Indian dishes to give them a tangy flavor; the raw fruit itself is mixed with coriander, chili and other spices to make mouthwatering sweet and sour chutneys and side dishes that go well with rice.
· Kokum: This is the fruit of Garcinia indica, a tropical plant belonging to the mangosteen family. Its outer cover is sun-dried to make aamsul or kokum. In the Konkan region, it is known as bhirand and is the most frequently used souring agent, imparting a slightly sour taste to dishes along with a dark red color.
D. Vegetables, Fruit and Flowers used in Konkani Cuisine
· Coconut: The fruit of the coconut tree or Cocos nucifera, also called kalpavriksh in Konkani, is used in many different ways in Konkani cuisine. The fruit is available in abundance in the region and is used grated, dried and grated, fried or as a paste, or in the form of coconut milk in numerous recipes, some really popular ones being Sol Kadhi, Ambe Hashale, Vali Ambat, etc.
· Gourds: Konkani cuisine has many well-known recipes that use various types of gourd, be it bitter gourd, bottle gourd or ash gourd, which are cooked in coconut curry with an assortment of spices that give them a hot and sour flavor. Other types of gourds used are snake gourd and ridge gourd.
· Malabar Cucumber: Known as magge in Konkani, Malabar cucumber is a fleshy vegetable resembling a pumpkin. It is used as an ingredient in preparing rasam and curries in Goa and Kerala.
· Chayote: Also known as christophine, this is a vegetable that’s easily available year round and can be chopped and cooked using spices like mustard seeds, fenugreek, asafoetida, and grated coconut.
· Yam and Chinese Potato: Suran or yam and soppoor kook or Chinese potato are cooked with spicy coconut chutney and asafoetida and go well with rice.
· Sweet potato: Kananga, as sweet potato is known as in Konkani, is used to make phodis which can be both deep fried or pan fried.
· Banana: Banana is used in Konkani dishes in a variety of ways ranging from the preparation of Banana halwa, a sweet dish, to shallow fried banana phodis coated with spice mixture, to banana puris that are eaten with coconut chutney and sambar. Other recipes include raw banana curry, banana modak (a sweet dish), etc.
· Drumstick: Known locally as mashing, drumstick dishes are very popular in Goa given that the tree is found in the backyards of most houses. Drumstick is full of iron and the tree’s flowers and leaves are also used in Konkani cooking. Popular dishes include drumstick ros cooked in coconut curry, cutlets, drumstick greens rice, etc.
· Colocasia: called pathrado in Konkani, stuffed colocasia leaves are a favorite local delicacy. Apart from that, it is used to make fritters, cutlets, and side dishes like venti which uses the plant’s stems. The leaves are also used to make curry, especially as Naivedyam on Janmashtami Day.
· Breadfruit: This largish fruit belongs to the mulberry family. It is known as jeev kadge in Konkani and is used to make fritters and a spicy dry dish to go with rice and lentils.
· Hog Plums: One of the most common vegetables used in Konkani cooking, hogplums or ambada are the fruits of a locally grown tree. They are also used in pickles or in other dishes as souring agents.
· Tender Cashew Nuts: Cashew is a famous crop of the Konkan region, and, naturally, the region has some delicious cashew nut dishes as part of its cuisine. A few popular ones are Tender Cashew Nut curry or Bibbe Sagle, Bibbe Upkari, etc.
· Jackfruit: Jackfruit trees are a common sight in the region and the fruits are used to make phodi or fritters, chutney, side dishes, and payasam (a sweet dish).
· Green Aubergine: Gulla or eggplant is a part of some of the best Konkani dishes, like fritters, Stuffed Brinjal, Brinjal Sambhar, smoked Konkani brinjals, etc.
· Greens: Apart from coriander, Konkani food also uses brahmi leaves which are locally known as ekpanna tamboli. They are used to make curries and chutneys.
· Amaranthus: Another green leafy vegetable used in Konkani cuisine is amaranthus which is made into bhaji or upkari, the green leaves being called dhavi bhaji and red ones tambdi bhaji.
· Malabar Spinach: Known as valli in Konkani, Malabar spinach is used to make spinach coconut curry or Vaali Ambat. This curry can be used with prawns, shell fish, etc.
· Tender Bamboo Shoots: These are a favorite with the locals and are both cooked as a side dish and pickled and preserved.
E. Lentils/Peas: Konkan is basically a rice and fish eating region and lentils are a must to go with rice. Apart from the common ones like masoor (pink lentil), mung (green gram), toor (pigeon peas), chana dal (Bengal gram), urad dal (black gram), and rajma (kidney beans), some other lentils and peas used in Konkani cuisine include:
· Cow Peas/Black Eyed Beans: Konkanis prepare bagde kodel or cow peas in coconut gravy with garlic seasoning. The dish, which is accompanied by rice, also uses Mangalore cucumber or potatoes.
· Horse Gram: The cold season sees Konkanis preparing kulith or horse gram quite frequently. While the cooking water is used as a saru or thin soup, the cooked gram is used as kosambaris (salad) or stir fry. Apart from this, dosas and idlis are also made using ground rice, kulith, urad, and chana dal.
F. Fish and other Seafood: Seafood is an integral part of any coastal region and Konkan is no exception. Vison (Kingfish) is commonly cooked. The other varieties of fish that find a place in this cuisine include pomphret, tunal, mackerel, and shark. Shellfish like lobster, prawns, squid, crab and mussels are also easily available.
· Ladyfish: Ladyfish, also known as kane or nagli, is found a plenty in the rivers of the region. This fish is considered clean and easily digestible and is cooked in coconut gravy. It is also eaten deep fried.
· Shark: Ambot Tik is a Goan delicacy which is made with shark and served on special occasions. It is cooked in a hot and sour curry and tastes better if eaten a day after cooking!
Over the centuries, Konkani cuisine has been influenced not just by nearness to the sea and availability of ingredients, but also its Hindu origins and centuries of Portuguese rule. The colonial rulers introduced a number of vegetables, fruits and spices to this region; some of them, like potato and tomato, were initially rejected by the Hindu natives, but, with the passage of time, they made their way into the local dishes.