Sona took me to her secret Mangalorean fish and rice hangout in Karama last week. By the end of the meal, my stomach was weeping happy sentimental tears over how bloody good the food was. It took one scoop of rice grains clumped together with a passionately coloured sardine curry to give my insides the whiff of a vaguely familiar smell that has no name, other than…India. Every country, every city, has a distinct smell. It’s in the air that gushes through your nostrils and fills your chest the second you step off the plane. In India, it might be some combination of the aroma of wet soil after the monsoons, tempered with the oily fragrance of whole spices being pounded in kitchens across the country. It’s a rustic perfume that makes me want to plaid my hair and skip around shyly with a wheat stalk in my mouth, nearly ramming myself into a tree trunk and then playing peek-a-boo at the last minute, just like the bashful actresses of the 1970s.
The sensory essence called India is more often than not sullied by the ashen stench of pollution, or rudely interrupted by the nauseating reek of cow dung, but if I peel away all the stinky smells that try to lob themselves onto my sentimental whiff as I drive out of the airport, there, at the core, is still that smell of mother India, of dharthi, of things that make you want to lean out of your window and bellow out Vande Mataram with uncontrollable patriotism. Until a rickshaw nearly rams into your face and squashes you back to your NRI place in the A/C car.
But our lunch at Canara really did inspire those feelings in me. The fried fish, fish curry and clams had this evasive combination of flavours that I am not worthy of accurately dissecting, the lowly barbarian face-stuffer that I am. Even if I were a Mangalorean fish and spice connoisseur, the meal was so unpretentiously homely that I just had to mind off and enjoy it as whole, the same way I would in my granny’s home, without distracting myself with the analysis of what makes her food touch parts of my soul that I didn't even know had an appetite.
The ambiance and company also helped. We picked a table out on the cool shaded sidewalk, maybe a tad bit upscale relative to a real dhaba, but buzzing with the requisite number of flies that an authentic Indian coastal village experience must have. Sona also set the tone by eating the meal the only way it deserves to be eaten, with her hands. Spank the suckers who mix their fish and rice with a spoon.
The only thing the spoon was good for was to dip into the curry pool that the slender, silk-skinned sardine was swimming in, its bones fiercely jutting out like spears from under the surface. The curry was an earthy brew that had indulged an entire rack of spices, but the ones that registered most prominently on my untrained tongue were that of coconut and ground Kashmiri chillis, chillis whose intense red appearance looks more fiery than it tastes.
The sixteen dirham fish thaali not only endowed me with a plantation of rice and a bowl of home-style sardine curry, but a side of tender bottle gourd tempered with mustard seeds...
...and an incredibly crisp fillet of kingfish, fried in semolina and bedded on a segment of a banana leaf.
Canara has the semolina-deep fry technique, ‘rawa fry,’ down pat. Not one drop of grease, this was just pure nutty crunch over the softest, freshest, flakiest of fish. Every inch of the skin held hundreds and hundreds of toasty semolina granules, and they popped and crackled in my mouth as though announcing the entry of the creamy kingfish flesh to follow.
Canara did it again with a whole pomfret. You don’t even need to touch the fish before knowing that it’s going to create crunchy firecrackers in your mouth.
Which one was better, the kingfish or the pomfret? I honestly couldn’t tell you. I ate them so fast—hot and fresh is the way to go—and my whole being was so punctuated with blissful crunching noises that it didn't strike me to twiddle my thumbs over the details. Let’s just say you won’t go wrong if you order either of them. What's more is that in addition to rawa-fry, there’s also a tawa-fry option, where the fish is spicer and is served up naked, without the semolina jacket. But seriously, if you’re confused, just order one of each. More is more at Canara.
And then, if we weren’t done OD’ing on seafood, there was this Kube Sukka – clams with a semi-dry salty, oniony, coconutty masala caked up inside their shells. Look at them Kube, little intsy winsy saucers of masala garnished with fried curry leaves, all of them just waiting for you to pick them up and slurp them clean. And we did, oooooh we did.
In case anyone’s fretting over whether I ran out of things to mix with my rice, worry not, we had this dry fish chutney (nungul meen), which was basically clumps of shredded up particles of toasted masalas, salt, garlic, ginger, coconut and a mild dried fish that gave the chutney more body than smell.
This is one of those addictive chutneys that you first pair up with bites from another main dish, say the rawa-fry pomfret, then you decide you’d like to savour it with something more minimalist like rice, and then you drop everything else and just start picking at it solo. It starts out as a side, and stealthily manoeuvres it way into becoming a main course all on its own.
At this point, let me just share a pointer, courtesy Sona: it REALLY helps to have a sweet lime soda to digest after every lemony swig during the meal, rather than waiting to cry out for drawstring pajamas by the end because your jeans are one bite short of popping. Don’t fill yourself with cheap fizzy stuff or something milky and intense like a masala chaas, just ask for a light soda (which is not on the menu, but they do serve it). Remember, stay focused on the FISH.
I also ordered the rice-based Neer Dosa, not because I ran out of rice to pair with my curry, but because I just became stupidly happy and carefree by this point and couldn’t be bothered to exercise an ounce of restraint. Great call in retrospect, the dosa jetted me back to square one as I started enthusiastically sampling the meal all over again with this new textural variation of rice. What I learned is that plain neer dosa dragged through a sardine pool of curry will suddenly morph into soft chewy, moist and uber-flavourful pieces of neer dosa (a very, very good thing).
The whole meal was deeply satisfying. And it didn't leave me disgustingly full even though I ate like a horse. Nothing on that table had the kind of grease, cream or commercial fattiness that clings to the insides of your oesophagus like drippy chewing gum. This was a meal that hurled me over to the other side of the Indian ocean, to those villages where curries were complex but intentions were lovingly simple. I could have been perched on a plastic stool at a cheap coastal shack in South India, or cross-legged in the home of a traditional fish-loving Mangalorean family, and I’d reckon the meal would taste the same...exactly the finger-licking same.
Glossary of Indian lingo: Dharthi - soil; Vande Mataram - reference to a patriotic song, which means, 'I bow to you mother [India]; chaas - buttermilk; dhaba - roadside shack serving meals to travellers, most commonly found on interstate highways.
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