The fishing hamlet of Harnai has a daily fish auction that is like no other, writes Jenny Pinto.
The narrow rugged strip of land that goes down the West coast of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka, flanked by the Arabian sea to the West and the bio-diverse Western Ghats to the East, is the Konkan coast. Seven hundred and twenty kilometres long, it is blessed with fertile lands, long beautiful sandy beaches and the gentle ocean. The communities who have lived along the Konkan have thrived off the bounty of the land and sea for centuries — it is both their life and their livelihood, their cultures shaped over the ages by both geography and history. Weathering two centuries of British and Portuguese colonial rule, and the Arab trade along the spice route, the communities and cultures of the coast have changed yet, much remains the same.
Primarily inhabited by fishers and farmers, the cuisines of the Konkan coast have been influenced by three things: fish, coconut and rice. Their curries are distinctly flavoured by the sour kokum fruit and also tamarind. Plenty of chillies too, that came with the Portuguese in the 16th century, who brought the chilli pepper to the Konkan, along with bread and wine.
Seafood is by far my favourite, whichever way it is cooked, but to my palate, no one cooks it better than the Kokanis. So early one summer, with a couple of friends, I went in search of Konkani seafood recipes, hoping to find families who would cook for us and share their stories.
Driving South from Bombay, the undulating coastal road winds its way past wide sandy palm fringed beaches, beautiful ocean vistas and picturesque villages, punctuated by the dramatic sight of old forts that jut out into the sea. Sindhudurg, Murud-Janjira, Vijaydurg, Jaigad, Suvarnadurg, to name a few, built at various times in history by the Marathas, the British, the Portuguese and the Dutch.
The cuisine along the coast, although basically involving permutations of fish and coconut, varies as you travel South. Malvani, Sindudurg, Mangalorian, Goan, are not just regional identities along the Konkan, but are distinct cultures that have a smorgasbord of aromas and flavours.
The highlight of the trip was the picturesque fishing town of Harnai, about two hundred kilometres south of Bombay. Quintessentially Konkan, it has a small, calm harbour overlooking the ruins of the grand Suvarnadurg fort, a legacy of Shivaji Maharaj, the Maratha king who is today a patron saint of all Marathis. A thriving fishing industry, a multi-cultural population of Kolis (a community of fisher-people), Kunbis (farmers), Brahmins, Muslims (who control the fishing trade), Christians, and the nearby town of Dhapoli, the birth place of the famous Alphonso mango, are elements that contribute to making Harnai a haven whether you are a historian, photographer or food enthusiast.
What makes Harnai special, however, is the little-known fact that it is the centre of the Konkan’s second largest fish auction, and from its beaches, fish goes all over India, and the world. Nothing unusual about a fish auction, but the way Harnai goes about it is quite unique.
Twice a day, from October to April, the Suvarnadurg Fort is a silent spectator to a hectic and chaotic scene. The otherwise calm, almost waveless harbour, comes alive as fishing trawlers, flying feisty flags, sail in. The shallow beach slopes very gently out, so the trawlers have to park about two hundred metres away from the shore, from where they unload their laden nets onto row boats. The nets could contain as many as 20-30 varieties of fish and crustaceans found around these waters. But the water is so shallow near the shore, that even the row boats have to stop about 50-75 metres away so that they can turn around without too much trouble. What brings the fish quickly and efficiently to the auction on the beach is a team of bullock carts that splash briskly back and forth, loading baskets of fish from the boats and unloading them before the various groups that have gathered on the beach where the auctioneers begin business. This unique teamwork is most likely found only in Harnai, and the working in tandem of the boats and the bullock carts is fascinating to watch.
What is on auction depends on the catch of the day but I saw lobster, tiger prawns, shrimp, pomfret, sting rays, sardines, tuna, mackerel, kingfish, ribbonfish, Bombay duck, crabs, mussels, and several other smaller varieties I could not identify. The auctioneer is loud and flamboyant, but you have to be attentive to catch the subtle hand movements of the buyer as he signals his bid.
It’s easy to miss this because you are distracted by the sight of the Koli women, dressed in their colourful ‘lugat’ sarees, with flowers in their hair, very much a part of the proceedings. Although they are not the big buyers and exporters, they are the soul of the trade and carry baskets of fish on their heads, from here to the markets and tables of families in nearby towns and villages. Born in Bombay into a pescatarian Konkani family, my earliest childhood memories are of my mother heatedly bargaining over the price of the day’s catch with the Koli women in the markets of Khar-Dhanda and Matunga. These women, over the years, became very fond of my mother and we were often invited to their homes for fish curry and rice.
At the auction, several million rupees’ worth of fish are bought and sold every day in a scene that seems untouched by the 21st century. However, below the surface, things are changing, and it is likely that in a generation, what we witnessed on the beach that day might disappear forever. The way Harnai catches and sells fish is on the cusp of change. This is imminent when you get up close and speak with the families involved.
Trawlers, big fishing corporations, new jetties, and the younger generations moving away from the family fishing businesses to IT jobs in the cities will all make the family and community-run fishing trade, along with the row boats and bullock carts redundant. We sat down with the Paushe family, watching the bullock carts trundle home and the silhouette of Suvarnadurg fort fade into the night with the sun setting behind it. We chatted with the men, as the women of the family sat around us cleaning freshly caught fish. When they were done, we followed them into the kitchen to watch them cook us a delicious meal.
Our hosts that night, the Paushe family, were Kolis, who were relatively affluent and owned many boats. They were a joint family that lived, cooked and ate together. While we watched, dinner was cooked by two generations of Paushe women. Their home and kitchen were relatively modern and they cooked on both a wood fired sigdi and a gas stove. The changes creeping in were already evident in their talk about children studying in the cities and the synthetic sarees that the younger women in the family wore. The older women, however, still wore the 9-yard cotton lugat, draped below the knee with the loose end tightly pulled between the buttocks.
Although they allowed us into the kitchen to watch them cook, we were made to sit outside under the coconut palms while they served us dinner along with the men of the family. We protested only mildly as we immersed in the unassuming, warm Harnai hospitality. We were served the most delectable meal of fried fish, masala mussels, prawns curry served with rice and solkadi. The food had the smoked flavour of the wood fire that you rarely get in the number of Konkani restaurants that have mushroomed in Bombay.
The next morning, we found our way to Sunita Belushi’s kitchen. The Belushi family, were appointed as the caretakers of the little hamlet of Palgarh, overlooked by the Palgarh fort. Belushi’s grandfather was a freedom fighter who was made collector and protector of the Palgarh fort as well as the forts of Suvarnadurgh, Mandangarh and Arnala. Palgarh and us were regaled with family stories about how the large minimalist Belushi house where we had lunch was the hideout for many freedom fighters including Sane Guruji, Y.B.Chavan & Morarjee Desai during the freedom struggle.
Sunita’s kitchen was a large traditional one. With light streaming in from a single window and from the sky light over the cooking area, she cooked on a wood-fired sigdi, and squatted on the mud plastered floor as she chopped, marinated, stirred her pots and tempered the food. We ate, sitting on the floor, in the large cool verandah outside. Fish curry, prawns, mussels and a most delicious dish of small brinjal stuffed with shrimp, were on the menu that afternoon.
The following afternoon, we headed towards the hills, to the home of a Kunbi (farmer) family where Alka Thaiyi cooked a typical thali for us. Alka was an efficient and formidable woman, and her kitchen, though very similar to Sunita’s, was small and spare. She too had everything at ground level and cooked squatting in front of her wood-fired double sigdi. From here she chatted away, happily sharing her recipes and answering all our questions. She had a small little kitchen garden that she was very proud of. Fried bangda, masala prawns and two types of bhakris, from rice and ragi were served to us. This was followed by rice, curried fish and Alka’s inimitable Solkadi, the kokum for which came from her own trees in her yard. It was a divine meal.
Sharing food with a local family is often the best way to get to the soul of a place. Bonding, over a delicious meal is easy and people warm to the conversation. However, you soon begin to notice that every conversation inevitably leads to the underlying fear that the Konkanis have about the impact of globalisation and environmental degradation, on their traditional fishing practice. Knowledge of and respect for your own fishing grounds is the very basis of sustainable fishing and that itself was under threat from big trawlers and corporate fishing. Traditional fishers know when and where the different species of marine life breed, and they know it’s best to avoid fishing certain areas at certain times. The monsoon months were generally off-limits because the seas were rough and it was the breeding season for certain fish. But larger trawlers and corporate fishing rarely respect this.
Konkan culture finds itself at the crossroads, trying to hold on to its rich and diverse past while looking forward to an uncertain future.
Jenny Pinto is a film maker and lighting designer and will happily dabble in everything that comes her way but food, travel and writing have remained her whims. You can follow her work here.
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