If you’ve ever been to Goa, you would know that Goemkars can’t do without their staple fish, curry and rice. Fried with a generous coating of rava or added in goemchi kodi (Goan curry), fish is one item that all Goans crave no matter where they go. During the monsoons, however, fish is out of reach, and people in Goa opt for the next most relished alternative – dry fish.
In Goa, the monsoons begin with the annual ban on fishing. Our ancestors realized the wisdom of letting fish breed for a few months, ensuring a sufficient supply for the rest of the year. People also tend to avoid seafood during the rainy season because of the increased risk of water-borne diseases and contamination.
Before the monsoons, Goans flock to local markets in search of the most varied dry fish available. Stacked systematically in baskets, the strong smell informs you from a distance that you are nearing dried Bombay ducks, mackerels, anchovies, shrimps and prawns. With the help of some salt, the fishing community painstakingly preserves and dries these in the sun.
There are a variety of dry fish pickles prepared before the onset of monsoons, including the spicy balchão, the pungent bombil pickle, the delightful mackerel para and more. Dry fish is added in curries, simply fried or prepared as chili fry. And you can't forget kismoor, the dry fish dish that makes its appearance at most celebrations, regardless the season.
But a fact is that dry fish isn't celebrated enough. And to give dry fish its due, we asked two chefs from Goa's prominent restaurants to reveal their specialties using the humble dry fish.
SUKE BANGDACHEM SALAD BY CHEF EDRIDGE
Watching our elders select ingredients, grind masalas and cook flavorful meals is probably the first cooking course for so many chefs and home cooks. Inspired by one such fond memory of his grandmother’s preparation is Chef Edridge’s suke bangdachem salad (dry mackerel salad).
Dry fish is quite a common ingredient in Goan households, especially during the monsoons. A dry fish salad is a simple preparation, and hence very versatile in terms of how it’s served or when it’s eaten.
“Whether served by itself or in a unique blend of flavors, it adds the right amount of zing to your meal. I, personally, prefer to relish the salad along with my drink,” states Chef Edridge, who is currently part of the culinary team at the Taj Resort & Convention Center, Goa, with over 19 years of experience.
This simple yet flavorful salad is prepared by frying the fish in coconut oil. It’s then shredded and mixed with juliennes of onion, tomato, chili and coriander. Finally, it’s seasoned with salt and toddy vinegar, and ready to be served.
Despite their popularity in households, dry fish dishes don't make an appearance in restaurants unless it's a Goan specialty. In fact, not many opt for dry fish at a dining experience.
"Its unique flavor is an acquired taste. But in recent times, with the food and beverage industry thriving in Goa, culinary talent in the premium segment have re-imagined traditional recipes using dry fish, and it has started to gain popularity,” he mentions.
Remembering a customer's reaction to the dish, Chef Edridge further goes on to add, “I had once served a guest fish recheado paired with the dry fish salad. They were intrigued by the unique flavor of the salad and spent much time trying to understand the concept of this distinct culinary culture of Goa.”
KISMOOR BUTTERFISH BY CHEF ADITYA MOITRA
At the restaurant, when customers read kismoor butterfish on the menu, they are often curious to try it. And the moment the first bite is taken, with the scrumptious burst of flavor, they're hit with a sense of familiarity. This dish simply encapsulates the flavors of Goa.
With the idea to incorporate the flavors of traditional sukka into an elevated modern format, Chef Aditya Moitra, the head Chef of Black Sheep Bistro Goa, which is part of the National Restaurant Association of India’s Goa Chapter, has curated this unique dish.
A common saying among chefs is that “you eat with your eyes first”, and this beautifully presented dry fish dish elevates any experience.
“At the restaurant, we conceptualized kismoor butterfish, where we incorporate dry prawns for the flavoured butter that goes on top of the fish and dried bombil with carrots and brown butter for the sauce served with sautéed vegetables and tapioca crisps,” he says, providing insight into the restaurant’s recipe.
Dry fish is an ingredient that’s versatile but also very rare to find on Goan restaurant menus.
“For Goans, it’s a household ingredient, and they would not want to try them at a restaurant. Tourists lack awareness of the ingredient. However, at the restaurant, we’re constantly applying modern techniques to try to come up with the best possible way to work with dry fish,” he adds.
Another tricky thing about dry fish and seafood is that it has a distinct and strong flavor that people find difficult to work with.
“Our advice to anyone working with dry seafood will be to give it a quick blanch in boiling water. That mellows the strong flavor and makes it easy to work with,” he suggests.
Food has a unique ability to invoke feelings of comfort and belonging. But very few are ready to take traditional recipe flavors and experiment with present tastes. Trying out new ways to prepare a dish helps us to be creative in our approach. So don’t think much, just give it a try. It can’t possibly go wrong.