My trip to Harihareshwar, Srivardhan and Diveagar on the central Konkan coast in western India (Maharashtra) was an experience to savor. The stresses and strains of urban existence disappeared upon arrival in this cradle of nature just four hours away from Mumbai. The Konkan coast proved to be a great place to unwind for a city-weary soul like myself.
So many times we just fritter away our holidays in pursuit of tourist attractions, thus engaging in unnecessary hopping from place to place and ending up tired instead of refreshed. The real joy of traveling is to pause, experience the sights, sounds and smells and take in the views in an unhurried manner. As if taking the cue from our slackened pace the internet, too, refused to work and mobile signals started playing hide and seek.
The latter aspect might be welcomed by someone who lives a fast corporate life, desperate to unplug. I did, however, feel the lack of the internet. My kids could have remained occupied inside hotel rooms and I could have communicated with friends and family while on vacation. But the poor connectivity in the region made my travel truly unconnected with the outside world and helped me make an invaluable connection with Mother Earth in all her pristine glory.
My gastronomic adventures at Hariheshwar began at the homes of local village folks. These places are modest homes doubling as eateries called Gharguthis or Khanavals and one has to place orders well in advance for lunch and dinner to savor delicious Konkan food. For breakfast we went unannounced to Guru Geeta where the open kitchen was being readied for orders. The aroma of tea, the clatter of pots and pans and the sight of hot milk being poured in glasses made me very hungry. I devoured the freshly made batata phovu or poha (puffed rice with potatoes) and kanda phovu/poha (puffed rice with onions) garnished with lots of fresh grated coconut to bring about that irresistible coastal flavor.
The basic recipe requires tempering with green chillies and curry leaves and a squeeze of lemon on poha and voila a tasty treat is ready in a jiffy! I also loved the desserts sheera (sooji halwa) and ukdiche modak (a dessert made of coconut, jaggery, rice and poppy seeds) to satisfy my sweet tooth.
After taking a long leisurely walk through village lanes, climbing hills and spending peaceful moments at the ancient Harihareshwar temple we were ready for lunch. Little did we know that this would turn into an interesting affair for us.
The thatched roof made of terracotta bricks and the cowdung polished mud floor of the modest open air dining hall looked inviting. The fresh catch of the day was being cooked in the adjoining kitchen and the wafting aroma of seafood was enticing.
The palm fringed open air dining facility and soft sea breeze cooling the air in the absence of electricity was heavenly. There were some cats causing a ruckus in the vicinity and it was a tussle to concentrate on the delicious fresh grilled pomfret lying in front of me. The cats were stubbornly sitting under the table ready to grab any bits of fallen fish or chicken. Brushing them off as minor irritants my fellow seafood aficionados had eyes only on their pomfrets, prawns, Rawas (Indian Salmon) and Surmai (Kingfish). Finally after watching the cats jump over tables to lick the leftovers on other tables, I had to ask the owners of Vishranti to chase them away so I could eat in peace.
Harihareshwar was a food-lover’s delight and easy on the pocket too. The ambience was perfect; a sleepy coastal village with no-fuss homes serving fish caught fresh in the morning and cooked in a simple homely way. And the cats were not a menace in other Gharghutis.
Non-vegetarian fare was available at Vishranti, Shivshanti, Gokul and vegetarian Konkani thalis (plates) at Guru Geeta and Swayam. These simple but hygienic eateries do not serve a-la-carte but mostly thalis or plates. Even the popular Konkani restaurant Open Umbrella at Mangaon, en-route at NH-17 Mumbai Goa highway is sought after for its Konkani thalis. Situated beside a lake, with umbrellas providing shade, it provided the perfect ambience.
We plunged into the rhythm of rural Konkan life. I had never woken up to the cock’s call in my life. It had always been the irritating sound of the alarm, a contraption that I wanted to throw out of the window as soon as it sounded. But cock-a-doodle–doo was like music to my ears and I rushed out to find several hens and cocks chasing each other and waking the whole village of Harihareshwar. My kids were excited as they recorded this natural sound on their mobile phones.
We had opted to stay at a Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation cottage that was built amidst groves of palm adjacent to a hilly forest. It was walking distance from the beach and we could hear the roaring of waves and the rustling of palm fronds in the stillness of the night.
With nothing much to do other than chasing hens, plucking the famous Alphonso mangoes from trees and paying obeisance to the village deity, we completely surrendered ourselves to the sandy beaches in the mornings and late afternoons. At dawn we were up and jogging on the beach till the sun’s rays pierced through the leafy branches of the tall Suru (Casuarina) trees. The morning rays reflecting off the shimmering water tempted us into wading in the water. Since the exclusive MTDC beach has few tourists, on several occasions, we found ourselves to be the only ones on the beach.
The next town, Srivardhan, which has the only ATM facility in the vicinity, is a green coastal town with beautiful Suru lined beaches and small wadis (leafy lanes). Its other claim to fame was the birthplace of Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath, the founder of Peshwas (The powerful dynasty of the Maratha kingdom). Apart from its historic importance it also has some fine dining options. We had a sumptuous Surmai or Rawa Fry and bombil (Bombay duck) at Hotel Prasad. Other options are Sagar Darshan and Alankar.
Most of these central Konkan coastal villages and towns have eating and lodging facilities inside homes. It is a delight to drive along the Shekhadi road running parallel to the Arabian Sea leading to the off-the-beaten-track village of Diveagar and feast on delicious homely food at Kshitij Lodge or Suvarnaganesh Khanaval.
In most of these Gharghutis, they have reasonably priced vegetarian or chicken/mutton/fish thalis for lunch and dinner. The non-vegetarian thali basically consisted of a dry preparation, a curry, chapati/bhakri (white millet) and rice. As far as seafood is concerned one is spoilt for choices, be it pomfret, prawns, bangda (mackerels), bombil (Bombay duck), rawas (Indian salmon), surmai (kingfish) and kurli (crab).
A Konkan vegetarian thali typically consists of two vegetables, dal, rice, chapati or Jowar bhakri (Sorghum or white millet). Sol Kadhi, a pinkish drink made of Kokum fruit and coconut milk, is a staple with all Konkani meals. The Konkani vegetarian fare is not very spicy and yet very tasty.
The temple hamlet of Diveagar has lots of coconut, banana and betel nut trees and bullock carts offering free rides, which we took advantage of. The four-mile stretch of clean beach is lined with Suru trees and Belu trees, a favorite with locals for playing cricket. The beach is flush with migratory seagulls. It has a happening fish market so a meal here means fish straight from the Arabian Sea and onto your plate. Another important fish market is Harne in central Konkan where fish auctions take place in a big way.
Back in Harihareshwar I was eager to learn more about Konkani cuisine. No prizes for guessing the one ingredient common to most Konkani dishes is coconut. They use it liberally be it grated, dried, fried, pasted or as coconut milk. Other spices used are ginger, garlic, cumin, cardamom, peppercorns and dry red chillies. Some dishes are prepared with kokum (fresh and dried), tamarind or unripe mango.
As I found out from the ladies of Gharghutis the recipe of sol kadhi is quite simple.
They soak some pieces of kokum fruits in water for a few hours and then grind them with grated fresh coconut, garlic flakes and green chillies. Once a paste is prepared, water is added to it and the resultant sol kadhi is extracted. My fascination for this fetching pinkish drink prompted me to buy kokum extract that is sold in large plastic bottles in the stalls leading to the Kalbhairav temple. I also purchased papad (wafers), Alphonso mango papad and dried chillies.
The Kalbhairav temple is dedicated to Shiva. It attracts devotees, the only other attraction of this sunny sleepy village apart from its palm-lined beaches and seafood.
But this is also the very reason why we had left the hustle and bustle of Mumbai, skipped the usual Mumbaikars weekend trip to Alibaug-Kashid-Murud Janjira stretch and opted for the sylvan coastal stretch of Harihareshwar-Shrivardhan-Diveagar (Diveghar). The sole reason for this four day trip was to slow down our pace, savor the solitude, avoid unnecessary hopping on the tourist trail, live life like unhurried villagers and enjoy their local cuisine.
It was the mango season, and the trees had drooping branches laden with Alphonso (hapoos) mangoes. I couldn’t hide my smile as the juicy yellowish smooth fragrant mangoes that were sold in Mumbai at half the price. It was a steal and I carried with me the sweet fragrance of Konkan back to the teeming bustle of Mumbai.
Kavita Kanan Chandra is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Mumbai. She has lived and worked in different parts of India and understands the pulse of her country.