An ashram for fish

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on January 20, 2018

Fishing for applause: At Anantashram, the non-veg thali is a seafood fest, the aromas ranging from tomato-ish to exceedingly coconutty. -- Zac O’Yeah

Zac O' Yeah   -  BUSINESS LINE

Searching for local food in Goa? Look no further than Vasco da Gama’s Anantashram

There are worse ways to spend a holiday than bumming around Goa, even though the week invariably ends with hangover and diarrhoea. But that has as much to do with my own time management priorities as with Goa — I spend about 10 per cent of my days doing wholesome beach stuff, while 90 per cent goes towards hunting things to eat and drink.

The beverage part of my diet is straightforward: zero in on any seedy bar and sample unbranded local cashew feni. A decent vintage can give the finest of tequilas a run for its money. I take it as a compliment when I order a ‘caju’ and a slice of chonok and a scruffy bartender at a local watering hole called Mount Topi, who until then acted indifferent, stops whatever he’s doing, stares at me for three seconds, before he asks: “Sir, are you Goan?”

Apart from the delicious pan-fried chonok fish, which I simply cannot get enough of, I chase shellfish that isn’t deep-fried to death. After sampling several unsatisfactory mussel preparations, loose motions follow.

At that point, I rue my fate, recalling my three best gourmet seafood experiences from earlier trips:

1) Mussels fried in red masala paste at the legendary shack-turned-bistro St Anthony’s in Baga Beach. Yum.

2) A chunky, melt-in-the-mouth caviar dish, gabadi, at the rustic Bhatti Village Resto Bar. Awesome.

3) The prawn sambar cooked with a mix of fresh and dried prawns at Terry’s, next to the Betim Ferry Jetty on the Mandovi riverside. You can’t believe how good it was!

However, this time foodie nirvana eludes me and I wake up grumpy on my last day in Goa. The train is to leave from Vasco da Gama station at 3pm and I decide to grab some grub in the vicinity. For those who haven’t been to Vasco, suffice to say that this port town where the railway line ends is a business and transport hub, with a navy base but none too many tourist attractions. In fact, none that I know of.

Avoiding the quick meal joints immediately opposite the station, I walk around until, down a side street leading off the municipal square, I spot a restaurant that’s neither posh nor dingy, but just normal-looking and crowded with locals. The name on the board intrigues me: Anantashram.

Their evocative slogan reads: ‘Simply Good Food, Booze & Friendly Ambience’ The menu includes the usual multi-cuisine, but I browse to the Goan section covering some two pages. Their special non-veg thali priced at ₹300 turns out to be a seafood feast. From left to right, my platter is filled with bowls brimming over with prawn kishmur (a fried shrimp salad), tisryo (tiny clams cooked with spicy coconut), kingfish curry (with kokum), crab xec-xec (curried crab), kingfish (coated in semolina and fried), bangda uddamethi (mackerel curry flavoured with fenugreek seeds), and there’s also a kind of sardine preparation, the name of which I don’t remember, and finally there’s one vegetarian curry and so on. The delicate aromas range from tomato-ish to exceedingly coconutty.

As a side dish I order a plate of pan-fried prawns, expecting a few standard shrimps. Instead I get some eight massively XXXL crustaceans (₹350) tossed in a subtle and distinctly sweet and vinegary Goan masala. What a generous restaurant!

Demolishing my thali, I recall the eminent Samanth Subramanian’s travelogue Following Fish, in one chapter of which he trawls Mumbai’s back lanes for the most authentic khanawal or ‘lunch home’, a traditional type of eatery harking back to the industrial revolution of the late 19th century, when mills dotted the cityscape and workers needed homely and affordable meals. The khanawals evolved with time into restaurants and Subramanian tracks down the last great khanawal in Girgaum, also named, curiously enough, Anantashram (now shut down from what I understand). “Like the old khanawals, Anantashram aimed to be strictly dedicated to the act of feeding. Lunch ended not at a fixed time but when the kitchen ran out of food, and many customers sat on a bench facing the wall, ate without a flicker of an expression, and left within a quarter of an hour.” There, Subramanian has a fish thali with distinctly Gomantak-style flavours. I quickly google to figure out if Anantashram might be the name of some fishy chain, a non-veg edition of the ubiquitous Udupi vegetarian hotels of western coastal India.

But no, from what I gather, this Goan Anantashram was born around 1970 — making it much younger than its Mumbai counterpart — as a fish shack by a man named Anant, who cooked fish curry and rice priced at 75 paise per portion. As the shack’s popularity grew, it was deemed necessary to start a fine dining version. Taking another look at my surroundings, I notice there’s some décor, a bar, and the menu cards are a little fancy. The fish thali is still available, but will now set you back by ₹80 , still a modest amount for a hearty seafood meal.

Watching the people at my table wolf down their thalis I can’t help but accost them. It turns out they’re from Margao, about 25 km away, and they ride up on scooters at least once a week to eat the thali. According to them, it’s the topmost you get in Goa in terms of value, quality and flavours.

So, somewhat unexpectedly, the best local food isn’t found in the capital city of Panjim, nor on one of the beaches, but in the humdrum heart of a town that lacks other draws. But then again, what do you need tourist attractions for when you have Anantashram?

(Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist. His latest novel is Hari, a Hero for Hire)

zacnet@email. com

Published on February 26, 2016

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