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Cashews, chilli, coconut: Kunal Vijayakar on the holy trinity of Karwari cuisine

This is a battle that is worth the fight. Oh no, the battle is not between countries, clans or communities; it’s a war between coconut, chilli and cashews. Let me put forth the question at the outset. “Is the food that comes from Karwar (a tiny village in Karnataka, just across the border from Goa) closer to Malwani, Goan or Mangalorean food?” The simple answer is that it is all three.

Like all three, the Karwari cuisine revels in the abundance of fish, the lusciousness of coconut and an anthology of spices. I have had the privilege of eating in several Karwari homes, and have devoured classics like Gavathi Kombdi (desi chicken curry) with Vade, Kurlya Suke (crab masala) with the classic Karwari Kaala Vatana (or black pea) Usal and the daily Upkari (dry vegetable with coconut) with a spicy Muga Ambat (sprouted moong in coconut and spices).

Everything, vegetarian and non-vegetarian, fish and poultry, root and vegetable, is considered incomplete without coconut. I have devoured this food with great rapture and gluttony, and on deliberation I have to confess that Karwari cuisine is profoundly kindred to Mangalorean food, and is less like the individualistic, fearless and diverse cooking styles of Maharashtra and Goa.

Like all intimately regional cuisines, the Karwari too has thrived only because of the recipes, methods, formulas and rubrics handed down by generations of grandmothers, mothers and cooks. Till I bumped into Sudha Kamat and her beautifully photographed and detailed cookbook, The Karwar Palate. Each page systematically and comprehensively illustrates the variety, nuances and amplitude of Karwari food.  

Karwar is on the coast of Northern Karnataka, and unlike Goan cuisine, Karwari cooking did not succumb to the influence of the Portuguese. Karwari food has one hero and one heroine without whom there would be no drama. The hero is coconut and the heroine is the Byadagi chilli.

Coconut is paramount and is used in all its forms. It is sometimes ground with spices, often just grated and added to vegetables; usually the milk is extracted and used in curries.

The Byadagi chilli is a sweet, not-so-spicy thing grown in the Bellary, Haveri, Shimoga and Chitradurga regions of Karnataka. It is long and crumpled and imparts such a bright red colour that the oil of the chilli is also used to tint confectionary, beverages, nail polish and lipstick.

No Karwari dish is complete without the flaming colour of the Byadagi chilli, and in her book Kamat lists recipes from her mother that pair it with native ingredients like jackfruit, raw mango, cucumber, drumsticks, cashews, and of course meat and fish.

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The book starts with concoctions for the variety of masalas that form the base of most of the dishes — like the localised garam masala, aamti masala, Malwani masala and kholombo masala. Kholombo is actually a vegetable and lentil preparation and the masala (a mixture of spices used commonly in Karnataka and Goa) is a bit like the south Indian sambhar powder.

Next, in the book, come the chutneys, or as they are called in Konkani, Tond Lanvache. One such chutney is the Saasam, starring fried mustard seeds; it goes very well with neer dosa.

The chutneys are followed by Fodis or fritters and it seems like the Karwaris make fritters out of everything, including brinjal, doodhi, raw bananas and jackfruit.

The Pachadi is next. This is a mildly spiced coconut and yogurt-based raita made with vegetables and tempered with curry leaves and dried chillies. Much like the Pachadis cooked in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.

Sudha’s book then goes on to unravel the treasure trove of Karwari accompaniments, starting with the spicy Sungta Lonche or prawn pickle, and a unique recipe for red Karwari papads. There are also recipes for snacks like Biskut Ambada (a Karwari version of the Medu Wada made from urad daal); sweet rice pancakes called Dashmis; and Kalingad Dosa, made with freshly grated watermelon.

Fish frying is an art in this coastal cuisine. The fish is usually shallow fried after being marinated in the right amount of spice, sourness and salt. Lightly coated with coarse flour, it emerges soft on the inside and crisp and fluffy on the outside.

The most popular Karwari fish curry is the Ambat. Whether it is made with mackerel or pomfret, prawn or crab, the recipe for an Ambat is the same — spices, Byadagi chillies, coconut, kokum and triphal. It’s a fiery red, but not-so-spicy coconut curry that must be eaten with rice and a slice of fried fish and washed down with a glassful of Sol Kadhi.

Sudha Kamat’s book on the Karwar palate is quite encyclopaedic, and I have to confess that the cuisine is elaborate but at the same time simple to make. All you need is a recipe, the right spices, some coconut and the craving for something new.

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