Monday, 8 December 2014

Mumbai to Ratnagiri: A delish road trip

 "Is the train to Ratnagiri expected on time?"
"What train to Ratnagiri? There is no train to Ratnagiri now, no train is coming this way before 5 in the morning and that one doesn't go to Ratnagiri either."
"But there is one at 2:13 a.m. We have reservations," A was arguing with the railway official at the Panvel station, as she frantically browsed through her inbox for our E tickets. I stood a few feet away, guarding our luggage, my heart thumping noisily inside my rib cage. I had been the first to notice that our train did not feature on the list for the night.

"Here see," A had begun, but her voice tapered  into an incoherent jumble of whispers, she was now talking to herself.  The railway official gave a triumphant smirk and walked away. A looked at me with nothing short of despondence in her almond shaped eyes. "There has been a mistake," she muttered.  "We got the dates wrong. We should have booked the tickets for 30th, we did for 29th." A mumbled guiltily.

 I had braced myself for the worst. Right then I was not quite sure what it was that I was feeling. This was a trip we had planned over several weeks. This was supposed to be the highlight of my visit to A's at Pune. We had dreamed of our sojourn to the beautiful Konkan coast for days -  the serene beaches flanked by the magical blue of the Arabian sea and the rocky hills that are the Western ghats, the delicious Malvani and Konkani food, the forts overlooking the sea, the walks through quaint villages and fishermen's hamlets, had cluttered our thoughts for so many days.

Now here we were at the deserted Panvel station at 2 in the morning, with no train to board. Our train had whizzed through this station, last night and we weren't there. Now that we were, there was no train coming for us.

It took us some time to process the details. There were two options really, one to get on a cab back to Pune or get to Ratnagiri, no matter what. We didn't waste much time weighing our options.
We were lucky that the cab that had brought us from Pune to Panvel was still in the vicinity and was back for us in no time. A minutes later we were on our way to well...Mumbai.

It is not often that I land up at a stranger's house past 3 in the morning, But there I was at B's with my sleep-laden eyes with smudged kohl lines and hair that was a tangled mess. Of course, B is no stranger to A, they have been friends for decades...but I..well...who cares. The plan was to crash at B's for a few hours until the sun came up and get a ride to Ratnagiri first thing in the morning.

But nothing was going according to our plans, as if a pair of invisible hands was directing our course that night,  So, we found ourselves crashing a wild, wild party instead. It was after all Saturday night baby! So what was left of the night was spent in mindless carousing. And we were treated to some delicious Kasha Mangsho (typical Bengali style slow cooked meat laced in a slightly caramelised gravy) and luchi (puffed, deep fried bread) which we relished at 5 in the morning, another first time for me. No not the luchi-mangsho, I have had those a million times, but never at 5 in the morning.

By 8 o clock, the party was still on mind you, we were on our way to Ratnagiri! My heart lurched a little at the thought that had things happened according to our plans  we would have been on the serene Ganesh gule beach by now, but then I said "what the hell, the road was our destination!"


Soon we were on the Mumbai Goa highway flanked by the picturesque views of ghats. The previous night A had been saying time and again on our way from Pune to Panvel  that it was a pity I was missing the views the Ghats offered since we were travelling at night. But now the ghats were unfolding in all their glory all around me. Providence I tell you. Our driver insisted on playing romantic Bollywood numbers from the 90s, only and continuously, which occasionally lulled us to sleep, but between dozing off and jerking back to consciousness and clicking photographs mindlessly, it was a pretty great drive with Kumar Sanu providing the constant background score.

Our first stop was at a small roadside shack for a late breakfast. And we weren't thinking healthy. We picked up a few vada pav (spicy mashed potato croquettes between soft bread with a generous sprinkle of a garlicky spice mix and some fried green chilies) and a large portion of mixed vegetable fritters that came wrapped in the previous day's local newspaper. The piping hot greasy goodness might not have been the best thing for our stomach but they did wonders for our spirits. We were ready for the six hour drive ahead and looking forward to our next food stop.

It was around 2 in the afternoon when we reached Chiplun. We had been on the road for six hours having covered around 260 kilometers, and we were still a couple of hours from our destination. We wanted to make it to our destination in time for a sunset stroll on the beach and we were getting restless for our first glimpse of the Konkan coastline. Time was of essence. For now the time was right for lunch. We had passed by a few highway resorts and hotels where we could have dined at but we were looking for more rustic home-style Malvani food and wanted to eat where the locals ate. So we asked the locals. After several of them recommended it, we reluctantly settled for Hotel Abhishek Cafe.

I say reluctantly because Hotel Abhishek Cafe didn't look the part. I mean we were thinking roadside shacks or one of the Khanevars (home-diner), but this one was a regular mid-range restaurant with a neon-lit air conditioned section where we chose to sit to beat the heat. Only a few tables were occupied and it was lunch hour, another dampener really. This was our best deal in Chiplun? We crossed our fingers and asked for the menu card. It was brought and no it was not in English, the menu was written in Hindi and I have always found myself in a fix when it came to that script. Fortunately A reads Hindi and within minutes we had decided on the dishes - Bombil Fry for starters, a Surmai Vade (a local seafish) thali for me, a Tisrya (clams) thali for A and a side of Malvani Mutton Fry. The sole kadhi, I like to refer to it as soul curry, we were told was complimentary! We had made our choices but were not so sure yet. But we were in for a surprise, and a great one at that.

First served were glasses filled to the brim with soft pink goodness, Sol kadhi, a cooling appetiser I like to have with rice too, is made with coconut milk and kokum, typically spiced with from garlic and coriander leaves and tempered with curry leaves, cumin and asafoetida. The sol kadhi served to us was the spicier version with a distinct garlicky flavour. I, however, prefer a more subtle version of sol kadhi, not that I was complaining. If pink could be tasted, to me it would taste like sol kadhi, rather than strawberry frosting! I was happy with my glass.

Generously coated in typical Malvani spices, the fresh Bombil came with a crisp semolina crust to die for, Inside the fish was juicy and flaky.  I crunched into the fish, the crisp crust crumbled in my mouth unleashing a riot of flavours that was the soft, juicy fish, I could only gasp with pleasure. Between sips of the delicious sol kadhi and bites of the delicious Bombil fry, life seemed so good.

My thali comprised a huge piece of spicy, batter-fried Surmai fish, a surmai curry which came with a smaller piece of fish, a bowl of rasa (gravy), another bowl of sol kadhi, rice and Kombi vade. A's had a huge portion of spucy clam curry instead of the fish and chapatis instead of the vade. (There was a mix up though)

About the vade. Vade, almost a staple in West coast, is basically fluffy deep fried bread made from a dough comprising rice flour and ground lentils. The ones at Hotel Abhishek came with a hole in the centre, like doughnuts. Crusty and spicy the vade made for the perfect accompaniment for the rich spicy Malvani curries.

The Surmai or Indo-Pacific mackerel is officially on my favourites list. The fish is delightfully flavourful and requires minimum trimmings. So a no fuss batter fried seemed like the best way to relish my first piece of surmai. The curry made with dessicated coconut and a host of Malvani spices was equally and an absolute delight paired with piping hot steamed rice.

The mutton masala fry had mutton, bones et al,cut in small pieces and tossed in a rich melange of Malvani spices. I scooped up a chunk of gravy laced meat with a shred of the vade,  salivating profusely all the while, and the moment I popped that morsel of  deliciousness into my mouth I was transported to culinary heaven and I am not exaggerating, The crusty vade and the spicy meat were made for each other

 A chose to pass the vade and enjoyed the Mutton Masala Fry with rice. She said I couldn't miss that combination either. So I had another go at it this time with rice despite having stuffed myself so much already that I found it difficult to breathe. And after I was done polishing the last vestiges of what was a delightful meal, off my plate and draining the last drops of sol kadhi down my gullet, I sat their licking my fingers for several minutes, oblivious to the others dining at the restaurant, which by the way had not a table free now. The meal cost us 700 rupees approximately. We had done good but after that meal walking back to the car was an ordeal. I only hoped my tummy didn't act funny during the rest of the journey.

Soon we were back on the road and on our way to the magical Konkan coast....what happened next in my next post!

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