It was early June and the monsoons had only just arrived. As we set out on our drive, the sunlight reached us, diffused, through the misty filter of clouds. It was, in many ways, a perfect day to start our road trip down the Konkan Coast. We started early from Mumbai, rolling up our windows to keep out the city’s pollution. Forty-five minutes and many honks later, we cruised over the Vashi Bridge and turned off from Panvel onto NH17, the highway that connects Mumbai to Goa. Instead of driving all the way to the Goan coast, we were planning to stop at Malvan and sample the myriad flavours of the region. But the delicious spread that we hoped to discover seemed far away as we drove past Pen and Khopoli, towards Vadkhal Naka.
From 60 km per hour, we slowed down to a crawl as we ran into a huge traffic jam. A truck had turned over after sliding off the road. Cars were backed up for miles and ‘overtakers’ had caused a gridlock. We saw an injured driver being carried into an ambulance. We went back to a steady pace of 50 to 60 km per hour after Nagothane, where we stopped for chai. We ticked off the towns on our map – Indapur, Mangaon and Mahad and then drove past the Mahabaleshwar turn-off onto Kashedi Ghat, which had some blind corners. Our pace dropped to about 40 km per hour.
A couple of kilometres before hitting Chiplun, we took a winding detour up to the white Parshuram Temple in the green ghats and picked up some ambepuris (sheets of processed mango pulp), from a vendor outside. They were orangey-brown, with a toffee-like texture, and sweet and sour to taste. But we had only a few moments before the rain came pelting down, forcing us back into the car. Gobbling down the mango puris, we headed to Chiplun and lunch.
Chiplun turned out to be a little industrial town. A little scouting around showed that we were still a long way from Malvani food, so we drove to the Quality Inn Riverview Resort, 3 km down the road, and had a late lunch of Indianised pizza and sandwiches. When we got back into the car, it was getting dark, and the car beam found the road for us. The temperature dropped and the rain slowed to a drizzle. We let the drops kiss our faces through the open windows. We drove slowly, a little uneasy in the dusk, and contemplated checking into one of the seedy highway hotels. But we ploughed on to stick to our plan, which was to spend the night in the seaside town of Ganapatipule. We ended up doing just that, and woke up to the sound of surf breaking against the shore, the blueness of the Arabian Sea, and the taste of salt in the air.
Ganapatipule has a Ganesha Temple on the beachfront. We rang the temple bell, took Lord Ganesha’s blessings and headed towards our first official stop on the Malvan circuit – Devgad. The drive to the town looked promising: acres of green hapus trees, their branches arching under the weight of their plump fruit; brick villas with earthy blue doors and green windows; and the occasional scarecrow to keep the menacing birds away from the royal mango. We sampled all sorts of mango delicacies from street vendors, including ambepuris and ambavadis (mango toffees), a concoction that can give any power-bar a run for its money. But when we reached the town centre, the ramshackle buildings, the trucks tooting tunelessly and the dusty shopping centres nearly broke our hearts.
We went from one bolted restaurant to the next, but it was past 3 pm and no one seemed to want to serve us lunch. Finally we had a mediocre meal of fish curry and chicken curry at Kalpataru, the dingy restaurant of Parijat, a hotel in the town centre, where bathroom tiles were used as flooring in every room, a feature that made us flee. The cleanest place to stay there turned out to be the MTDC Resort on Beach Road in Jamsande, a few kilometres away from the town. The price was definitely right, but there was no attached bathroom, no hot water, no food, not even a towel to dry our dampened spirits with. But driving to the jetty, the sight of charming fishing boats made us forget our disappointments.
We saw that Devgad, with its natural harbour, was as much a fishing village as it was the house of mangoes. Our next meal was at Nikhil, which called itself a hotel but looked like a shack. When we found it on Nipani Road, on the way to Jamsande from the town centre, we were skeptical. We were too early for dinner and they made us wait an hour in the rain. But then, as they say, it’s darkest before dawn. When at last our food arrived, we would have eaten just about anything. But the fish curry was pure perfection. Imagine the flaky, melty goodness of fresh fish in a tart and succulent curry. Our doubts disappeared. The fried pomfret was crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, and subtly spiced right through. The secret, said the owner Sundar Jagtap, is in the spice mix – mainly red chilli, garlic, coconut and the local, purple sour berries, kokum – ground fresh for each order in an electric pestle and mortar machine. The chicken curry, garnished with a boiled egg, was spicy and delectable, but paled in comparison to the fish.
It was in Devgad that our thali came with the five dishes we would encounter for the rest of the drive: orange-coloured, spicy fish curry, the catch of the day served fried, pinkish sol kadi (kokum, garlic and bits of coconut), rice and roti. This delectable combination was also a sure sign that we’d reached the Malvan Coast.
The next morning at Kunkeshwar, a little town where peace resonates with the sound of the temple bell, we wandered into a local restaurant at the foot of the temple. At Hotel Aswaad, we had a breakfast of spicy, crispy but surprisingly light misal pav (spicy dal curry and bread). The temple entrance was laden with baskets of bright yellow mangoes. As we stopped to admire the fruit and take pictures, the mango lady yelled at us to pay our respects to Lord Shiva before respecting the hapus. It’s near the temple that you get to taste authentic Konkani Brahmin food, at the Sudha Shanti Uphar Graha Restaurant.
Here they make generous use of coconut, especially in curries, and the food has the distinctive sour taste of kokum. Abhiruchi Restaurant, directly opposite the temple, is where one should head to for Malvan vegetarian cuisine. Just as at Sudha Shanti, you have to place your order well in advance, and they prefer cooking for large groups. Besides the satisfying vegetarian thali of rice, dal, vegetables, papad, pickle, chutney and sol kadi, the owner Vinayak Bhandari recommends the ukdeele modak (a fig-shaped sweet made from flour, steamed like a momo, and stuffed with a filling made from sugar and coconut) and the aamras. At Annapurna and Adhar, also located just outside the temple, one can tuck into good non vegetarian thalis. Here ask for vade sagote: puris made from several grains, served with thick chicken curry, a speciality of the region.
Malvan is everything you hope a coastal Maharashtrian town will be. The architecture – shingled terracotta roofs over laterite houses, and Portuguese churches – lends much to the lazy stillness of the town. The rains had made the greens greener and whipped the surf to a soft and frothy cream. Fat cats abounded and skulked around the many open-air markets and restaurants – a winning proposition for them as fish was to be found everywhere. The dining possibilities were endless. We decided to eat as many lunches as our stomachs could hold. We gave the Chinese joints, with names such as Hi Fi and China Town, a miss, and went straight to Arun Bhojanalaya, near the peepal tree at the centre of town. This is a charming old bungalow restaurant, with a quirky, bespectacled and rather genius cook-server. We had a pomfret curry that was on par with Nikhil’s, and fried fish, the morning’s catch, lightly fried in a simple batter of rawa, garlic, coriander and green chilli. The sol kadi was light pink and the best we tasted through the trip.
Our next stop was Krishnayee, the restaurant attached to Nath Pai Sevagan. The twinkly-eyed ajoba (grandfather) of the Naik family is the chef of this peaceful, open-air restaurant located in the midst of a jungle of palms. For those who like their sol kadi slightly sweet, Krishnayee does a great version. We were told their best dish is vade sagote but the time we went, the menu offered fish curry, fried bangda (mackerel) and a delightful bhindi (ladyfinger) in flaked coconut. Most restaurants here specialise in seafood such as fried surmai, prawns, karli and pomfret.
At the top of many people’s list is Chaitanya, close to the bus stand and the market. Silver Sand is known for its beautiful location – the tables are laid out on a vast, unspoiled seashore. Hotel Sayba (Tel: 252643) on Kolamb Beach is the local favourite – they have the best Malvani thalis, and if you like a cool beer with your fried prawns, they have a bar. Swami on Bhandara School Road is a new multi-cuisine restaurant with a spiffy exterior and sparkling interior. We were most excited about the breakfast fare: anda pakora, bhurji and other egg dishes with plenty of local flavour. From Malvan, we headed to Tarkarli, boasting of a dreamy beach with untouched soft white sands.
Here in peak season, which is from November to February, one can go snorkelling, rent a houseboat and even take a small boat out to sea for some dolphin-spotting. But we were visiting in the rains, when the sea is too unpredictable for such pursuits. We checked out the dining options instead, and for such a small, coastal town, Tarkarli turned out to host a surprising number of eateries. Many of the restaurants here are small, family-owned enterprises. Prices are very reasonable, with no meal costing more than Rs 100 per person. Be assured of wholesome, home-cooked meals of fish curry, sol kadi, authentic Malvan-style bhajis and fried pomfret, bangda, prawns, crab and clams.
Restaurants where one can sample this fare include Laxmi Niwas, run by the Sarmadkar family that can feed – or rather stuff to full capacity – 10 people; Unnati restaurant run by the illustrious matriarch of the Chavan family; and Maratha Nivas of the Bagade family, run by a saasu-soonbai (mother-in-law and daughter-in-law) combination. Conveniently, one doesn’t have to travel far to sample the delights offered at these establishments – they are all located along the main Tarkarli Beach Road, the same one that a MTDC resort is on. There are a few equally charming professional hotels and restaurants, also located along the Beach Road. Gajanan has a sparklingly clean seating area and a yummy breakfast menu of shira, which is Maharashtra’a own suji halwa with almonds and raisins, upma and puri bhaji. Another wellscrubbed, brightly lit restaurant is at the Chintamani Resort. They were closed for the season, but from November to May, they are apparently one of the busier dining places because of their superb surmai fry and bangda curry.
MTDC’s Sagar Darshan, in a little concrete shack on the hotel premises, is the most sterile but expensive option. The curries here are uninspiring, though we did enjoy the fried prawns. We wrapped up the meal with ambarkand, a delicious mango shrikhand, the only dessert we managed to get in a restaurant during our entire drive. For our last stop, we drove back to Malvan, wistfully waved to the glorious Arun Bhojanalaya, and went onwards to Vengurla via Kudal, which is a mid-size industrial town.
Vengurla is a pristine beach town whose charm lies in its sleepy afternoon stillness, which lasts somehow no matter what time of day it is. Even the crabs here move about more languorously. And the fish curries cook on slow flames, the subtle spices simmered to perfection. The locals cook tender green cashewnut and kelphoolachi bhaji, a Konkan dish made of banana flowers. But the delicacy is fish, so fresh that it flakes off the bone and melts in your mouth. Always ask for what the boats just brought in, be it bangda, surmai or pomfret. We enjoyed curries and crispy fish and prawns fried in a delicate masala of coriander, chillies and spices. We ate at a local favorite, Hotel Gajali, on Bandar Road, a no-frills restaurant where locals come to have a spot of beer and while away the day. The view is spectacular. The fried prawns were crispy and fresh, the fish curry was subtly flavoured with chillies and coriander, but the masala clams were all masala, no clams.
A few blocks away from Gajali on Bandar Road was our next stop, Sagar Sarita. The chef, Sudhir Chowgule, has come in from Goa’s Taj Holiday Village, so you can expect a great spread here (and worldclass alcohol). He is particularly proud of his oysters and pomfret curry. The local favourite is not by the beach, but closer to the main market in Piracha Darga. This establishment, Annapurna Bhojanalaya, has a pleasant bamboo gazebo outdoors, which was empty when we visited. But indoors, it was packed to capacity even in the late afternoon: all around us were standard steel tables brimming with pomfret and sol kadi, waiters bustling in and out with American-size portions of food, and no music but the sound of delighted patrons slurping mutton curry, and then thick, fragrant aamras. Other noteworthy mentions here include Hotel Laukik on Ram Maruti Road, which was recommended by nearly all the locals we spoke to for its kolambi thali and fry, which consist of mildly spiced, batter-fried prawns.
Like several eateries we visited in this drive, Laukik is a hole-in-the-wall place, but as we discovered, appearances are extremely deceptive and no indication of what the kitchen can dish out. Laukik is also one of the rare places that offer breakfast items. It was from here that we turned back to Mumbai, to start our 10-hr journey back home. We both agreed that the stillness of the beaches and the delicious fish dishes warranted the distance we had travelled from Mumbai. We decided to do the trip again, in a month when the skies would be clear, and the sea warm.
Mumbai-Pen-Chiplun (254 km)-Devgad (200 km)-Kunkeshwar (22 km)-Malvan (117 km via NH17)-Tarkarli (7 km)-Vengurla (65 km via NH17)-Mumbai (489 km on NH17)
We drove down the Sion-Panvel Expressway, took the first right onto Mumbai-Pune Road (NH4) and then a right again after a petrol pump onto NH17. This is the road that takes you through Maharashtra on to Goa. It’s a single-carriage highway with several sharp corners, and it sees a lot of traffic. Add to this a heavy monsoon and one can see why NH17 is one of the most dangerous highways in India. Keep straight past the toll naka (Rs 10 toll fee) and then fill up on gas at Vadkhal Naka, or later at Nagothane or Mangaon. The highway takes you through Indapur, Mangaon and a series of ghats on to Chiplun. Biswa Hotel along the way at Mahad is a good pit stop with a decent bathroom. Drive for about 14 km over the ghats, on NH17, to get to Sangameshwar. You can stock up on gas here.
If you like temples, turn right after Ugdi to take a delightful detour to Ganapatipule, else go straight on to Nandgaon and turn off the highway onto the SH116 for Devgad. We recommend driving only in the daytime, which means breaking for the night at Chiplun or Ganapatipule. Petrol pumps and garages are routine sights along this route; 24-hr petrol pumps are there at Vadkhal Naka, Mahad and Chiplun.
Kunkeshwar is 19 km on a relatively smooth and traffic-free state highway from Jamsande, making it a half-hour trip. We did not see gas or service stations until much later at Kankavli, so fill your tank on the Nandgaon- Devgad Road (SH116) before heading out. We drove about 3 km along SH116, from Devgad to Jamsande, and followed the road until we turned onto SH4 and drove past the lovely Tara Mumbri Beach and Elaye village until we reached Kunkeshwar. Kunkeshwar to Malvan is 40 km via SH4. But we chose the longer route – driving back to Jamsande, and then driving 36 km down SH116 back to Nandgaon. We drove south on NH17 for about 29 km, past Kankavli and onto Kasal. There are several Malvani dhabas along this stretch; auto repair shops are to be seen at Kankavli and Kasal. Shalimar Hotel, near Kankavli, was the cleanest bathroom break. We turned right from Kasal on SH118, and drove another 33 km to Malvan.
Tarkarli is barely 7 km further down the coast from Malvan, a 12-min drive. Vengurla, reached via SH4, a state highway along the coast, is 28 km south. If you want to drive on NH17, it means turning back to Malvan, and then driving 36 km to Kudal (on SH4 until Gandhinagar, and then on SH119). Then you get back on NH17. You may enjoy the beautiful waterfall about 16 km south of Kudal and the Nirupar River along the same road. From here, the highway goes straight to Vengurla (22 km from Kudal).
The best time to drive is during season, ie, from November to February. The roads are dry and safer at these times. Also, more fish dishes are available then. Stick to bottled water, sold at most restaurants and grocery stores along the way. Also, avoid raw foods like salads as they are dangerous for fragile tummies. Cooked food is usually safe. In the case of street goodies, we preferred sealed mango sweets. We did stock up on biscuits and dry snacks for the ride. This paid off, as there are quite a few stretches where no eateries are to be found.
About the authors:
Kanika Bhattacharya talks, breathes and dreams food. An avid and experimental cook, she can routinely be found poking culinary sections in book stores and libraries.
Preeti Mankar is a documentary filmmaker with an MA from New York University. She is currently working on Mad about JEE, a film on the IIT entrance exam which will be produced by her production house, 517 Productions.