A Goan thali is a sight to behold—a mound of ukde tandul (parboiled rice), dal, crisp fried fish, a vegetarian preparation sprinkled with coconut, orange fish curry and sol kadhi. There’s another fish item on the plate that is usually glanced over. It’s a pity because the dish hits the right notes—it’s dry, crunchy, has a hint of spice and tartness, and is heavy on the coconut.

Kismoor is, simply put, a dried-fish salad. “It is popularly made with salted and dried shrimp or mackerel. Dried fish is added to a mixture of coconut, tamarind, raw onions, and chillies. The Hindus use tamarind in their preparation and the Catholics, vinegar," says David D’Souza, administrator of the popular Traditional Goan Foodies community on Facebook (he also has a blog on Goan food called Dusty’s Food Adventures). “It is a staple accompaniment to a fish thali or eaten with fish curry and rice. It’s popular because it’s simple, cheap, made with easily available ingredients and yet tasty."

It’s a dish born out of necessity.

Most trawlers and fishermen aren’t allowed out to sea during the monsoon, a practice dating from olden times. Since Goans cannot do without their daily dose of fish, they found a solution. Surplus fish caught during the summer months is salted and dried in the sun, to be stored and used later. Locally called khare (which means salty), the fish forms part of purument, a term used to describe provisions stocked usually for the monsoon. This dried fish is used in salads like kismoor or curries like hooman.

A typical kismoor has coconut, chillies (red chilli powder or green chillies), tamarind (sometimes vinegar), and turmeric. The main ingredient defines its name; the following are the different flavours of kismoor. There’s kharya bangdya (mackerel), karathe (bitter gourd), vaal (beans), maanve (jackfruit stem) and sungta (prawns).

Everyone has their own version of the kismoor.

Ann Dias, a Dadar-based caterer in Mumbai known for her Goan food, makes kismoor without coconut and uses lime juice or vinegar for taste. “We sometimes add finely cut cabbage for flavour and crunchiness. The onions should be crunchy too. I toss them in oil for a bit—they shouldn’t be cooked (much) and must have that raw taste to them," she says.

Pooja Talauliker, of the blog Pooja’s Soul Kitchen, has experimented with many ingredients in her kismoor. In fish, she uses prawns, shark or white anchovies. The vegetarian versions have crushed papad, karathe (salted and kept under a weight to remove the bitter juice, then roasted on a griddle till brown), and raw bananas (scraped out layers are steamed, and then ground into a chutney with coconut, tamarind, red chillies and turmeric).

“There’s a jackfruit version too, made with the central stalk of the fruit," says Talauliker. “This is roasted on an open flame, then cut open. The outer coat is thrown away; the cooked inner part is cut into fine pieces and mixed with other kismoor ingredients. It is a dish on the verge of extinction because cleaning and cutting a jackfruit is a tedious job." Goan Hindus, she adds, don’t eat the head or the tail of the fish, which is usually deboned after roasting the fish. The cleaned pieces are then beaten with a stone to flatten them out. “The fish has to be added to the salad mixture just before serving, else it can get soft and chewy. You want it to remain crisp," she adds.

Another popular vegetarian version is made with vodyo (fried ash gourd dumplings). “Vodyo are vadi/tikki made using ash gourd, urad dal and spices. This ground paste is spread on a large sheet of plastic and sun-dried," says Neelam Dutta, who documents her food stories on her Facebook page Ranchikood. Fried vodyo are crushed and added to the freshly made mixture, with a few whole ones kept aside as garnishes.

Kismoor is best eaten fresh. As with another Goan speciality, feni, it has a strong aroma but makes up for it in flavour. The next time you’re handed a Goan thali, pay extra attention to this humble dish.

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