May I please have a dosa?"

Though the tone was polite, I knew this was a disaster. The adored vilayati cousin was visiting and, in those years of terrible teenage competitiveness, it was crucial to me that every single bit of his holiday be perfect. That included the details of where we went, what we did and, inevitably, what we ate.

And so there we were at Puri in Odisha and, already, he had wondered why no one was surfing the brilliant Bay of Bengal waves. At least the food would be okay, I’d thought, scrabbling through memories of previous holidays (like most good Bengalis of a certain age, my school vacations were evenly split between Darjeeling and Puri).

Or perhaps not. The worldly wise cousin had silently gone through the menu, all four pages of it, at what was then the temple town’s premier restaurant and asked for a dosa.

“No seafood," was his laconic answer to my unspoken question as we walked back to our rooms, my metaphorical tail firmly between my legs, as I contemplated this unfair attack. Fish was fish, right?

Of course not, and it was this abject humiliation in my tender years that woke me up to the import of (a) eating local, (b) the Bengali antipathy to seafood (no, freshwater or estuary prawns don’t count), and (c) never, ever, issuing a challenge without being absolutely sure of one’s ground—or waters, as the case may be.

Fact: For more than 550km along India’s eastern coast, from Mandarmoni, at the junction of the Hooghly and the Bay of Bengal, right through to Gopalpur, on the Odisha-Andhra Pradesh border, till very recently fish continued to mean river fish, partly in deference to local eating habits but mostly, I’m afraid, because of the cultural—and, I dare say, economic—hegemony of the Bengali tourist. Be it the pice “hotels" (as restaurants in semi-urban Bengal are still called) of Digha or the 90-year-old BNR Hotel (now taken over by the Chanakya chain) in Puri, a good meal for most holidaymakers comprised rice, dal and a rohu fish curry. At BNR, the draw was the trifle pudding, in keeping with its Raj heritage. The most outré one could get was a fried pomfret, fresh off the boat on the beach, but any Bengali worth his monkey-cap would then proceed to turn up his nose at the bony fish.

Prawns, crabs and oysters in a bowl. Photo: India Picture

We looked at each other and, risking salt-spray and broken limb, made our way to Jayshankar’s shack, a surprisingly large and airy room perched precariously on an outcrop, with a view that hoteliers in the town would kill for. There was no menu, only what he could list off his head, and no customers apart from a couple of dreadlocked foreigners.

But oh, the food. After more years than I care to remember, I still recall my first-ever sampling of shark meat (curiously dense yet flaky, tasting more like meat than fish) and squid (assuredly tossed with basic spices). There were also giant prawns, the kind that sell for four-five times their coast price inland, and seer fish steaks, pan-fried and dressed with a squirt of lime juice. It was simple fare, served with buttered rice, but the khaki shorts-clad, grizzled Jayshankar—who seemed as gobsmacked to see two unfamiliar faces as we were by his cooking—knew his seafood; knew, too, that fish and crustaceans and molluscs so fresh needed the least work.

As a whole, the west coast—driven, of course, by the seafood-eating coastal populations—has been happy hunting ground for the hungry beach-bum. Few places, however, have managed to match up to Jayshankar’s in the many years since that shoestring-budget holiday, largely because of the pan-Indian habit of overcooking everything.

Last year, in north Goa, we found every shack—such a misnomer, really, since all of them are now overgrown, overstaffed and overcrowded—serving the same seafood platter with the same modus operandi: First the so-called catch of the day, purportedly out of the water for just a few hours, came around, and after you had chosen the fish and specified how you wanted it done (smothered with recheado masala or with butter-garlic or with rava/semolina), and downed enough beer, it would be served under the stars, the darkness an apt metaphor for the dearth of lightness in the food.

We netted far better deals, pun intended, in the marquee restaurants—Thalassa in Vagator, Martin’s Corner in Betalbatim—and in almost every hole-in-the-wall in Panaji, as long as we stuck to the tried-and-tested “Goan" specialities. Though I believe new restaurants such as The Black Sheep Bistro are game changers in the state, tapping into lesser-known local fish and treating them innovatively, the disrespect we show our abundant coastal wealth is especially glaring when contrasted with experiences abroad.

We skip past trucks bearing ice and yards of fishing net to arrive at the harbour, where unassuming-looking men and women deal in thousands of kilos and rupees and varieties of seafood: tiny anchovies, giant tuna, baskets of tiger prawns, gross-looking cuttlefish, perfect pomfret, squid intact with their heads and arms and tentacles. At least one lobster from there ends up at our table that night but we can tell from the lackadaisical handling that the chef would’ve preferred to squeeze out all the sea from the crustacean than serve it so plainly grilled, its meat still tasting of brine.

Our seafood-at-the-seaside lament is so much of a refrain that friends now alert us the moment they hear of anything that hints at redemption. In December, it came in the form of a revamped resort off Kovalam, called Niraamaya. As stunning as the property is, right on the beach, with an infinity pool seemingly stretching right into the sea, its biggest attraction, as far as we were concerned, was its chef.

Meen moilee.

Call me optimistic, but I think that’s the way ahead. Alongside the serviceable shacks, there will be more and more gourmet kitchens at prime beachfront getaways, catering to India’s growing population of discerning diners. They will ask for their fish grilled, their scallops steamed and sweet crabmeat in its shell, and they will eat the sea and carry it home with them.

As for me, I’m awaiting my cousin’s next visit.

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