Monday, January 19, 2009

When I was in India...

Despite that all my posts this month have referenced India in some way or another, I have yet to actually regale you with tales of the food there. And there was certainly food to be had: Good, bad, and mediocre. Biryanis, naan, kulfi, and kebabs. Spicy, salty, sweet, and savory. India has all these things and more.

I will first tell you about the hands-down best food I ate during my five-week stint abroad.

You may be looking at the above photo and thinking, "That's not India." Because "India" probably conjures images of elephants and camels, crowds of people in bright clothing on the banks of the Ganges, or grandiose buildings like the Taj Mahal. But that photo right there was most certainly taken in India — the part of India that is tropical, hot and humid in December (when, despite what us Westerners might believe about India, it gets cold in the north), and has sparkling blue water, white sand, and palm trees galore.

Goa is a tiny little state on the western coast of the country. Originally colonized by the Portuguese and now a haven for both retired European tourists and hippies of all ages, it was different from anywhere else I went in India. It's laid-back, has beautiful sunsets, and has the freshest seafood I've ever eaten.

On our first night there, which was Christmas Eve, we found ourselves wandering the road that ran alongside the beach in Colva, the village just south of the village we were staying in, feeling rather hungry. As the sky darkened and we weren't quite sure where we were going, we came upon a hotel/restaurant called Sam's Crow's Nest. It was still fairly early for dinner, being that it was only 6:30 (the locals eat around 9pm), so the place was mostly empty, which generally gives me reason to pause and question what my culinary experience is going to be.

Our appetizer, however, was amazing. We ordered Sam's Golden Prawns, and they were the best battered and fried shrimp I have ever eaten in my entire life. I'm not kidding. The coating was light and crisp, and the shrimp inside was perfectly cooked and so — for lack of a better word — shrimpy. The freshest, most delicious shrimp taste a little bit like clean, clear ocean water, and that's exactly how these tasted. To top it all off, they came with a dipping sauce of mayonnaise blended with carrots. Simple? Yes. Crazy delicious? You bet.

Our entree was a pomfret curry, which was not photoworthy because it was simply pieces of a local flat fish in a red Goan curry sauce. But it was amazingly good. I couldn't stop raving about the food at Sam's the entire time we were in Goa. And no matter how many times we ordered battered shrimp elsewhere, they never compared to Sam's Golden Prawns.

Even better, however, was our lunch the following day. To celebrate Christmas, we staked out two lounge chairs under an umbrella at a beach shack on Betalbatim beach, about a mile walk from our hotel. We had beers, we read, we collected shells along the water — and we couldn't believe it was actually Christmas. The day's fish and shellfish offerings were written on a large blackboard in the shack itself, and without inquiring about prices, I ordered the tiger prawns to share.

What arrived were the biggest prawns either of us had ever seen. The guidebook had noted that there were shrimp in Goa as big as your fist, and they weren't kidding. The prawns had been grilled, topped with a little butter, and served with a side of bright yellow fries.

They were fresh, tender, and tasted of the sea, almost like eating little lobster tails. I was so happy that all that needed to be done to them was grill them — because the prawns were already so good on their own. They most certainly had been caught just off the coast that very morning. With every bite, I couldn't stop exclaiming how fabulous they tasted. We ate every last morsel, and I was sad when we were done.

When we finally got around to actually looking at a menu, we discovered that our taste bud extravaganza cost 800 rupees — about 16 bucks. And sure, that's what you would expect to pay at a restaurant here in the States. But we'd been eating meals that cost that much (or less!) for two, including drinks and appetizers, so we were a little shocked at the expense of those lovely tiger prawns. In the end, though, we were glad we didn't know how much they cost in advance because we would have never tried them. And, after all, it was Christmas.

I still think about those prawns, both small and large. If I ever make it back to Goa someday, I fully intend to indulge on tiger prawns as often as my wallet allows — and to go back to Sam's and eat there as often as possible.

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