FRESH FROM THE CATCH – with Chef Edia

Photographs and story by Peta Kaplan & Ben Sandzer-Bell

Goan cuisine has not received the attention it deserves as a distinct culinary tradition from the more well known “Indian cuisine” that is readily found in the United States and Europe.  Yet the region of Kerala is known for its rich history as a spice-trading center for several centuries and, not surprisingly, Goan culinary culture has evolved to feature the extensive use of spices combined with the abundance of fish found on the coast of Kerala.

So as a French foodie staying at Alila Diwa Goa, I am excited at the prospect to learn something about Goan cuisine from Chef Edia and her team.  The “Fresh from the Catch” activity arranged by Alila Diwa is organized around three steps: 1) going to market, 2) preparing the food in Alila’s kitchen under the direction of Chef Edia and, 3) savoring the dinner prepared in the beautiful Spice Studio  restaurant.

We start the day by going to the market, which is about 20 minutes away, by car.  It is a beautiful drive and an opportunity to see some beautiful Portuguese mansions that have been passed down through generations since the days of Portuguese colonial presence in the Goa region.  This Portuguese architecture is simply magnificent.

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On the way to the market, we pass the wholesale fish market.  It’s not really meant to be the place to go shopping, but the buzzing morning trading at the fish market is not something I want to miss, so we stop and take  a stroll.  Clearly not a tourist destination, this place has all the authenticity of a vibrant wholesale market.

 The range of fish on display is phenomenal.  But so are the visuals provided by the vendors.  There are fish and shells, small and large. A multitude of fish I have never seen before, let alone tasted.

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I cannot pass on the opportunity to buy sardines.  I am a big sardines fan and, given Goa’s Portuguese ancestry and Portugal’s famed use of sardines in their cuisine, this is a no brainer.

But sardines do not a whole meal make.  I am on the hunt for something new, something I haven’t had before.  A long-nosed fish, which some refer to as sand fish, others seem to call cod fish, catches my eye.  Frankly, I am not sure what it is, and I don’t care about the nomenclature as much as the taste it will have on my plate.  I select a few of these for dinner as well.

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Onwards to our original retail market destination! We find a well organized fairly large market, divided between fish in one building, meat in another and vegetable and fruit in the third.

We stroll the aisles of this market and continue to enjoy the distinctive clothes of vendors, and the general vibe and atmosphere at the market.  There are no other tourists ~ this is the real deal.

To supplement the sardines and long nosed sand fish, I can’t resist adding a few very large prawns.  The prices are very good and it would be tempting to just keep buying more fish, but reason prevails and we will stop at that for our cooking class back at Alila.

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We need vegetables to complete the meal and my wife,  Peta, who is vegetarian takes the lead.  She looks and smells and puts together a “cocktail” of greens that will either make a fabulous fresh green juice, or some kind of a vegetable curry to go with the fish.  The scene in the veg hall is just as colorful and buzzing as in the fish hall.

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We return to Alila, bags bursting with more fish and vegetables than we can possibly eat in one sitting, looking forward to making something delectable with Chef Edia’s guidance.

Before I plunge into the kitchen – Peta is eager to have the green juice she has been yearning for, for days actually.  We give these to the kitchen at The Diwa Club and, always eager to please, they ultimately concede to making the juice  per our specs – “You mean you want ALL this spinach, and ALL this dill, and you don’t want sugar in it?”.  Clearly this is not something that they would put on their menu going forward, but what comes out of the kitchen is the most delicious green drink.  My yoga-practicing, organic food-eating  and green drink-enthusiast – wife enjoys the green drink she has been in search of.

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Back to the Spices Studio’s kitchen ~ An initial assessment of our buy triggers a round of discussions about how best to feature the fish and veggies.  Ideas bounce between Chef Edia and her sous chef ~ we could do prawns tandoori, and sardines Portuguese style?   Yes, yes on the sardines, Portuguese style – simple, grilled.  No, no on the tandoori, how about prawns in the curry with the green beans and fresh peas.  More back and forth.  Ultimately, the culinary minds converge and a menu is set.

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Chef Edia passes me on to one of her staff to learn how to prepare the fish.  It needs to be de-scaled, insides taken out etc.  What he does with mastery, I do hesitantly and learn in the process how to deal with sardines ~ something I expect will be a lifetime skill of great importance, for a sardine lover.

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The vegetables will become curry.  Not one curry, but two curries, to feature Goan spices.  Chop chop chop, peal, cut.  Thrown this much cumin, that much coriander, a pinch of fresh cinnamon, a bit of black pepper… some chilies of course (“Not too spicy! I implore”), turmeric to round it all off.

Chef Edia is like the magician wielding her baton with each spice finding its proper place and adding to the concoction.  The box of spices is centrally placed within each reach, and though she seems to reach in the same boxes, the curries that arise taste entirely different.

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I cannot wait for dinner!  We return after freshening up (and removing the fish smell from my hands) and indulge in a gastronomic feast.  As predicted, there is way too much food, but it’s all so very delicious and exotic.

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The entire experience was fun, instructive, provided us with an opportunity to go shopping in the wholesale and retail markets, and, of greatest importance ~ so, so scrumptious!

As for the food we simply didn’t have room to finish? There was only one solution… to pack up what we didn’t eat and make it a gastronomic picnic to be had at the airport, the next day.

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