There’s a man with a large basket tied to his bicycle, wobbling past the front of the rented house where I’m staying, tucked away at the end of a lane in the village of Porta Waddo on the north coast of Goa. I watch him calling out his wares: fish caught this morning in the river nearby. Some of the villagers appear at their gates to haggle with him, and a few rupees are exchanged for the small mackerel which will be the star ingredient in their fish curry rice.
This is the staple of Goan cuisine, fish in a coconut gravy served with a mound of rice grown in the fields surrounding the village. Small shacks on the nearby beaches sell it for 75 rupees (£1) a plate, but this one will be made from scratch, the fish bought from the boat, the rice from the farmer, the chillies and onions and garlic from the woman who grew them, the coconut from the man who climbed the tree to knock it down. The tamarind that gives it the necessary tartness hangs in pods from trees in the garden.
The harbour is barely a mile away, along the sandy path running between big old Portuguese-era villas. Everyone knows Goa for its beaches, but step inland and you enter another altogether more tranquil world, a rural idyll of intense natural beauty. There are langur monkeys in the trees and kingfishers and pure white egrets out there, black kites soaring high in the sky. It’s a world that demands to be seen.
It takes a moment to locate a hat and a bottle of water and step into the lane, narrowly missing another bicycling salesman holding a bunch of balloons and parping a horn. Barely 8am, it’s already warm, a typical late October morning, the monsoon receding, the sky a deep blue. I run through the ingredients in my head: an onion; a couple of cloves of garlic; another couple of green chillies; a dozen mackerel, cleaned and quickly sliced along the length of the body; one coconut, grated; a lump of tamarind pulp big enough to fit in the palm of the hand; at least half a dozen dried red chillies; a teaspoon each of cumin seeds and turmeric powder and a tablespoon of coriander seeds.
Then there’s the rice. Round the corner, the village women are tipping out bags of newly harvested grains onto the road to dry. I buy half a kilo for 25 rupees (£0.30) from a stall nearby and head on north, passing first a brightly coloured Hindu shrine, then a Catholic church, its white paint gleaming in the sun. A herd of water buffalo emerge from the river. Huge and solid, with alarmingly sharp horns, they have a reputation for unpredictability, and I scuttle past swiftly. A flash of blue denotes a stork-billed kingfisher, perched on a power line, from which also hangs a fruit bat. A couple of bee-eaters flit past and then an egret. The back lanes are a wildlife paradise. In the past week there have been hornbills, sunbirds and a pair of otters playing among the fishermen’s nets.
Among the towering palms of a coconut orchard I watch a man shinning up a tree to knock down the fruit growing from the crown. Ten rupees (£0.12) secures me one. Today, there’s no sign of the otters, but the fishermen are there, paddling wooden canoes. A bigger boat putters towards the harbour wall and I quicken my pace, for this is what I was hoping to see.
The boat pulls up and a basket of mackerel is passed to a woman sitting on a short stool. She’s immediately surrounded by people thrusting money at her. The mackerel are bagged quickly; at 200 rupees (£2.50) a kilo, they’re excellent value.
The onions and chillies come from the local women who sit along the roadside, chatting in Konkani, their wares spread before them. They indicate prices with fingers, one for 10 rupees (£0.12), two for 20 (£0.24). Another stall sell spices in twists of newspaper. The ingredient list is complete.
A few tourists buzz past on motorbikes, heading for Ashwem beach, a swim and sunbathe, and then lunch on fish curry rice washed down with a cold Kingfisher beer. But I’ll be slaving over a hot stove, then eating mine out on the balcony, hoping for a glimpse of the sea eagle that occasionally passes this way. Sometimes the hardest way is the best way.
Read more of our India cover story in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)