Goa is a raging tourist destination, with travellers landing up at its shores and transit centres throughout the year. The sticky humidity or bellowing rain clouds deter no one, and it certainly is one of the most sought after spots in the country.
However, I must confess, even after having visited the idyllic locale at least three times, never had I once heard of Kokni Canteen. And I wonder why. Everyone knows about the usual Britto’s at Baga beach or Souza Lobo in Calungate or even Antares (which caught fire earlier this year). But if you yearn for authentic Goan cuisine at a restaurant that offers a homely and warm ambience, Kokni Canteen is the place to be.
I found myself outside its humble doors in Panjim during my latest trip, after a litany from my uncle on how delectable the food here is. Even though it was a local who had passed on the information to my uncle, he couldn’t but help introduce the tiny restaurant as if it had been his personal discovery. Such is his love for Kokni Canteen.
The restaurant is located near Mahalaxmi Temple on Dr Dada Vaidya Road. It has mud-coloured walls with bright white trimmings, and a closed verandah with grills typical of the area. Goa is as vibrant in its vibe as it is with its architecture. It is colourful, and I mean purple and orange. Goans don’t shy from bright colours, even if it glares under the summer sun.
The interiors of the restaurant carry the same terracotta coloured walls and arched windows with distinctive black grills. The white trimmings continue its balancing effect even here. And this is something I like about the restaurant. It has a limited colour palette, but its interiors are quite striking. And thank heavens it hasn’t been renovated into some hipster or modern themed restaurant. Opened in 1972, I hope not too much of the décor has changed till date. Since I visited during New Year, white paper snowflakes and stars still hung from the ceiling. Again, sticking to the limited colour scheme (not sure if it was intentional, but am not complaining).
The décor was simple – a few old photographs, strings of fake onions and chillies, and a tiny wall unit with utensils of the size meant for children. I too have played with such toys as a child, though I run from cooking now. Raanna baati – cooking utensils. That’s what I loved playing with, with my cousins. Apart from reading and pretending to be Batman, of course. There are two dining spaces here, and we had to wait for a while before a table could be put together for my family. But the close quarters doesn’t feel intrusive, rather it was quite cozy.
Before the entire family (the bulk of it mostly) trooped into the quaint establishment, we were told about the famous fish thali consisting of fried fish, Goan fish curry, dried prawns, shellfish, a vegetable dish, rice, pickle, a digestive or sali kari and fish dhabdhabit. Sadly, it is served only during lunch time. I missed out on it this time.
An unmissable feature is a blackboard with the fresh haul of the day, with both English and Kokni written side by side. And that’s when you’ll know that shark (which was available) is called moro in Kokni, and prawns are sungta. This also helps to read the menu better.
For drinks, since they didn’t have gin, we ordered a round of Kaastad Mojito (INR 250), consisting of rum, mint, lime and kokam (which is divine). And boy, was it delish! Served in cute mason-like jars and the whole red and white combination in tune with Christmas, this was one blissful drink. I could have gone for another had it not been for extended family around.
Bengalis can have some appetite for seafood, especially my family. I am not so fish-crazy, and very picky about where I eat what. But here I let my guard down. For appetisers, first up was calamari in butter garlic sauce and rava fried mussels. And they were, oh my gawd! They were flavourful and downright amazing. I ain’t a big fan of mussels, since they didn’t go down well when I tried them the first time in Kochi. But after having these rava fried babies, I have certainly changed my mind. Truth be told, when you’re trying to acquaint yourself with a meat or fish, try it fried. The crunchy texture helps to mask the real texture of the produce to a certain extent, and a dipping sauce is always great to go with it. The calamari was not rubbery, but cooked really well. Even the dry prawns and coconut dish was outstanding. At home, mum makes Chingri malai curry, or prawns cooked in coconut cream, and it is a much-loved dish. But combining the same ingredients in their dry forms was quite a revelation for me.
We also ordered curries with kingfish and prawns (INR 255), and prawn pulao (INR 285), which was on my insistence. While I enjoyed the prawn curry and rice, I wasn’t too pleased with the pulao. I suppose because it was over steamed and flavours were quite mellow. But if you ask me for a Goan prawn pulao that I love, I would say Cotinga Café at Tamarind Hotel.
For desserts, yes we had space for more and we ordered bebinca, ceradura (or is it serradura) and thand halwa. I LOVED serradura, which is also known as sawdust pudding. Good grief, I was surprised how I could gobble up an entire bowl all by myself.
All in all, it was a wonderful experience, and I am sure I will be heading here soon enough to get myself some mori and rava fried goodness!