Consider this Mumbai seafood trail a journey that will take you meandering down the western coast of India, from Maharashtra, onwards to Goa and Karnataka (the Konkan Coast), with a postscript via the state of Kerala. The flavors of each state spill into one another, creating an edible tapestry that dips into ingredients that are easily available down the coast; a typical Konkani dish uses tart kokum fruit to cut the richness of the coconut and tame the heat of the spices.
Most of the places on my list would qualify as “canteens,” unremarkable, basic dining areas with quick service, and unshowy but full-flavored food that is devoid of fuss and frippery. The dishes do not lend themselves to niceties: the most satisfying way to savor them is by plunging in with your hands. You have been warned.
1. Butter-Garlic Crab, Trishna
Let us start in touristy Kala Ghoda. In and around its warren of lanes, you’ll find a welter of charming cafés and restaurants, but most importantly for the purposes of this trail, Trishna seafood restaurant. Trishna is somewhat upmarket, and one of the few places that has an alcohol permit. A permanent placement in any Mumbai guidebook, it finds its place onto this list by sole virtue of its butter garlic crab. The crab is a hands-on dish. Crack open the crustacean, scoop out its soft flesh, and swipe it through the moat of garlicky melted butter it sits in.
2. Fish Gassi, Mahesh Lunch Home
Then move on to Mahesh Lunch Home, for its excellent fish gassi, a thin coconut-based curry from Mangalore city (in Karnataka state). Ask for whatever fish is freshest, the creamy-fleshed pomfret that is a Mumbai favorite, rawas, surmai or the underrated bangda. Avoid the basa though; it is a fish that tastes of nothing.
3. Clam Sukka, Ankur
I find myself drawn, time and again, to the excellent Mangalorean food at Ankur. Born in 1941 as a vegetarian restaurant, it cannily put seafood on its menu in 1994 and now it is one of Mumbai’s best. A bevy of dishes will vie for your allegiance here, but the one I order oftenest is the clam sukka, a mess of clams dry-fried with coconut and spices. Mangalorean cooking is assertive, not scalding, but nevertheless, remember to order the cloud-soft neer dosas (rice pancakes) to eat alongside.
4. Bombil Thali, Acharekar’s Malvan Kutta
My absolute favorite seafood place, Acharekar’s Malvan Kutta, serves Malvani food from the southern tip of Maharashtra. The best way to eat here is to order a thali, a set meal organized around the seafood of your choice. And the best thali to eat here is the bombil or Bombay duck thali. The bombil (a lizardfish, native to Mumbai waters) comes sheathed in a crackly carapace of semolina, together with a spirited coconut gravy to be eaten with a stack of rotis or rice.
Ladled out alongside the gravy is a bowl of pink sol kadi, made with coconut milk, salt and garlic; the creamy coconut stained by the purple color of the dried, salted pelts of kokum. Drink this to put out the fire of the gravy.
5. Crispy Mandeli fish, Hotel Sachin
A stone’s throw away lies Hotel Sachin, another Malvani eatery. Order the prawns, spattered in a skillet or fried in cornmeal; and don’t leave without trying the mandeli, tiny fish served in dives across the city. At Sachin, each fritter of fish is fried to cornflake crispness, and should be popped whole into the mouth.
6. Barramundi, Prawns and Clam, Highway Gomantak
A similar, yet slightly different cuisine, is the Gomantak food made by the Hindu community in Goa. At Highway Gomantak, in the suburb of Bandra, you’ll find slightly less common restaurant dishes, such as barramundi and mackerel cooked with triphal (a sort of Sichuan peppercorn). Or you can always fall back on the crunchy semolina-cloaked prawns and the teesrya masala, a gaggle of plump clams spilling out of a ruddy pool of coconutty gravy.
7. Karimeen fish, Hotel Deluxe or Taste of Kerala
Finally to the postscript—the Kerala restaurants. Kerala cooking exuberantly embraces all manner of vegetable, fruit, seafood and meat: its beef fry spiked with flakes of coconut is extraordinarily lush; the duck roast is tender, and if you ask nicely, you may even get rabbit. But this is a seafood story, and so I urge you towards Hotel Deluxe or Taste of Kerala, both sitting side by side in a narrow lane in Fort district. Once you get over their homeliness, ask for the karimeen or pearl spot, Kerala’s favourite fish. Karimeen is riddled with bones, but the flesh is soft and pull-apart tender—it comes to the table wrapped in an overcoat of spices. Also order the prawns fry masala, slick with spice and oil and perfect for eating with Kerala paratha, a flaky, many-layered, many-splendored flatbread.
All this is to say that Mumbai is teeming with excellent seafood restaurants, most of which I have left out. Gajalee has excellent tandoori crab; Sindhudurg for its fish roe; Fresh Catch is the favourite of star cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar; Sushegad is loved for its crisp curls of Bombay duck; the swish Konkan Cafe at the luxurious Vivanta by Taj hotel for its consistently good seafood thalis from all down the Western coast; and there’s even Bastian, for when you just want your lobster rolls and poke. The “best” is just a matter of opinion; all you can do is keep on eating. Just remember to wear loose pants and schedule a long nap after.