As promised, I returned to Anjuna for a second time. This time it was more appropriate, bang in the middle of the Christmas-New Year season. With more than a week’s time to spend, I was sure to have a way better time and plenty more memories.
It was on one of those days, that Machine Gun and I went to the famed Chapora Fort. The day being extremely hot, what with us choosing a rather bad time of noon to explore it, we returned though not without braving the heat and surveying the fort and its precincts thoroughly. I’m glad and thankful for the understanding and spiritedness Machine Gun imparts to me that makes every terrain and weather enjoyable in each other’s company. J
So it was, on the ride back on the hired bike, hungry and tired, we searched for a place to eat and rest. I guess the only place we could find, or was it the first that came our way, was a quaint and distinct looking place. While from outside we found it just about ordinary, every step we took further inside just revealed how spectacular it was. What caught my eye, or for that, anybody’s who will enter, was just how prettily it was decorated. There were paper butterflies, paper flowers, paper hanging lamps and the like in a riot of colours. There were other hand-made crafts and decoration made of colourful delicate net and embroidered cloths. The place itself was an open courtyard sort, covered overhead by a thatch roof, lined with beautiful embroidered sheets. In place of walls, there were thatches as well, lined with cloths. The tables and chairs were modest and basic, the tables being covered with chequered table-cloths. Devoid of absolutely any swankiness and upmarket chicness, the place instantly warmed me with its intense coziness and homely ambience. I felt like I had walked right into somebody’s private backyard.
While I still stood dazzled with sauce-pan eyes and mouth agape by the sheer beauty and snugness of this little secret we had discovered, I was woken from my reverie by the arrival of a petite lady. As delicate as the place itself, she seemed like a part of it, attired in a floral dress, with the same pretty flowers adorning her neck and hair, only that these were real. Introducing herself and her place as Japanese, she invited us to have a look around and asked for our order. Only then did I realise we could actually eat there, as a more alert Machine Gun drew my attention to the menu, which was a blackboard with the day’s fare written out in bold letters of white chalk. As I ran my eyes over the board, I read familiar names though with a hint of difference. I thought to myself, coming to such a place, having the usual stuff available everywhere would be quite a bore, and wished if there had been something as different as the place itself. It was then that my eyes fell on the last name at the bottom of the board, cramped and shortened by the long list. Okonomiyaki. I had to repeat it several times in my head, only because of my OCD to get every word spelled and pronounced correct. Reluctant to suggest it, I turned to Machine Gun for help and in the hope of transferring the burden of making a choice. Okonomiyaki. (?) It was a question, but I happily accepted it as a declaration, elated not just at the divine match of our choice, but also the relief of not having to make the difficult selection, just in case it went wrong. Our charming hostess explained what our choice was, and left us in pleasant thoughts to imagine her description.
The first to arrive was a piping glass of strong tea, the means of survival for Machine Gun. It astonished us in how it did not veer even an iota from the way we like our tea to be. Parfait!
We held our breath, as Okonomiyaki announced its arrival. My curious eyes peered over Machine Gun’s shoulder to glimpse at how this unheard of wonder would look. She laid it on the table, and the sight was pure symphony to our eyes.
The Okonomiyaki is a Japanese pancake, with a variety of fillings, deriving its name from the word ‘okonomi’ which means “what you desire”. As per its name, the fillings and toppings vary according to your choice. Made of flour, water, cheese, eggs, vegetables such as shredded cabbage, onions, yam, you can either have it in its vegetarian form; or with pork, shrimp, squid and such meat for the non-vegetarians. It is topped with mayonnaise and an array of sauces and spice flakes.
For me, it adorned my plate like a bride, with some sprouts and cabbage leaves around it like brides-maids. Sprouts and leafy veggies normally never even figure anywhere close to my vision, but the ones on my plate here seemed to have acquired a succulent aura, merely by their presence next to the piece of exquisiteness. The Okonomiyaki seemed to exude an aspect of grace and refinement upon its consumers, as we proceeded to dissect it with utmost gentleness; yet with a highly reluctant heart that wanted us to only stare and drink in its alluring elegance.
The knife felt no pressure as it magically carved out thin wedges of the pancake. I don’t think I can remember much as I melted into a dreamy trance the way the Okonomiyaki melted inside my mouth. Absolutely soft of texture, its ingredients seemed to have melded to form a uniform piece of delectable heaven. No single ingredient was overpowering and it was cooked to perfection. Okonomiyaki, as our kind lady told us, is always prepared fresh according to the diner’s taste. Machine Gun and I gave each other subtle hints of ordering another one, as we tried hard to stop ourselves from making all traces of this wonder vanish in a jiffy. But as we had taken it slowly, enjoying every morsel of it, we felt our stomachs slowly filling up, and my mind clouding with images of Japanese cherry blossoms and lilting music of Japanese traditional string instruments.
We found it very hard to leave the place just yet, so hung around some more time, chatting with our hostess and her friends, and exploring the place. She told us that they do not run the place throughout the year, but only in the month of December, which is when there are maximum tourists around the place. She and her friends came from Japan and other parts of the world to India many years ago, and having grown to like it, had decided to settle in Goa. A yellow structure revealed a room, where they were selling many other products. There were a variety of spices, herbal smokes, salts, teas, beans, oils, essences and other herbal items. And of course the beautiful handmade paper crafts, lanterns and candles the ladies made themselves.
It was very hard for us to drag ourselves away from the place, but when we felt it wouldn’t look polite to linger on any longer, we set out towards our bike. The real world seemed to strike me across my face as I stepped out from what felt like a wonderland. A long and longing look at this beautiful hideout was all I could manage, as I appreciated how they had hidden it away, tucked in a corner of a bend of a road that had nothing else around it. Capable of being easily missed, I thanked my stars for having found it. Tech-savvy Machine Gun tried to capture it in his Google Maps, but failed due to the lack of reception in this remote area. And the biggest folly I made was not noting its name, which I can’t recollect now. Maybe it is meant to remain that way, hidden away, so ethereal that no one can capture it, either by placing it on a map or tracing it by its name. A little heaven that appears for a brief while, like a mist, like a dream. A Japanese dream.