14 February 2011 Society goa: women chefs

Memories On A Stove

Recreating flavours of home keeps them connected in faraway Goa
Memories On A Stove
Assavri Kulkarni
Memories On A Stove

Recently, at a working-class dhaba in Los Angeles called Taste of India, I ended up talking to the Punjabi cook about being homesick. “My husband only cares about the business,” she said, “but when I cook, I don’t have business in mind, really. What I like is giving the Americans a chance to love our Indian food. Better than that, I love giving the Indians here a chance to feel connected to home. Everything here is so different, every little thing, but when these guys bite into our famous bharta and bhuna gosht, they forget how far away they are from home.” I asked her how long she had been in LA. “Twenty-eight years,” she answered. Isn’t this home, then, I asked. “Well, you know how it is,” she answered, pouring us another chai.

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I have met her mirror image, four mirror images, back home in India, Bardez, in north Goa. These four women—Elizabeth Sall of the Lila Cafe, Mariketty Grana of Thalassa, Yogini Rammacher of Villa Blanche, and Kornelia Santoro, who has just published a Mediterranean cookbook called Kornelia’s Kitchen—are among the most successful on the food scene in Goa, although there is nothing trendy, edgy, or PR-driven about what they serve their rainbow coalition guests. These women, all settled in Goa for years, are feeding their patrons food from their past, steeped in memories of the homes they’ve left behind. And yet, their kitchens reflect their present in every way—be it the coconut trees swaying above the tables, the produce from the local markets and fresh fish from the local waters, or the bhajans playing while they cook. This is food that bridges their two worlds, and the two worlds of many of their customers. But what has changed drastically over the years is the great number of desi customers who want to walk over this bridge as well.

Elizabeth Sall, Lila Cafe, Vijay Mallya is a regular at this
German food joint. (Photograph by Assavri Kulkarni)
“Oh, how lovely!” sighed the woman at the table next to me at Lila Cafe, Goa’s premier continental cafe, as she bit into her buttered croissant. Elizabeth, owner and proprietor (with husband Ingo) of the cafe, located on the banks of the Baga River, is pleased. “I love it when our food makes people feel comfortable in their own skin,” she says. “That’s what I wanted to achieve.” Elizabeth, in her signature elegant-bohemian attire, is the professed inspiration of many cafe owners in Goa. It has been over 30 years since she and Ingo started serving German and European food to the first wave of foreign travellers, many of whom almost wept in relief after months of constant fire on the tongue. “We were working in crazy conditions then, ya?” she smiles. “We were cooking on kerosene, we had hardly any ingredients to work with, we had to bring in blocks of ice to keep things cold.” Now the kitchen at Lila Cafe, gleaming in stainless steel and smooth surfaces, sets out German dishes like beef roast with dumplings, spatzle, fresh salads and great desserts. The cafe, which recently won a food award, is on the must-do list of many travellers, and these days NRIs and visitors from Delhi, the Bollywood stars and tycoons (read Vijay Mallya) often outnumber the foreigners. “If I had been doing this only for business, I would have failed,” says Elizabeth, an ex-nurse from Germany, before she flies off to attend to a detail, the reins of her ship tightly wound in her manicured hands.

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Kornelia Santoro, Sangolda A cookbook author, she also gives cooking lessons. (Photograph by Assavri Kulkarni)

“I have been wondering what it is about so-called comfort food that has made it so important lately, essential even,” says Kornelia. “In these days of constant change and tension about the future, and with the fast pace that has now taken over much of India, people are going back to, and holding on to, real food, slow food, as a way to stay grounded and connected to what is important in life.” People are also talking about Kornelia’s book, subtitled Mediterranean Cooking For the Indian, and the former political journalist, who biked through India on a Harley, before marrying her Italian husband and settling down in Goa, has started teaching cooking classes in her lovely home in the village of Sangolda. The recipes in her book, and her companion website, highlight simple, healthy, yet delicious family food that can be made almost entirely with ingredients available from a basic food grocer in India. “So many people in India are now really into food other than what we call ‘Indian food’. That has really changed since I first arrived, and makes it easier to live here,” she says.

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These women have been feeding people food from their past, steeped in memories of homes they left behind.

“Ya, I used to say I would never consider living in India because I could not find pasta in the shops. And I wasn’t joking!” Yogini Rammacher smiles as she sips a glass of iced coffee with vanilla ice cream, while I enjoy her elderberry spritzer, served in a tall glass. We are in Villa Blanche, her pretty garden cafe, a favourite of the yoga crowd and genteel Delhiites settled in Goa. “For years I kept returning to India because spiritually, I craved being here, but could never stay too long,” says Yogini (she prefers to be known only by her Indian name), who used to run a fashion business in Europe. “Then, suddenly, Barilla pasta and olive oil could be found everywhere and I knew my time had come.” At her famous Sunday brunch, Yogini serves a startling array of dishes, each unique and perfectly seasoned, but she is best known for her scrumptious cakes. “Baking is our initiation into womanhood,” says Yogini, who has been baking since she was 10, in her native Germany. On a recent Sunday, a page-three crowd was clearly thrilled with the mix of great food and magical ambience she was able to create.

Mariketty Grana, Thalassa, Delicious Greek food
between the clear sky and turquoise ocean.
(Photograph by Assavri Kulkarni)
Popular as Villa Blanche is, the place to eat in Goa these days is Mariketty’s Thalassa Greek Tavern. It is the place to go in a first date, or with an important client who has just flown in. Up on the cliffs overlooking Vagator beach, Thalassa serves abundant portions of expertly cooked Greek favourites, with the turquoise ocean below, and the clear sky a perfect backdrop to the great food. Mariketty, a zesty native of Corfu, used to sell souvlaki, pita wrapped around meats with piquant sauces, in Goa’s tourist markets for years but, at her customers’ insistence, Thalassa was born three years ago to critical acclaim, and Mariketty has now arrived. “Indians have a very strong connection to Greece,” she says modestly after a customer thanks her profusely for transporting her back to her Greek honeymoon. “Besides, I adore feeding people. That’s why my portions are so big.”

Mariketty, like the other three women, says she never intended to move to India and that fate or God brought her here. They all stayed on to cook, and to feed, but much as they enjoy that, it seems to be a bittersweet love. “I always remember I am a guest here,” says Elizabeth, after more than half a life spent in India. “With the visa laws always changing and the term ‘foreigner’ slow to die, it is hard to feel settled,” says Yogini. And when Mariketty talks about her deep love of India but also of constantly missing her family back home in Corfu, I ask: after all these years, isn’t this home, then? She looks out westwards, past the horizon of the shimmering sea below. “You know how it is,” she answers, and we quietly down our goblets of fruity white wine.

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