National

Goa On The Menu: Food And Family Through Time

Culinary slices of life involving a matronly figure and her brood

Food And Family Through Time
info_icon

1962 Raia, Goa: Piedade, my grandmother, was not an easy woman to love. She was rude, bitter and ungenerous. “Her heart is small,” my father would say of his own mother. My mother would scold him for painting a bad picture of a grandmother, especially to an impressionable 10-year-old. I often heard stories about how she would go off for the village version of a kitty party, where a garrafõe (flagon) of feni and a few cigarettes would do the rounds. “Mae smoked?” I was shocked when I first heard it. Dad would nod, trying to shake off the memory from his head. Now, as I look back, I think Piedade was caught in a bad marriage with children she didn’t care for. Maybe she
savoured her moments of freedom. But how far could one go in a small nosy village where everyone was always watching?

They called her an akor, a sharp blade. She had a sharp tongue and was not one for compliments or sweet talk. For my father, listening to tales about his own mother, watching her burn bridges and keep the family apart, poisoned his love for her. One such story goes like this: a friend of mae’s, Jacqueline Ferrao, had done the impossible. She had forgotten to invite my grandmother to the foundation stone laying ceremony for their new house. This small ceremony is around a mud brick with its middle scraped to fit in a tiny gold cross, being laid in the middle of a construction site; this is the first foundation stone for any home. The priest stands over this brick, reciting prayers, surrounded by family and friends of the new home owners. Wine, cake and Doce de grão (a boiled Bengal gram and coconut sweet dish) are distributed to those who have gathered for the occasion.

info_icon
Vintage traditions: (Clockwise) A seafood lunch with pao; old decorative plates; Goan sweet Doce de grão; author’s home; Our Lady of Snows Church, Raia; author’s painting of a Goa mango variety, Mankurad

The next day, Jacqueline, a frail woman who had completely forgotten about inviting her ‘friend’, tried to make up for the error with a sweet offering—doce. This is a sweet made from boiled chickpeas, ground coconut paste, and sugar over a low flame, and needs a lot of elbow grease as it takes constant stirring for hours. Effort and time are a must for preparing this sweet, just as the effort and time taken for the friendship between Jacqueline and Piedade, who both had husbands working on ships and who both made plans to go to the Margao market to buy weekly rations. This duo would make trips together to the tailor to get a dress stitched for the village fest, or make some extra money at the house of the landlord (Badkar) during the festival season by helping the kitchen staff roll marzipan dough or tending
to the sprawling gardens.

But there was always another flavour at play in her custard. The aroma that signalled they were safe from their mother’s cruel words and the hurt caused by their father’s absence.

A day after the foundation stone was laid at Jacqueline’s new house, the new home owner tip-toed into ours. The afternoon sun was ablaze and the village was quiet at siesta time. Jacqueline took off her shoes at the door and walked across the cool red-tiled floor, across
the sala (living room in Portuguese) into the kitchen and placed the doce, set in a porcelain dish, covered with a white crochet kerchief. It made for a good peace offering. But Jacqueline was not so lucky. Piedade who was chopping firewood at the back of the kitchen, saw her flitting across the sala and called out. “Why are you in my house? You did not bother to invite me to your new one.” Jacqueline replied, “Sod go (Let it be)! I got some doce for the boys.”

Piedade stomped in, her face hot, axe in hand. Jacqueline was shocked to see Piedade livid. She knew any conversation was futile, and so muttered a silent prayer and decided to make a run for it. She almost reached the front door, when there was loud thump! Something hit her back. Jacqueline screamed and fell down near the doorway. She sat there crying. Piedade had thrown the doce at her. After a few minutes, Jacqueline got up, dusted her clothes, and walked away from the broken dessert and a broken friendship.

info_icon
Dash of fire: (From left) Spice mix ready for grinding into Xacuti masala; 17th-century Goan villa; Bombay Duck smeared in Recheado masala before frying

1956 Raia, Goa: Lourdinha sat lost in her world wrapped in the mist of time. When she was prodded, “Mae ut go (mother get up),” the septuagenarian mumbled and tumbled into the present, searching her surroundings through cloudy cataract affected eyes. She always wore an A-line dress that was dotted with flowers and had a tiny pocket stitched in the skirt. Her five-year-old grandson, Custodio, would watch her remove a ‘small piece of wood’ from the pocket and put it into her mouth. She would chew slowly, her teeth grinding. Wispy white hair framed her wrinkled yet smiling face.

In almost all Goan kitchens, tucked in a huge jar, is a collection of mackerel, salmon and prawns salted and dried in the summer sun.

She would look after Custodio, and his two other older brothers, Gilbert and Joseph, while her daughter-in-law was out of home, somewhere. Her son was somewhere too, bobbing in a ship, far away, where he worked as a mechanic. Or was he a tailor or cook? She could not remember now. She took another piece of brown wood into her mouth.

Custodio loved watching his grandmother nibble on her favourite spice as she cleaned vegetables, wiped their grubby faces and sang hymns to put his brothers and him to sleep. She was their mother. She was his mae. She made the boys their favourite dessert, a custard with milk, egg yolk, sugar and a dusting of nutmeg. But there was always another flavour at play in her custard. The aroma that signalled they were safe from their mother’s cruel words and the hurt caused by their father’s absence. They heard her chewing softly. Day in, day out.

Advertisement

After their new brother, Luis was born, Mae would still chew, but now she would doze off often as she watched over Luis taking his first steps. But she took good care of the little boy, washed his mouth of the mud he picked up from the garden. She fed him rice mashed with boiled fish, checking it thoroughly for prickly fish bones with the touch of her bent fingers.

She prepared custard one afternoon; it would be the first time Luis would taste it. Custodio waited. Mae had left the custard to cool in the kitchen and said they could have it during tea-time. She was still having her nap. Luis waddled round the house as Custodio and Joseph played with Marienne, the cat. Mother would be back soon. She would shout at them for having the custard. A wasted luxury, she would say, “Mae ut go (Mae get up).” They went to her room. She was lying quietly in her bed. There was no chewing sound. Her dress pocket was empty. There was no piece of cinnamon there.

Advertisement

1985 Mumbai: I still remember the ‘foreign perfume smell’ from my aunt’s huge red suitcases. We held on to her boarding passes, reading the names of airlines—KLM, Lufthansa, and Cathay Pacific as if they were passwords to unknown worlds. My aunt lived in Africa before August 1972 when the President of Uganda, Idi Amin, asked all Asians to leave. Ambrose’s family then returned to their original home in Goa. This was where the young bright girl with an Afrikaans accent caught the eye of Gilbert, my uncle, a smart young Goan, who wore his trademark pompadour hairstyle with pride. He rode his shiny new bike to all the best dance shows. It was love at first sight, and soon Ambrose was at my dad’s house being introduced to my grandmother, Piedade. Their 1975 marriage album was a classic—huge white cake, Jackie Onassis glasses on women, men dressed up like Elvis, and my aunt and uncle looking as delectable as the cake in front of them.

Advertisement

But like most young folks from Goa in the 70s looking for well-paying jobs, Uncle Gilbert and Aunt Ambrose soon moved to Dubai and then to Canada. She visited us every two years, and we all knew what she really wanted when she got back. Aunt Ambrose loved the spicy, Goan dried fish stir fry. Of all the Goan food she could ask for, all she wanted was dried fish—mostly cooked during the monsoons when the sea is rough, and the fresh catch is out of reach. In most Goan kitchens, you will find a jar sealed tight, filled with dried fish of all kinds—mackerel, salmon and prawns—which has been salted and dried in the summer sun. My dad, Custodio, would keep the fleshier dried fish pieces of salmon and mackerel soaked in water for 10 minutes, to remove the ‘extra salt’, then smoke the fish over an open fire, and toss the smoked fish with freshly cut onions, green chillies and a dash of palm vinegar. While we played with my aunt’s box and walked around in her sky-high stilettos as she caught up on family gossip, dad got his sister-in-law’s favourite dried fish dish ready. Her suitcases had a different smell when she went back.

Advertisement

(Views expressed are personal)

ALSO READ

Sharon Fernandes is a Delhi-based journalist and author

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement