Home fires

Home fires
A delicious Goan thali at The Copper Bowl in Calangute's luxury hotel, Pousada Touma,

All is not lost yet. In touristy cosmopolitan Goa, few places still faithfully serve up indigenous flavours

Deepti Kapoor
March 20 , 2014
10 Min Read

Heading north from Goa’s Dabolim airport, along busy roads framed by billboards, past the capital Panaji and into the tourist towns and beaches, one finds oneself spoilt for choice when it comes to the matter of food and drink. But despite the wealth on offer what one is unlikely to find, unless one knows where to look for it, is a place serving what the state is famous for: traditional Goan food.

In a land so renowned for its cuisine this might seem strange, until it’s remembered that there are two Goas here. One has been around for centuries, and the other — made up of sunbeds, jet skis and money — for only the last 20 or 30 years. And although these two Goas co-exist, one point they rarely meet is at the dinner table. Tourists choose from Chinese, Continental, North Indian or Thai, to name but a few options, and those serving them return home to fish-curry-rice and xacuti, sorpotel and bachalau. Not surprising, as everyone will tell you, the best Goan food is almost always found in the home. Luckily, there are some exceptions to this rule.

Stepping through the small, lush garden just off the Panaji-Miramar road, one enters Mum’s Kitchen, a restaurant that could almost be described as a museum of Goan food, if it weren’t so full of life. Apart from providing Catholic fare it’s one of the few places one can sample a decent selection of the Saraswat Hindu cuisine. Where the former is characterised by its use of palm vinegar and pungent red chilli, the Hindu dishes are distinguished by their heavy use of coconut and kokum.

The restaurant grew out of owners’ Rony and Suzette Martins’ belief that Goan food was being forgotten under the tide of development and modernisation. “Everyone knew about cafreal or vindalho, but there was an entire universe of Goan cuisine that was getting lost,” says Suzette. Before opening, the couple spent a great deal of time collecting recipes from mothers, grandmothers and aunties across the state, reproducing them as authentically as possible in the restaurant. The varan, a split red gram curry, made without garlic or onion but with generous amounts of ghee, had a wonderful, unexpected simplicity, with cumin and coconut notes hidden within the perfectly textured dal. Also worth trying is the haram mas — Rony’s mother’s recipe — a salted pork dish cooked with kokum for a distinct flavour, the salt lingering pleasingly on the tongue.

Vasco Silveira, chef and owner of Horse Shoe, is another enthusiast who has spent a great deal of time and care researching his recipes. Originally hailing from Angola, the well-travelled Vasco settled in Goa almost 30 years ago and, after scouring the length and breadth of the state to collect and, just as importantly, understand the cuisine, he opened his small but excellent Portuguese-Goan restaurant on the edge of Panaji’s old Portuguese quarter, Fontainhas.  “Cooking is a pleasure in Goan life,” he tells me, while I have the pleasure of sampling his feijorda. A lightly spiced pork dish with black-eyed beans, it has a wonderfully lazy, wood-fired aroma that continues in my mouth. Vasco keeps talking. “A meal in a village could have three different types of fried fish, two types of meat, different curries, white rice, brown rice. I used to get amazed at how much they cooked,” he says. Vasco is meticulous about authenticity — “every masala is ground here, all our food is cooked on a slow fire” — and makes everything himself, to the extent that if he is sick, the restaurant simply doesn’t open. The (primarily meat- and seafood-based) food is exceptional. It often happens with Goan food that the flavours of each dish become indistinct, but here it’s so well prepared that the subtlest differences in taste and ingredients are in evidence. The chicken vindalho, served on the bone, had a purposefully thin, oniony masala, while the balchao revelled in its thicker, more pungent coat, and gave a satisfying kick to the back of the throat.

Just around the corner from Horse Shoe is Viva Panjim, an intimate venue set inside an old-style Portuguese house on a cobblestone alley, where the atmosphere is equally important as the food, and the prices are reasonable to say the least. Owner Linda De Sousa, an incomparable hostess, started the restaurant as an extension of her love of cooking Goan food. Her curiosity developed, and as she met older Goans and began learning their recipes, the restaurant was born. “Everything,” Linda’s husband Michael tells me, “has been passed on by ancestors...everything.”

Tradition is something that’s never completely fixed, with circumstance and necessity chipping away at the edges. One example is in the way many modern kitchens don’t use the wood fires and earthenware pots of their predecessors. Another is the way the food is often adapted to foreign tastes. Usually with Goan food this means less spice, which in turn compromises the traditional flavour, but at The Copper Bowl, a tranquil garden restaurant set inside Calangute’s luxury hotel Pousada Touma, the spice is intact. The difference, however, rests in the amount of oil used in the preparation, reduced to suit the palates of the health-conscious European guests. One might think this affects the taste, but in many cases it only serves to heighten it. The Portuguese chicken and rice soup, canja de galinha, which opened with a delightful surface of coriander, and the prawn curry with Goan rice, were both exceptionally light yet brimming with flavour.

A more down-to-earth case of the traditional meeting the new can be found at King Cane Fast Food, a Goan snack cart located up the small road opposite the football ground in Candolim. Like so many young Goans, the owners, husband-and-wife team Salvador and Maria Barretto, initially found themselves working for others — Salvador drove fork- lift trucks in Kuwait, Maria worked in hotels back in Goa. But when Salvador’s overtime was cut just over two years ago he returned home and decided that he and his wife would become their own bosses. Noticing the absence of Goan fast food in Candolim, he opened KCFF within two weeks of his return, and they have been serving beef chilli fry (tender, spicy beef served in a bun as a burger), beef cutlet and sorpotel to hungry locals every since. The term ‘fast food’ is a bit of a misnomer here though, because while the service is definitely fast, the food itself is prepared at home by Maria (from family recipes, of course) at a traditional Goan pace. Their sorpotel — that famous, heady concoction of pork meat, offal, blood, fat, vinegar and spices — is cooked over four days (sometimes even eight), heated every day for 10 minutes to improve the flavour, until it’s ready to bring to the cart.

The chefs and restaurateurs I speak to are all united in their hesitation in recommending other Goan restaurants. Except when it comes to Florentine. Because tucked away in the village of Saligao, this unpretentious bar and restaurant happens to serve what might well be the best chicken cafreal on earth. The dish, which originated as an African bushmeat recipe before arriving in Goa via Portugal, is made by marinating chicken in a blend of coriander, green chilli, ginger, garlic and lime, among other things. After four hours or so the marinated chicken is lightly fried for 45 minutes, giving it a slightly charred, roasted appearance. The masala is thick and tangy but does not overpower the chicken. The taste, best savoured with lots of Goan bread, is out of this world. I sat down with Vincent D’Costa, who co-owns the restaurant with his brother, Florencio. It was Florencio who perfected the dish after their father, a former chef for the British Embassy in what was then Bombay, came up with the original recipe 24 years ago. I try to press Vincent for the finer details of the dish, but he only smiles enigmatically, before saying, “Even if I told you all the ingredients you could never get it right.”

Most people come to Goa and immediately head north. But if you head in the opposite direction you’ll soon discover the kind of Goa that many say is being lost. In Raia village, 10 minutes north-east of Margao, sits Nostalgia. Waiting inside the grounds of this picturesque, Portuguese-influenced restaurant — an extension of her own sprawling home — is owner Margarida De Noronha Fávora e Costa. As I sit down to eat, she tells me how her late husband started the restaurant in 2001. He had been trained in five-star hotels, but his dream was to open a restaurant on their ancestral land that would serve only Goan food. “Everyone told him he was crazy,” she says, “that he would have to do multi-cuisine to survive.” But he persisted, and survive they did. “Nostalgia wasn’t a project to make money,” Margarida tells me in one of the few moments when she isn’t rushing around to take care of her guests (in this case, a group of Portuguese tourists, who are clearly delighted at seeing a reflection of their homeland in India), “it was to remind people about Goan food and to celebrate the Goan way of life.” As she breezes off again I settle down to salted ox tongue, which against expectations is soft and buttery, its texture a fine compliment to the salt, before moving on to a juicy squid masala with a zesty sauce. The pomfret recheiado is coated just right while the fish within is perfectly cooked. With a full stomach and more than a few glasses of cashew feni later, I move on.

I want to head even further south, to a place that’s perhaps as close to eating with a simple Goan family as is possible without being invited into their home. But before that I stop off at Sabina, on a backstreet in Palolem. Even though the town has had a rapid increase in tourism, it still hasn’t developed like its northern sisters. The restaurant is a smattering of tables and chairs attached to a kitchen, full of locals watching TV or playing cards. I’ve come for the fish-curry-rice, that staple of both Hindus and Catholics, which, I’ve been reliably informed, is phenomenal here. The only thing is, it might take a while, as Sabina only begins languidly chopping the raw ingredients a few minutes after I order. But it’s worth the wait, because 45 minutes later I find myself with a deeply satisfying, well flavoured bowl of fish curry with steaming white rice — all for Rs 50.

The next morning I leave for my final destination, Surya’s Beach Café, at Galgibag. Hidden at the southern end of this isolated stretch, protected from development due to the turtles that nest there, sit two shacks, side by side, one belonging to Surya, the other to his estranged brother. The setting is simple — a few plastic tables and chairs with some hammocks strung up on the trees.

Surya himself has to work at the nearby five-star hotel to supplement the family’s small income, so his 17-year-old cousin, Shailesh, holds fort. At 5.30 in the morning they cast their nets into the ocean. Whatever they catch they serve. On that day it was mackerel, kingfish, oyster, calamari and red snapper. Surya’s mother stays in the kitchen, wood fire burning, smoke gently lifting into the wind, filling the air with its aroma. Almost an hour later a tray of fish-curry-rice appears, with more fried fish, pickle and coconut salad on the side. It’s the kind of robust and unpretentious home cooking — bursting with freshness and flavour — that many in the north, who fear it’s becoming lost, are desperately trying to preserve.

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