The next time you’re in Goa, if you want to stir up hornet’s nest, try asking a group of house wives for the exact recipe of Goan fish curry. You’ll have a riot on your hands in no time at all.
The exact details of the recipe may elude you — whether the gherkin-like bimbli, tamarind, dried mango peel or preserved cocum is the best sourcing agent for instance. Nor will you be any the wiser about whether a grinding stone is mandatory — after all, what are food processors for? Your group of housewives are likely to come to blows over the question of whether a metal vessel over a gas range is a worthy successor to the quintessentially Goan clay pot on a wood fire. The use of coconut milk as opposed to ground coconut; whether the use of optionals like curry leaves and ginger to the basic jira-dhania-haldi-red chilly-peppercorn mix is a punishable offence under the Indian Penal Code — each point will be argued with acrimony.
By the time the rioteers have dispersed, you will be excused for not knowing very much about what goes into a fish curry. You will, on the other hand, be left in no doubt about the passion with which food is approached.
Goan food has tended to mean the food of the catholic community only. Goan Hindu cuisine concentrating as it does on seafood and vegetables rather than seafood and meat, is by and large the culinary tradition of the Konkan coast, a region which is only just beginning to make its presence felt in speciality restaurants in the country. On the other hand, the Portuguese ruled Goa for 450 years, but were principally confined to the talukas of Bardez, Salcette and Ilhas, where as a corollary, the greatest percentage of converts to Christianity are found. As these talukas have been more visited than others by tourists, it has generally been concluded that Goa is predominantly Catholic, whereas it is in fact only true for three talukas. However, Goan food now calls to mind only the sorpotels and cafreals of the Catholic repertoire, and it is this which is the focus of this article.
Everyday Goan fare consists of fish curry and rice. The gravy is always coconut based, prawns are eaten occasionally in place of fish. When there is neither prawns or fish in the market, the basic gravy is still prepared, although it is, somewhat interestingly, not referred to as curry but called sorak. Fish or prawn pickle, or sour spicy dried prawns or fish accompany the sorak as a sort of chutney, for rare is the person who does not have an ample supply of dried fish or fish pickle for such a contingency. Of course, to do without fish or prawns of any kind whatsoever is a concept so bizarre and laughable that no one has given it serious thought.
There’s a puzzle for etymologists to ponder over: the word curry actually has a Konkani equivalent — kodi. English speaking Goans routinely refer to curry. However, it includes only fish/prawn curry, and never chicken, pork or beef dishes notwithstanding that they are cooked in gravies too. Pork and beef — both widely eaten in Goa, rather than mutton are admittedly never prepared with coconut, but chicken often is. For all that, fish is referred to as curry, never chicken.
While the visitor to Goa delights in a variety of sea food mussels, clams, squid, crabs, lobsters, fish and prawns, the Goan is chiefly concerned with fish and prawns, others being occasional indulgences. Ambot-tik, literally hot and sour, is a popular way of preparing squid, but this is usually eaten along with fish, never as a substitute. Ambot-tik is an amusing name: all Goan dishes are pungent and sour, with a teaspoon of sugar added to provide a third dimension. The daily curry, in common with most seafood preparations uses mild souring agents for a “barely there” sourness, while all meats use liberal quantities of Goa vinegar, made from fermented toddy, for a mouth puckering sourness. Together with fiery Goa chillies which pack a mean punch, ambot-tik could well be the description for many of the State’s party dishes.
Goan society is in a state of flux — twenty years ago, the greater part of the population lived in villages. The concept of moving house, much less re-locating to another village, did not exist: what was good enough for your ancestors was good enough for you. All homesteads were sprawling villas, complete with cavernous soot blackened kitchens, enormous jars carrying the year’s supply of coarse sea salt, parboiled paddy and whole red chillies. Beside the kitchen was the well, whose water was cool and sweet.
May was a busy month. It was the last chance to buy a supply of dried fish and prawns — who knew how much of the fresh stuff would come one’s way during the monsoon? For the same reason, one also stocked up on garlic and onions, stringing them from the ceiling, supremely unconscious that one would be imitated by city dwellers with aspirations to style.
May was when the extended family would descend on Goa, from as far afield as Mumbai, Dubai, Portugal or Canada, so the family pig was duly slaughtered and sausages were made. The toddy tapper would have to be inveigled into parting with a vat of toddy. Left undisturbed in its container, helped along with a burnt brick, a few months would turn it into the much sought after Goa vinegar, when its price would double. Firewood and dried leaves had to be gathered, tied into neat bundles and stored in the room next to the kitchen, where they would be kept dry during the monsoon months. If you had a jackfruit tree in your yard, you’d arrange to swap fruit with your neighbour who had a mango tree in here — you were doubly blessed if her tree was of the Mankurad or Xaverin varieties. The custard apple and papaya trees would ensure a plentiful supply of fruit for all the visitors. You inspected the clay pots and cooking spoons made of coconut shells, and bought new ones if necessary. And then you settled down to the business of making pickles.
Today, moving house is no big deal: working women are relieved to be unchained from the grinding stone; soot blackened kitchens are museum pieces and aluminium has replaced clay just as surely as gas has overtaken the wood fire. No self-respecting builder would provide a well for the edification of the occupants of his apartment complex; the fridge is no longer the curiosity it once was.
In a scenario where authenticity is in danger of losing the battle to convenience, the acknowledged gourmet is the village dweller, for he has access to the traditional kitchen and well water. Thomas Braganza, Executive Chef of Fort Aguada Beach Resort, remembers a visit to the village home of an elderly couple. Struggling to keep the wolf from the door, they had to rely on the basalt grinding stone, clay pots and wood fires of their ancestors rather on the appurtenances of a modern kitchen.. While Chef Braganza was peering into the contents of the cooking pot which had been simmering long enough to reduce the gravy to a mouth watering thickness, the husband arrived from his morning’s fishing with a handful of tiny, still wriggling fish. Dyed in the wool fish eaters know that small fish are intensely flavourful, although the status symbol lies in the larger varieties. With the aroma of the gravy and the freshness of the fish, Chef Braganza would have cherished the simple classicism of the meal were he to be invited. That he wasn’t, was due to the modesty of his would be hosts who couldn’t imagine that an Executive Chef of a luxury hotel would willingly eat everyday curry-rice in a village home.
Fish is so intrinsic to the local diet that all over Goa, vegetarians are defined as those who eat only fish and chicken. That beef and pork are so widely prepared is undoubtedly due to Portuguese influence — Gilda Mendonsa, author of a highly rated Goan recipe book, traces the evolution of party cooking to the felicitous union between local and Portuguese styles in the same way that Indian and English culinary traditions resulted in the Anglo-Indian cuisine of the Raj. According to Mendonsa, pig’s blood and fatty pork would have been the Portuguese contribution to the quintessentially Goan sorpotel, while the spices and vinegar would have been the local contribution. Now, of course, the recipe would be totally unfamiliar to the average Portuguese.
“Look at our genius for indigenizing outside influences” claims Cynthia Chowgule whose A Tricana restaurant at Dona Paula interprets Goan food for western tourists. “The Portuguese bequeathed to us their tradition of western apparel for women, but with the Goan design ethic, it has been transformed by bows and frills on yards of satin into something the Portuguese would scarcely identify as their own. It’s the same with food. And it’s not only the Portuguese legacy — anyone who introduces a novel concept has the satisfaction of seeing it being incorporated into the Goan culinary tradition. Three decades ago it was unheard of to wrap morsels of seafood into papads and fry them as appetisers. Today, every caterer mentions the dish in the same breath as sorportel.”
Goan hospitality is famed for its lavishness. Typical reasons for celebrations include births, engagements, visits from abroad by members of the extended family and Church feasts. While wedding feasts are typically catered to by professionals, large family get-togethers are the preserve of the ladies of the family. Great attention is paid to table decorations and garnishes of each individual dish: a subtle reminder of the Portuguese influence. At such gatherings, the centre piece could well be a full roast suckling pig, apple in its mouth and all. Another popular centre piece is fried tiger prawns mounted on toothpicks and stuck on a carved fruit.
It is at celebrations such as these that the Portuguese influence varies considerably: those families who were important functionaries during the Portuguese rule still speak Portuguese at home. Their erstwhile status is indicated by large houses of overwhelming grandeur and extensive landholdings. Party dishes tend to be divided between Goanised fare and authentic imports from Portugal. Thus empada and apa de camarao are common enough entrants at festive tables in the homes of aristocratic families, but virtually unknown elsewhere. Empada is a thick chicken stew covered with a slightly sweet crust of egg, suji and sugar and baked. Apa de camarao is a spicy prawn pie whose crust is slightly sweet. Whether the two originally included sugar or were hastily modified by the Portuguese to temper other searingly pungent dishes is lost in the mists of time. What is clear is that these two preparations, plus sopa grossa — thick broth — are as close to original Portuguese recipes as anything in Goan cuisine.
Of all party dishes, sorpotel is the most popular. Always served with sannas, the Goan version of an idli, it is the one dish that no host would be foolhardy enough to omit. Cabidel, also made of pork, is something of an acquired taste, for the clotted blood of the pigling imparts a black hue to the cooked dish. Aficionados however swear by it. That pork is the favoured meat is evinced by the fact that baffad and vindalho are popular too — baffad, made from green rather than red chillies, is less spicy than the pickle-like vindalho because of the coconut milk that is used in its preparation — the only meat preparation to include coconut.
Prawn balchao, at once hot, sour and sweet, whole pomfret stuffed with what is known as “red masala” and fish caldiera, a curry made from coconut mild and green chillies represent the sea food component of a festive meal.
Vegetables are given short shrift — in festive as well as daily fare. On the other hand, chicken is, as likely as not, represented by the eternal favourite, xacuti. Fragrant with toasted grated coconut, the quantity of red and green chillies used is guaranteed to make your eyes water: if it doesn’t, it’s not the genuine article.
There is no standardisation of the traditional Goan repertoire: chicken cafreal at Florentines in Saligao is completely from Panjim’s Mandovi Hotel version, with each cook being convinced that his or hers is the original recipe. But that is what makes eating one’s way through Goa such a gastronomic experience. Neither will a request for a recipe be met with total honesty. There’s always a subtle trick or two up every noteworthy cook’s sleeve.
Ninette Proenca, acknowledged as the finest cook in an extended family that sprawls all over Goa and Portugal, always has a stock of dried prawn cake in her kitchen. A piece broken off, crushed and added to vindalho, whether pork or chicken, gives it a distinctive aroma. Although her kitchen uses gas instead of the traditional wood fire, Proenca’s ingredients are culled from around the state: jaggery comes from one special source, vinegar is bought as toddy and allowed to ferment in her house, dried fish is bought annually from one particular family and so on.
The delightfully stodgy range of Goan puddings, all calling for liberal quantities of coconut and sugar is Ninette Proenca’s specialities, the piece de resistance being bebinca. The classic bebinca has to have about seventeen layers of the flour-coconut milk-egg yolk-sugar batter, each baked consecutively and laboriously in a home-made oven heated by smouldering coconut husks. Only bebincas which contain a minimum of seventeen layers are authentic, claims Proenca. Nonsense, retort other cooks — ten is enough. Then, continues Proenca, it is only those bebincas which are baked in a home-made oven which have the authentic flavour. Not true cry proponents of the gas oven — you can’t tell the difference. Yes you can, Proenca is unyielding. No you can’t.
And another riot threatens to unleash itself.