It was hot and overcrowded in the Friday market at Mapusa. On tiny squares of gunny sacks that lined the pavements and roads, hundreds of village ladies had staked out their space to sell a bewildering assortment of vegetables, fruits, sausages and cooking ingredients. In the midst of it all were spice sellers whose cinnamon and cardamom wafted their fragrance over the ripe smell of tiny bananas and vinegary sausages. I was goggle-eyed at the novelty of it all: many of the vegetables were leafy greens that I had never seen before, and the degree of specialization was such that each lady (no men here, strangely) had just one or two types of vegetables. Side by side with the aromatic spices were ingredients that were probably unique to Goa. One was an exceedingly sour berry like fruit that had been sun-dried to a purple hue and the other was a pepper-like spice, quite as aromatic as Sichuan pepper but with a much more thick skin.
The great advantage of ethnic markets like the one in Mapusa is that all produce is locally grown. In this case, by hundreds of housewives all over the Bardez district of Goa, of which Mapusa is the largest town. Even unpolished ‘red’ Goan rice, hardly seen outside the state, was sold by these ladies. As far as I could tell, each lady had her own kitchen garden at home from where the vegetables came. The disadvantage was that because of a lack of a common language, I could not ask a single question. So I took another route. I bought a modest amount of both ingredients and set off to look for a restaurant that would tell me about them.
Looking around in Mapusa did not yield much in the way of Goan cuisine. The strictly utilitarian little lunch homes served one dish meals: pork chilli fry with pao or prawn and beef cutlets. The price of falooda and cold coffee was four times as much as that of cashew feni, the local fire-water! So, no prizes for guessing what sold more in St. Francis Xavier and the other functional cafes that dot the Municipal Market of Mapusa.
My first port of call was to Odette Mascarenhas, cuisine writer and researcher of Goan food. By sheer coincidence, she is actually engaged in researching the first curry to belong to Goa: xacuti/xagoti. I am thoroughly confused for more than one reason: I had always thought that the coconut-based fish curry that constitutes the everyday diet of all Goans was the first curry. Besides, I have never heard of xagoti! “Everyday fish curry as well as xacuti are the native foods. Xacuti is called that by the Goan Catholics who have a cuisine distinct from the Hindus,” Mascarenhas informs me, while trying unsuccessfully to bring order to a mountain of notebooks, papers and newspapers that are scattered around her work table. According to her research, xagoti, the version of chicken curry cooked in Hindu households across the state, uses teflem, the exact same spice that intrigued me in the Mapusa market.
“It is only used in Goa, and that too, mainly by the Hindu community,” says Mascarenhas, who has made the subject of xagoti/xacuti her research for a forthcoming book. The mother-lode of all xagoti is believed to have originated in the northernmost part of the state, Pernem. “Each of the 11 talukas or districts of Goa has its distinct taste profile for the same dish,” her research has proved. “When a bride marries from one taluka into another, she melds both styles together, so that over the centuries the distinction has become diffused. However,” says Mascarenhas pensively, “because there has been zero documentation, researching is a nightmare.”
Kokum is the one native ingredient that is used more extensively all down the coast of western India, albeit in slightly different forms everywhere. “The Latin name is garcinia indica and it has slight local variations,” explains Mascarenhas, immediately putting into perspective the sour purple fruits that I bought in Mapusa.
No fish curry is complete without the use of a souring agent. In Goa, the most widely used is kokum, followed by the sour fruit of bilmbi (tree sorrel). Tamarind is rarely, if ever, used in fish and prawn curries, though it is always used with meats (pork, beef and chicken). In some aspects, Goan food is influenced by its location on the Konkan coast – it is effectively on a continuum that includes Gomantak and Malwani food. However, Chef Edridge Vaz of Park Hyatt Goa explains to me that the Portuguese were the game changers as far as the local cuisine went. “Take vindalho for instance,” this man of few words elucidates. “Originally it meant vin (wine) and alho (garlic) and probably was as pure a Portuguese dish as can be imagined. Four hundred and fifty years later, look what we Goans have done to it!” Indeed, the incendiary dish with a generous slick of oil atop it, does not resemble Portuguese food, however remotely.
Casa Sarita, the Goan restaurant that Chef Vaz runs, is a stylized version of an aristocratic home in the state, complete with fish-scales for window panes and household accessories of a domestic kitchen. Vaz has done an excellent job of translating the name – House of Sarita – into the menu. So rather than rich, heavy banquet food that every caterer in Goa has done to death, he gives me ambotik, which means spicy and sour, and is a curry that always features shark. There are simple, home-style steamed vegetables, sprinkled over with the lightest of spices and grated coconut, red rice and dodol for dessert. We are in a courtyard in which a fountain tinkles. Nearby in the extensive lawns, rain trees spread their branches low – a favourite tree of the Portuguese. Vaz informs me how dodol has probably come to Goa via the Portuguese, because it exists in many parts of South East Asia, including countries that were Portuguese colonies.
The earthy tastes, the tiny carbon footprint (coconuts, fish, spices from a 50 kilometre radius), rice and vegetables all from the area – Goan cuisine may be from the west coast, but it has arrived there via Portugal.