A Taste of Goa

Tired of bland veg curries and dals? Think sheekh kebabs are the only non-veg contribution to Indian cuisine? Then, check out Goa. Thanks to the Portuguese, who left their Euro-Christian tastes for meat, Goan menus include beef and the ever-popular goan sausage. Being on the coast and blessed with wide rivers and creeks, Goan chefs also make the most of the bounty of the sea, with shrimp, lobster, and freshwater fish figuring prominently into daily specials and family feasts. And, although Goan cuisine is not that well-known, even outside of western India, one of its dishes has come to be a staple of curry shops round the world: the dreaded, but oft devoured, vindaloo.

A few weeks ago, on holiday in Goa, Anthony and I were determined to check out the local food in its natural setting. However, the monsoons were going to make it a little difficult for us. First of all, many restaurants and beach-side food shacks close during the rainy season. Secondly, the threat of heavy rains discourages fisherman from venturing out to sea, thus leading to pricier fish and more seafood caught in shallow, murkier waters. So, we would have to be resourceful yet choosy. After living in India for almost a year, one learns to be flexible.

We spent our first night in Goa in our hotel, where we were the only guests for the evening. Eager to please the only paying customers, the chef whipped up two classic Goan dishes we had yet to read about: chicken cafreal and a shrimp curry laden with the flavors of coconut and cinnamon. Served on the side was the obligatory rice, as well as some Goan pao (basically, a Portuguese roll). Sure, naan is great with the right dish, but nothing beat those pieces of pao: crusty on the outside, soft on the inside. Not counting the Parsi “brun,” Goan pao is the only read bread available in this entire country. A French boulangerie could make a mint here.

Though the two entrees and extra carbs were quite enough, we were also treated to a dessert of bebinca. Another Goan specialty, this coconut cake is much more than the sum of its parts. Basically, it contains multiple layers (12? 16?) of coconut-milk pancakes cooked in ghee then fired until set. Not surprisingly, it’s a pretty rich, (and I’m sure, caloric) little treat, but it melts in your mouth like flan.

The next day for lunch, we grabbed a quick bite in Panjim. The restaurant scene was pretty dead there, but the family-friendly dive we wandered into was serving sandwiches containing either Goan sausages or beef. We ordered one of each and found both to be dressed with shredded cabbage and a little mayo. Neither were mind-blowing discoveries, but it was satisfying to have a sandwich for a change. (You people with delis and Subway shops on the corner don’t know how good you got it.)

Saturday evening was time to venture out to a restaurant in Baga, a beach area that has enough leftover yuppie drifters and attracts an ample number of well-to-do locals, that many of the restaurants and cafes along one of its main roads were hopping even on a rainy night. In fact, the restaurant we chose – Cavala – was fully booked when we arrived that we were almost turned away at the door. It was 9pm and had taken about half an hour to get to the restaurant, so we were not going home without dinner. We told some white lies about how we had though the hotel had booked our reservations, batted our eyelashes, and finagled a table for two within the time it took for the bartender to pour us a beer and a G&T.

It was worth it. For appetizers, we ordered papads (papardums) wrapped around bits of Goan sausage and a small plate of Mediterranean olives, onions, and giardiniera-style mushrooms (I said this was a yuppied hangout, didn’t I?). The entree list wasn’t very long – about eight dishes worth – and the chicken cafreal and shrimp curry were all out of the picture as we had had them the night before. Beef curry was also a choice, but it just didn’t inspire me at the time.

Anthony seized the chance to get a non-saucy dish, and chose the roast pork with mash potatoes. I figured, when will I ever have the chance to try something called a “prawn volcano?” In fact, the menu listed it as a house specialty. So, I ordered what was essentially a shrimp vindaloo. No, I didn’t eat it all – my head would have exploded – but, in retrospect…God, it was good.

Sunday afternoon, we tried unsuccessfully to eat a traditional lunch in the capital. But, as we were in a predominantly Catholic area, almost everything was closed. As we strolled by mom-and-pop-owned restaurants that were highlighted in our Outlook Goa guide, we were considerably upset as we realized that the moms and pops were busy cooking for their own families that day. Didn’t anyone want to help out two lonely tourists with empty bellies and a penchant for home-cooked Goan food? After an hour of wandering around, repeatedly running into a trio of Japanese tourists who, too, were following the same kitchen vapors, we cut our losses and headed back to the hotel. Our luck, the owners of the inn had arrived the night before with some friends and invited us all out to another restaurant that night – that’s Indian hospitality for you.

This time, we went south to Martin’s Corner, apparently a favorite of Sachin Tendulkar when he breezes through town. Although the place has been written up by guides like Frommer’s, it was decidedly local. So, we were glad we had a chance to join our knowledgeable hosts at the table. They didn’t seem too concerned about eating fish during monsoon season, and so ordered us shareable portions of prawns balchao and fish mol (pickled fish – I think it was pomfret or snapper). The prawns were close to the size of small lobsters and were distinctly clovey. Though not my favorite, the pickled fish had a flavor all its own, and was unlike anything else I had had in India.

Our last mission, before we flew out of Goa on Monday afternoon, was to return to Panjim’s municipal market to purchase some Goan sausages and bebinca. Both items make really good gifts for friends in Bombay. And, if their shelf lives were longer, I’d consider stashing them in my luggage for a trip back to the U.S.A. (By the way, if you go to Panjim’s market for the same reason, head straight to Braganza’s stall, where you can find the links and dessert under one roof.)

Goan food left definite memories on my tastebuds, so I hope I can get back there soon to try out all the other local fare that I might have missed. In the meantime, maybe I’ll give these internet recipes a try. Viva Goa!