Goan food lore: From the fiery red masala in fish dishes to the art of drinking feni

Goa has been the entry route of many spices, vegetables and fruit, if you consider tomatoes to be one, to India
Pork Vindaloo (Photo| Special Arrangement)
Pork Vindaloo (Photo| Special Arrangement)

I met Bebo many summers ago. Not in Bandra but in sultry Goa. And no, it is not the Bebo you are probably thinking about. My Bebo is an actor too -- though not in Bollywood. He is a popular theatre artist in South Goa. There ends the similarity. Bebo is not known so much for his acting. His fame comes from the sinfully divine Goan sausages -- chouricos -- he makes. As you drive up from Colva towards the restaurant Martin’s, Bebo’s house comes on the left. You have to only ask at any roadside shop and they’ll at once direct you there. Non-resident Goans coming home for vacations, well-known politicians including successive Chief Ministers, the local rich and famous are among his customers for whom he makes sausages and his signature Recheado masala on prior order.

The tenderest of Salcette pork is marinated in homemade toddy vinegar and purest Kashmiri chillies, stuffed in hog intestines, tied up in small knots and hung out to dry on a clothesline in the backyard of his modest hutment. Soaking in the pre-monsoon sun and salty air, they acquire a red hue. Bebo’s sausages are not like the commercially produced ones -- long with chunky meat inside -- that you get in stores. His are more cocktail size with morsels that you can nibble on, extracting the last drop of juice from the meat. They don’t have the sharp acetic acid tang of synthetic vinegar and the combination of Goan chillies (Goa has about six varieties of indigenous chillies) imparts a tantalising flavour. Though the secret, I suspect from the smell in his kitchen and that he exudes any time of the day, is the feni he adds in the masala on the sly.

The Goan chourico is a distant cousin of the Spanish chorizo that the Portuguese brought with them. I consider it to be one of the most versatile comfort foods in the world. Choris-Pao is the most popular snack in Goa. It can be the saviour for a hungry soul on a day there is no food in the fridge. One can make easy curries with chopped potato or simply mix them in rice to turn it into a meat pulao. A Goan homemaker always keeps some chouricos at home, literally, for a rainy day, which are many during the monsoons.

But sausages are only the beginning of Goan cuisine. For an uninitiated outsider, it may appear at first sight that Goan food lacks variety. A food critic once wrote that Goans have only one sauce for all their dishes. There is also a perception that Goa is not a place for vegetarians and teetotallers. It is partly true that without alcohol, meats and seafood one will miss a large part of the Goan food culture. But Portuguese-Catholic food is not the only Goan cuisine. The Hindu food of the Saraswats and Konkanis is equally interesting.

Goa has been the entry route of many spices, vegetables and fruit, if you consider tomatoes to be one. The Portuguese brought potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples, guavas and cashews from Brazil to Goa and consequently India. Most importantly, chilli pepper, which has now become an intrinsic part of Indian cuisine, was introduced by the Portuguese. Goa’s Harmal Chillies now have a GI tag. Even the humble pao or pav is their gift to India. Goa has over ten kinds of indigenous bread from poei to undo and sannas. Apart from imbibing some food habits of locals and passing on some of theirs, the Portuguese brought a few recipes from their other colonies as well. For example, the balchao -- a cross between pickle and curry -- probably had its origins in South East Asia, while cafreal is a clone of the peri-peri which travelled from South Africa via Portugal.

Indeed, many of the Goan fish and meat dishes have the red Recheado paste as a base. I say it provides a level-playing field for the proteins to impart their taste to the curry. The variations come from the level of spices and tanginess -- ambotik, usually made with shark or squids, is hot and sour, like a fiery pickle. In comparison, the achari mutton of the North tastes tame and insipid. The variations come from different combinations of chilli pepper, toddy vinegar and cashew feni if used. The meats, mainly pork and beef, are a different genre altogether. Though vindaloo is most popular among visitors, for Goans pork sorpotel is the real deal. The original sorpotel uses blood sausages, pork liver and sometimes offal. However, all Goan curries are not red. Cafreal mentioned earlier and xacuti are green. The latter uses a lot of coconut. The homely fish curry is often made in the Konkani style using turmeric and kokum. Beef is preferred in a roasted form and asado is its Goan version.

The Hindu Goan cuisine uses kokum and tamarind in place of toddy vinegar and feni. Tomato is also a ‘no-no’ for the Saraswats and Konkanis. Turmeric wins over red paste. There is a surfeit of coconut -- either as milk, grated or at times roasted -- especially in vegetables. The medium of cooking is often coconut oil. It uses spices such as asafoetida, fenugreek, curry leaves, mustard and urad dal. Onion and garlic are also used. It also includes vegetables, such as lentils, pumpkins, gourds and greens. The medium of cooking is often coconut oil while the Catholics like mustard oil. The Hindus also have dal in the form of Varan, which is not quite the favourite of Catholics. They have more of rice than bread. Rice or Poiachi Bhakri made of wheat and coconut are other specialities.

Goan sweets do not turn me on. Many go into ecstasy over bebinca -- a form of layered cake. But who needs desserts after a gluttony repast guzzling beer or feni? Many non-Goans cannot deal with the smell of cashew feni.

My friend Winston taught me the trick of drinking feni. It has to be mixed with a dash of lime cordial and soda with or without ice. I still remember that evening over three decades ago when the two of us took a strategic time-out in Panjim on our way back from a work trip to Belgaum. The month was May, I remember, just before the monsoons hit the coast. We were watching the sunset from Miramar beach when I saw a column approaching the shore. Winston laughed it off saying I was hallucinating. But before he could finish his sentence, we were bathed under a massive shower. Totally drenched, we repaired to a nearby shack on the way to Dona Paula. It was the original Martin’s where, as per local folklore, Remo Fernandes used to perform as a young musician. If we did not fall sick the next day, Winston vouched, it was due to the gallons of feni we had to warm us up. On the therapeutic qualities of feni, he would say that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but a bottle of feni a day keeps everyone away, referring, of course, to its odour.

In Goa, Martin’s near Colva remains the go-to place for tourists. Britto’s and its copycats in Baga are overrated. Mum’s Kitchen in Panaji has great food and ambience. But the true pleasure of Goan food can only be experienced in shacks by the sea or local bars in the bylanes of Mapusa, Margao and Panjim.

Alas, there are not too many restaurants outside of Goa serving authentic Goan food. In Mumbai, the City Kitchen closed many years ago. Only New Martin’s remains in Colaba. Others like Goa Portuguesa in Mahim are poseurs in my judgement. The Goa Niwas in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri has good Goan food. But they don’t serve liquor and that is a spoiler.

Postscript

Vindaloo recipe of Lucille’s mom: The best vindaloo I have had was made by Winston’s wife Lucille. She follows her mother’s recipe, which is as simple as it can get. Paste deseeded Kashmiri chillies and roasted cumin seeds in a grinder with vinegar. Use malt or cane vinegar if you cannot lay your hands on palm or toddy vinegar. Take pork cut in medium pieces, with low fat and skin if you like and marinate in the paste overnight or even longer in a refrigerator. Add salt and a pinch of sugar if you like. Heat mustard oil and fry a couple of bay leaves in it with some whole Kashmiri chillies. Ginger and garlic are optional (I do not add it). Onions are avoidable. Put the pork in and cook in slow heat for at least two hours for a kilo of meat. It will cook in its own fat and water coming out from the meat. If it dries up, add some more vinegar but no water. Eat with pav and beer on the side.

(Sandip Ghose is an author and current affairs commentator. He tweets @SandipGhose.)

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