FOR MOST HOLIDAY-SEEKERS, GOA is little more than the go-to place for beaches, booze and never-ending bashes. Am absolutely not denying that. It is that too. But as an artist I was also familiar with another Goa. The Goa of Francis Netwon Souza’s paintings. Souza’s Goa was anything but sunny and Pina Colada-framed as he delved into the deep psycho-geography of his native place, creating miasmic, people-less landscapes where church spires and domes seemed to be colliding with the arches of common homes. Souza’s Goa was a turbulent place where cultures and religions collided against each other. Thankfully there was also Mario Miranda whose brilliant caricatures of his fellow Goans infused another layer of wit and self-deprecation into the Goa I knew. This time however my journey to Goa introduced me to a delightful aspect of the area that I wasn’t too familiar with.
It was an amazing happenstance that brought us to the kitchen of Odette Mascarhenas who is an author, food historian and food curator of Serendipity Arts Festival that I had gone to attend. As a food-lover it was lovely to chat up and taste some of the dishes Odette was showcasing under her ‘Tityache Khabbari’ project of the Serendipity Arts Festival. Literally translated it means ‘news from the marketplace’ but the project sought to explore the intricate network of veins that connected the many different communities of Goa. So in a sense the news from the marketplace was that Goa is neither a Portuguese Catholic monolith nor a Konkan Saraswat-dominated pyramid as many Hindutva revivalists would have us believe. Instead it was a beautiful mosaic of cultures and food habits that was in a constant state of osmosis where each borrowed and absorbed from the other.
We started our meal with ‘Sol Kadhi’ which is a wonderfully refreshing and visually alluring pink drink. It’s made with coconut milk and dried kokum, a mangosteen family berry responsible for the colour of the drink. Then came ‘Bharille Bangde’, a green masala stuffed whole Mackeral fried with a coat of rava. Most of Goa’s fish recipes, Odette tells me, can be traced back to Gaud Saraswat Brahmins who as myth and legend point out were brought and settled in the area by Parshuram, the sixth avatar of Vishnu. Some of the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins also converted to Christianity and formed a composite community within a community of ‘Brahmin Catholics’ known locally as the Bamonns.
A dish that I was neither familiar with nor had had anything even closely resembling it was ‘Ambade Ros’. Ros is a curry made with hog plums (found only in the region and look like small raw mangoes), coconut and jaggery. The name ‘ambade’ also has a common etymology to ‘amba’ which is the word for mango. The deliciously sweet and sour Ambade Ros is made during the non-fish eating months (mostly Shravan) when the other communities turn to dried fish as their staple.
‘Khatkhate’ is another Gaud Saraswat Brahmin dish that is as ingenious as it is frugal. Made with toor dal and leftover vegetables, coconut milk, kokum and teppla (a pepper-like spice that’s native to the region) Khatkhate is a uniquely spiced dish closest to a vegetarian alternative one can think of to the Hyderabadi Haleem.
If there is one thing that is common to all the community kitchens of Goa it is the coconut. There was nothing in our elaborate four-course meal that did not have coconut in it, except perhaps the tea and the Vindaloo (which you will learn later is universally misspelt). Most homes had and still have their own coconut trees to support this excessive dependence on the fruit. Odette tells me this was because milk was not so freely available in the old days which is why coconut milk became such a widely used substitute.
One sub-group—actually a collection of many similar communities—that Odette calls the Hindu-centric people because they were distinct from both the Catholics and the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins. One their identifiable feature was the coarse texture of their ground masalas which were unlike the fine pastes of the Brahmins and the Catholics. This was largely because the more affluent communities had kitchens where whole families got together to grind spices while those living on the border areas tended to live in nuclear family setups with fewer hands to grind spices.
Geographically these communities were located on periphery of Portuguese-administered Goa in the areas between Perne and Canacona of today. Their food was simpler with perhaps a hint of aspiration as they tried of prepare and serve food in the style of the more affluent Gaud Saraswat Brahmins and the Roman Catholics. As a result they had a gamut of preparations that are similar yet different. Odette asks me to taste a prawn cooked inside a banana leaf that she says is suggestive of the culinary aspirations of the other less prosperous communities of Goa.
Being in Goa how could we forget the world-famous ‘Vindaloo’ which Odette corrects me is the corrupted form of actual ‘Vindalho’. “Vindalho was something brought in by the Portuguese,” she says, “it was a combination of the words ‘vin’, ‘alho’ and ‘ho’ which translated as wine, garlic and in-the-style-of. Because they used to marinate their meats with some bay leaves and salt, a lot of wine and garlic and carry it on their caravels to wherever they were travelling, like pickled meat. But when they began to inter-marriage and conversions took place the locals could not stomach a bland preparation. So they recreated a dish where they used pork and they called a ‘Vindalho’ and added a lot of spices.” There are many preparations where the Roman Catholics have taken bits from the Portuguese and some bits the Hindus. A good example of this is the ‘Sanna’. ‘Sannas’ are soft-steamed rice cakes that use toddy for leavening much like the Appam of Kerala, though in appearance they’re closer to the Idli. The sour-ish Sannas are best had with Vindalho as its hot spicy flavour is tempered by them. Odette also makes me sample a ‘Gahve’ which looks like a soft Dosa but is the made of rice flour like Sanna but without the toddy.
The osmosis of food and cooking styles was never a one-way street. Many things that the more affluent communities saw and liked they brought to their own kitchens. The ‘Shagoti’ gravy for example was a chicken dish of the Hindu-centric people that became the ‘Xacuti’ of the Catholics. Today however Xacuti is like the ‘Roghan Josh’ of Goa, it’s cooked in most Goan households and is loved by all. The ‘Sausage Pulao’ of the Catholics is another mysterious dish whose origins are still not very clear. “There is an interesting debate about whether the Sausage Pulao came in because of the ‘Biryanis’ of the Muslims or the ‘Arroz’ that came with the Portuguese. But my supposition is that because it is mixed with the rice, cooked with the rice in the style of the Portuguese, because the Portuguese had a lot of seafood in their Arroz, it is the latter rather than the former. But unlike the Portuguese seafood Arroz Goans never made a rice dish with fish, it was always rice and fish curry,” says Odette.
Among the Roman Catholics a sweet basket or ‘ojem’ was distributed at the time of weddings. This basket contained ‘Dodol’, ‘Doce’ and ‘Bol’ which unlike the khoya-dominant sweets of north India are all made with different permutation combinations of three key ingredients: rice flour, coconut milk and jaggery. I especially loved ‘Bol’. The colour of a coconut shell it is a baked sweet bread made with rice flour, coconut, jaggery and toddy and has a unique hard and brittle texture. It’s an ideal tea snack that’s biscuity in appearance but tastes yum like nothing else. Since am blessed with not just one ‘sweet tooth’ but a whole set of ‘Sweet 32’ I ventured deeper into the world of Goan desserts and discovered subtly flavoured ‘Mangane’, a kheer made with chana dal, sago… and yes you guessed right… coconut milk and jaggery.
It was indeed a serendipitous find, finding food in an arts festival. But it was worth all the three hours or so I spent eating and chatting with Odette. Thanks to it, I now have another, new and very different picture of Goa in my mind.
Dhiraj Singh is an artist, arts columnist and TV personality. He has shown his works at art shows in India and abroad. More about him can be found at www.dhirajsingh.co.in