One advantage of a ’creole’ cuisine like Goa’s is that, no matter where you come from, it is bound to taste exotic. Freshly arrived Western tourists are struck by the Oriental pungencies of turmeric and cumin, not to mention some of the hottest chilli varieties anywhere. But if your visit to Goa comes at the end of a long stint in India, you will find the local flavours curiously ‘Western’ and a refreshing change from the increasingly homogenized masala that is becoming the standard restaurant fare all over the rest of the country.
Ingredients, especially seafood, tend to be fresher and less overcooked in Goa. Pork, a rarity elsewhere in India, is a staple of the Goan diet. Coconut milk and sometimes vinegar figure in the sauces to take some of the bite out of the curries and make for a richer, more complex flavour. Goan cooks arc more liberal with spices like nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. Along with rice, the local cuisine features leavened breads rather than the unleavened flatcakes common elsewhere in India. Steamed dumplings, called ‘sanaa or ‘odo’ are also Goan favourites.
Subtler than most run-of-the mill Indian cuisine Goan cooking also requires a surer hand in the kitchen. No wonder that_Goan, cooks are of export standard. Chefs figure prominently among the emigrants Goa has been sending for generations throught the sub-continent and around the world.
They predominate in the galley of merchant ships and the kitchens of five-star hotels. They are adaptable to any cuisine from Chinese to Continental to Mughlai. But like other Goan expatriates, they are prey to gastronomic nostalgia.
Each year in the pre-monsoon months of May and June, when ‘it rains Goa flock home expressly to take care of their ancestral homesmore than alternately eat and snooze. But that is more than enough for the true cognoscenti. Early summer is when the shrimps, lobsters and fish are abundant, the cashews and coconuts arc ready for brewing into fresh feni liquor, the mango season is at its peak. Kids are on holiday from school and the Church obliges with a concentration of feast days, providing ample occasion for banquets.
In the expansive mood of one of these feasts — or Mardi Gras, or Christmas, or even just a village wedding — you might be lucky enough to land an invitation to a Goan home. That is by far the best place to sample the state’s classic cuisine. But even if nobody happens to take you home for dinner, you can still get a pretty good sense of the delicacy and ingenuity of Goan dishes just by visiting local tavernas.
For Goans, unlike most other Indians, are convivial drinkers. Every urban neighborhood and backwater village keeps two or three bars well patronized. Some of them boast three-page menus just to help wash down the feni. Featured items might include:
sorpotel. a vinegary stew of pork and pig’s liver. The deluxe version, called cabidel, also adds pig’s blood.
chorizo, the local variant of sausage, usually served in a red sauce. xacuti, a high-octane curry smoothed out with coconut milk, cloves and nutmeg.
vindaloo-style pork or fish, prepared in a piquant gravy. oyster guisado, a tomato-based soup. steamed prawns, often in a yogurt-and-mustard sauce. This preparation also works well for lobster.
cabidela de pato, dried duckling slowly simmered in an earthenware casserole. According to the classic recipe, the duck should be plied with vinegar before slaughter and later simmered in its own juices. Tamarind features in the spicing.
Other men items may be less excotic-sounding but are equally appetizing, In season you cannot go wrong with seafood. Beach front lean-to restaurants have enough to sense to serve it simply-steamed, fried or baked. Mercifully, these places have srpouted up just down the strand rom several of the five star hostelries, offering denizens of these golden ghettos a needed respite from mediocre and over-priced hotel food.
To wash down your meal, Goa produces a line of distinctly Iberian-flavoured wines under the Adega da Velha label. The whites tastes like cherry and the reds like port. For drier palates stick to Golconda, alternatively you can also try Caju-Feni
Cashew feni is belter as an aperitif than as a drink with food. It has a heavy, oily taste that clashes with some dishes. Uracco. the start-of- the-season distillate of young cashews (available only in the pre-monsoon) is lighter and more suited for table use. Coconut feni is also cleaner-tasting and more versatile. Ginger feni goes brilliantly with seafood. Drink it ice cold. Caution: feni can pack a wicked morning- after wallop. So can toddy, the sweet-sour undistilled palm wine that is the base for coconut feni.
Wherever you dine in Goa. be sure to save room for dessert. Better restaurants and tearooms boast a variety of pastries and puddings, including the classic Portuguese flan. But the undisputed queen of Goan sweets is bebinca, a multi-layered concoction of flour, eggs, coconut milk, butter and sugar that aficionados find irresistible, although it is as heavy as an ingot. For lighter appetites, mangoes round off a meal perfectly. Three Goan mango varieties are prized throughout India: Alphonsos, Fernandinas and Malcoradas.