April 14, 2024

Meet the cooks keeping traditional Goan cuisine alive

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This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

I’m on a dirt path surrounded by swaying coconut palms that offer up little in the way of afternoon shade. The heat is relentless, scattering everyone indoors and blanketing the village with stillness. I hurry along, seeking out an oasis. Then, around a corner I find it — a small farmhouse with a red tiled roof and a spacious balcony.  

It seems a small village can hide many secrets. And here I am, in an unexplored part of my ancestral home, out to uncover one of them. Camurlim is a village in North Goa, near to the popular market towns of Anjuna and Mapusa. And the red-roofed farmhouse is where I’ll be learning about Goa’s Hindu Saraswat cuisine, courtesy of Shubhra Shankhwalker, a graphic designer and cook who runs a catering company, Aai’s (‘aai’ meaning ‘mother’ in Marathi and Konkani) and hosts sit-down meals for groups of up to seven people. 

Shubhra greets me with a chilled glass of kokum (a sour tropical fruit) juice, and we sit on the balcony enjoying the coolness of the red oxide floor beneath our bare feet. She belongs to the Gaud Saraswat Brahmin community, in a country where concepts of caste and cuisine are often inseparable. “One of the biggest misconceptions about Goan Hindu food is that it’s vegetarian. But we eat chicken, mutton and fish,” she explains. “Goan Saraswat cooking is not only about following recipes but choosing the best ingredients and knowing how, and when, to cook them. We’re very particular about ingredients.” A glance around the kitchen supports this, with not a packaged or ready-made masala in sight. Even the salt, I learn, is rock salt sourced from the state’s few surviving salt pans. Shubhra prepares everything from scratch, drawing on all she learned from her mother-in-law — including how to treat fish.

An integral part of Goa’s cuisines, fish is plentiful in a state with almost 100 miles of coastline as well as numerous inland bodies of water. “I was taught that fish has to be fresh, and eaten according to season,” Shubhra explains. “You can reheat a fish curry, but it’s important to cook fish as soon as you get it.” Like most Goans, she sources hers at a fish market and from the fishing jetties, or sometimes even by waking up at 4am and visiting the manos (sluice gate) to source small prawns for pickling.

I watch and listen as she cleans and cooks the fish, picking up tips. Mackerel skin, for example, should show rainbow colours when it hits the light — that way you know it’s fresh. The mackerel in question is soon to be part of a lavish lunch — it’s deboned and stuffed with a coriander and chilli chutney-like paste, a combination that seems to bring out its meatiness. It’s not the only fish on the menu — there’s a pearl spot, otherwise known as a green chromide, swimming in a smooth hooman (curry), which I ladle over locally grown rice.

Daily bread

Goa is my home and the place I’ve spent most of my life, yet I’m still discovering the complexity of the cuisine, much of which finds its purest expression in people’s homes, rather than in cookbooks or even restaurants. It’s a cuisine that relies on the bounty of the land and sea, with preservation techniques playing an important role. It’s also influenced by 451 year’s of Portuguese rule, with many Portuguese recipes adapted over the years and given a distinct Goan stamp.

Perhaps the biggest culinary legacy of the Portuguese is bread, which was once fermented using toddy — a type of vinegar made from the sweet sap of coconut palms. Today, bread is an unshakable part of Goa’s identity. In villages, in both the early morning and evening, poders (bakers) can be seen laden with baskets of fresh bread, including the popular poee (a leavened flatbread made with wholewheat) and pao (square-shaped fluffy bread with a hard crust). The bangle-shaped crusty bread called kakonn, meanwhile, is often dipped in tea as teatime treat.

For visitors wanting to sample Goan food, there are some obvious starting points. Firstly, the thali places, where Goans love to lunch, most commonly on fresh fish, fried and served in a curry. While they cater primarily to locals, these places also welcome respectful tourists. Then there’s the ubiquitous cafes that specialise in bhaji-puri (or pao) — simple vegetarian preparations of cowpeas, potatoes or mushrooms, usually eaten with kappa or mirchi (potatoes or chillies coated in gram flour and deep fried) and sweet buns made with bananas.

When it comes to Goan restaurants, most stick to standard dishes, curries like vindaloo — arguably Goa’s most famous export — chicken xacuti, sorpotel (a spicy pork dish) and the catch-all Goan fish curry. However, in the aftermath of the Covid lockdown, there’s been a surge of new restaurants across the state focusing on various international styles, such as Southeast Asian, Mediterranean, Mexican, Spanish and French, to name a few. For all the variety now on offer, the change has come at the cost of local cuisine, which is in danger of being reduced to just a few standard, stereotyped dishes in a dwindling number of restaurants. 

Fortunately, there are people working to preserve and showcase Goa’s culinary identity — people like Crescy Baptista and Oliver Fernandes, who run a restaurant in Margao called The Goan Kitchen (TGK). They also put on lunch experiences for groups of up to 12 people at Crescy’s home in the neighbouring village of Loutolim, which is where I find myself on another hot summer’s day. I sit under a mango tree in the corner of her garden, sipping on a cold, sweet neero (cashew apple juice) and admiring a kingfisher, while the family’s statue of St Anthony smiles benignly at me. 

Crescy is supervising a team of women in a kitchen that’s abuzz with activity, the sweet notes of the South Goan language Konkani adding melody to the cooking sounds. As I scan the scene I spy recipes tacked to counters, vintage blue porcelain serving plates and pots simmering.

Crescy takes a break to show me around. Outside the kitchen there’s a well, a typical feature in many local homes. Next to that sits an earthen fireplace beneath a small roof thatched with dried coconut fronds. It’s a nod to Goan kitchens of yore, when food was cooked over firewood and in mud pots — something Crescy believes “gave it better flavour”. By the side is another relic, a three-pot system called a tizel (“the oven of olden times”), which is being used to cook bebinca, a multi-layered cake made with coconut milk. 

For Crescy, it’s important that Goans keep hold of some classic culinary customs, including purumenth, the Goan tradition of preserving. “When the monsoons were bad, people would stock up on food in summer, drying and salting fish, mango seeds and chillies, making pickles and vinegar,” she says. “If you didn’t follow purumenth, you’d have nothing to eat.” 

Crescy’s own purumenth involves making her own choris (spiced Goan sausages), drying jackfruit and cashew nuts and stocking up on chillies and souring agents such as tamarind, mango seed, kokum and bimbli (tree sorrel) to use in curries.

Summer is cashew season. The fruit is treasured here because its juice is fermented and distilled to make two beloved Goan drinks, urrak and feni. The ingredient also seems to be a theme of today’s meal. My neero is followed by an equally refreshing urrak cocktail. Then there’s a sorpotel, usually made with pork but here it’s cashew apple rather than meat that’s combined with the garlic, chillies and vinegar. For dessert, there’s a trio of cashew dishes: cashew mandos — a dense cake made with rice and jaggery; bolo sans rival, a rich cashew nut buttercream cake; and dedos de dama, a lollipop of cashew nuts and coconut with a caramel shell. 

“Our lunches are meant to give diners a taste of what we don’t have in restaurants,” says Oliver, who’s tasked with explaining each dish. “You won’t find commercial food here.” 

The dishes keep coming. There’s caldeirada, a mild fish stew made with modso (lemon fish), and apa de camarao — a “celebratory dish” resembling a pie, which is essentially sannas (steamed rice cakes made with toddy) stuffed with prawns. Then there’s bife com cebolada — tender pieces of meat cooked in their own juices with onions. And on top of all of this, there’s more sannas plus polle and pan polle (thin and fluffy rice pancakes) on the side.

The meal is  a snapshot of traditional Goan Catholic cooking. It’s abundant in meat and fish — “A true Catholic Goan would never go without having a fish every day,” says Crescy. There’s a tangible Portuguese influence, and it showcases the Goan penchant for seasonal eating. I leave Loutolim with some moist bebinca and respect for my fellow Goan food-lovers.

Traditions transformed

A little further south, I find another Goan keen on showcasing the state’s cuisine, albeit in a reimagined form. It took the lockdown in 2020 for chef Avinash Martins to realise his dream of introducing his version of Goan food. During the six months his restaurant Cavatina by Avinash Martins, in the village of Benaulim, was shut, he toured Goan villages, speaking to older folk, learning forgotten recipes and meeting local artisans — from toddy tappers and cashew farmers to fishermen and bakers. 

“Goa hasn’t been portrayed enough, especially in the culinary space,” he says. “I noticed people weren’t talking about where their food came from. I had to tell these stories.” When Cavatina reopened, it no longer served world cuisine, dishing up reimagined Goan food instead. And, during the process, Avinash became something of a Goan food evangelist, doing pop-ups and winning awards.

Beyond Cavatina, he offers a special chef’s table — a venture called C’est L’Avi (also known as Table in the Hills) — at his family farm, located deep in a jungle of cashew and coconut plantations. It’s a newly built, open-roofed space, made from stone and concrete. At one end there’s a kitchen, complete with mud hearth and a brick oven. On mud shelves sit garrafões (large glass jugs) filled with feni and urrak that’s been made on the farm. There’s also a small bar, where urrak cocktails and a very welcome coconut water and cucumber drink is being made. I sit on a cane chair by a long table covered with breadfruit, love apples and other bounty from the garden.

Avinash describes Goan cuisine as “a kaleidoscope of different flavours, textures, colours and cultures — it’s one of the most diverse and dynamic in India”. His own food is unmistakably Goan, albeit presented in surprising ways, and with no lack of flair. He serves red amaranth leaves within a Greek spanakopita, the delicate pastry enclosing the leafy sprigs. Hay-smoked mackerel is dished up in a cloud of smoke under a cloche. Slivers of tender (young) coconut are drizzled with three sauces: coconut water with milk and saffron, aamras (raw mangoes, pureed), and kokum. 

The results are visually stunning — and when I discover Avinash also dabbles as a painter, I’m not surprised. “When I came here as a child, I would paint and eat a lot of tender coconuts, so I created a story around that memory,” he explains. And while the dishes I’m being served don’t look familiar, I do recognise the underlying flavours. “Food isn’t just flavour. It’s bits of nostalgia, memory and texture, a visual experience, and finally, a feel-good factor,” he adds. “After eating a meal, you have to leave the place content and nourished.”

Six hours later, I leave the farm feeling sated, or ‘susegad’, as the Goans would say. On my way out, I spot a farmer, a towel around his waist and gumboots on his feet, sitting near a pile of cashews. We get chatting and he asks if I would like a song. The next moment feels surreal: listening to a stranger singing about collecting cashews for feni, while surrounded by cashew trees in the middle of nowhere. But this is Goan village life — and I’m thrilled to be privy to more of its secrets.

Published in Issue 22 (winter 2023) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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