A comprehensive work of Goan-Mangalorean food

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Frederick Noronha

There’s a story behind this book, or how one encountered it. It has been a long-time guest in our home. Mum didn’t have the chance to grow up with her parents, who passed away early, as did others in the first half of the 20th century. After boarding school came a nursing career and work; and, in short, she had no opportunity to pick up the culinary skills.

To catch up, Isidore Coelho’s The Chef accompanied her through travels in three continents. She more than made up. Some argue that “if you can read, you can cook”. But one doubts that it is as simple as that.

Obviously, Isidore Coelho made a difference. It is unusual, almost amazing, and definitely timeless. In the 1950s and 1960s it was around and available for sale in parts of India. Two generations later, it is still here. So what’s the magic of Isidore Coelho’s The Chef?

For an answer, one had to first get to know the man himself. But that’s not easy, as there seems to be so little material available on him.

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Search online and you’ll find that ‘The Chef’ is not available at the biblio.co.nz site in New Zealand. But, there are a few hints coming out about the man and his work. Coelho was Mangalorean, not Goan. (In spite of this, you’ll find a lot of similarity in the food, for obvious reasons, apart from only a few names that might seem unfamiliar at first glance.)

Coelho worked for the Indian Telegraphs for long. After retirement – a time when some people really rise to undertake creative work – he launched his hobby of writing cookery books. And how!

‘The Chef’ has been through at least 17 editions (as of 2016). It now has hundreds of recipes. Literally. Eight editions back, it had a total of 1644 recipes. The book covers 566 pages. Very simple in design, its inside pages are not glamorous or snazzy, but instead packed with info.

What is even more surprising is how a book of almost six hundred pages, that too in hardbound format, is sold at a price of just `300. The book is being published (and kept in print) by the Better Yourselves Books (BYB) of Bandra, Mumbai.

BYB, many would have encountered it, is the publishing house and chain of small bookstores run by nuns, and connected to the Daughters of St Paul’s. Besides their religious and spiritual books, they have quite some inspirational and motivational titles. Not only books, but also through other forms of the

modern media.

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What is also surprising is that despite Isidore Coelho being Mangalorean, someone reading the book in Goa would barely notice that. Despite these two communities being separated for centuries – due to wars and food shortages in Goa – some aspects like the Mangalorean-Goan food links are still strong.

Coelho, now long departed, has been at it for so long. This is obvious not only from the number of editions of this book, and its popularity. But in other ways too.

A few months ago, the Australia-based Lavina Mendonsa (nee Coelho) came out with a cookbook, called Deliciously Indian. It was based on a book of recipes her mother gave her when she left for Australia. Not surprisingly, she is the grand-neice of Isidore John Coelho (1878-1968). Coelho was in fact Lavina’s grandfather’s brother.

Coelho himself authored this very “legendary cookery tome” in the 1930s, and it is still in print. Its Konkani version is called Randpi, but that is probably in Konkani in the Kannada script.

There’s very little known about Isidore Coelho, and the book focuses on his work rather than on the man. The book was published by the Mangalore-based Codialbail Press, which itself has a history in printing and publishing in that part of India.

This gives a hint of how difficult it can be to publish niche books, which, in turn, cannot grow in size unless they come out in print in the first place.

In a way, Coelho’s book is almost encyclopaedic in its scope. It covers a little about everything. He starts off by telling you what a kitchen should be like, describes the different forms of cooking (why is soup making different from boiling, and what is sautéing or braising?)

In one page, Coelho offers “useful hints” – such as, why adding a little lime juice helps in cooking rice, or how to sharpen the blades of a mincing machine in times of scarcity!

His first section is on vegetarian cooking, In nearly 160 pages, the book touches on soups, gravies, sauces, salads, pastries, Indian sweets, and a total of 15 varieties of vegetarian food. Including as many as eight types of chappatis.

The non-vegetarian food is almost as diverse, with 13 sections – including six sub-sections of curries.

Part III of the book is of particular interest. Apart from offering tightly-packed recipes for pickles, preserves, one section looks at “drinks for invalids”. This is obviously from another era – albumen water, whey, toast water, lemon squash, tomato juice, orange juice, orange punch, soda and milk, linseed tea, jeera tea, coriander tea, rice tea, rice water, arrowroot, barley water, egg fillip, egg fillip with milk or coffee, and a lemon egg fillip.

Next is a section on “medical hints” – mostly home remedies based on past understanding. A six-page glossary gives a translation of food items – in English, Hindi, Marathi and Konkani – is also rather helpful.

For a region which has a rich and diverse variety of food – and takes its culinary traditions so seriously – this is indeed a useful book. Check out your copy which should be available at major bookstores in Panaji, Margao, and Mapusa and also the Daughters of St Paul’s at 18th June Road. This is clearly a book that has stood the test of time.