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From the ultra diverse world of Goan food


Goan food is big. The other day, a visit to some online spaces reminded me of the mammoth sized Facebook groups with one-lakh-plus members discussing various aspects of Goan food.

At another level, Goan street food is also increasingly gaining attention far beyond Goa’s borders. Even while the global menus that lure the palate might seem more attractive to us right now, those in the know are clear about their choice. They know that the simple, traditional, Catholic, Hindu-style or Muslim food of the yesteryears is what has real value.

Who would have guessed that the quaint Goan combination of ros-omlet, or the humble food-carts alongside the Santa Cruz church and Anandasharam in the lanes behind Panaji’s General Post Office would be written about and noticed in publications hundreds or thousands of kilometres away?

Would you have thought that traditional Goan food which your grandmother served you would actually gain popularity on the streets? Only to surface there as a warm, inexpensive form of Goan fast food, which incidentally started sometime after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, when a Goan like Umao lost his job there and needed to think of a new form of sustenance here?

It’s a pity that, with a few exceptions, Goa lacks the places which offer crash-courses on how to prepare the local food, aimed specially at tourists. Kerala has many options on this front, for example. Trust the practical approach of our southern neighbours.

It was a pleasure to receive, the other day, a copy of Fatima da Silva Gracias’ just-released Cozinha de Goa: A Glossary on Food (Broadway, 2019). Goan food, the historian with a deep interest in the topic argues, is a “rich blend” of many global cuisines. It borrows from the cuisines of the Konkan, Marathi, Karnataka, Portuguese, Arab, Malay, African and Brazilian and even has “traces of French and Anglo-Indian”.

This is not a book of recipes. This might come as a relief to those of us who don’t quite understand the chemistry (or, is it the algebra?) of cooking, but nonetheless are curious about what goes into the stomach, what it’s made of, and even where its roots are.

So, Gracias, a former professor of history at Dhempe’s in Miramar, explains literally hundreds of food terms from the Goan cuisine. She traces their origins, cultural and religious influences, traditions and food practices. There are also sections on Goan food etiquette, the “kitchen armoury” and fish names in Konkani and English.

The last reminds me of the difficulty in understanding our fish. It’s rare to find a Goan who can explain all his or her fish, simply because if you know the names in one language, mostly likely, you wouldn’t know it in the other language.

It gets more complicated. Fish might be referred to by different names, or not known at all, even in different parts of tiny Goa.

On one occasion, a couple of journalist colleagues dropped over and decided to order some fish in a village restaurant. When the waiter told them the name of what was on the menu, they showed no sign of recognising. Puzzled, they anyway asked for two of these fish. The waiter turned up with two huge fish, which caused all kinds of logistical problems, not the least about being able to afford it and stomach it. This was in the 1980s, when our waters still yielded fish.

But then, there’s a warning about local fish names in English too. Because of global fish diversity, the local fish might not be quite like the fish in another part of the world. An anthropologist friend from the US mentioned that some Arabian Sea fish bear little or no resemblance to the Atlantic or Pacific fish species whose names they carry!

In complicated situations like this, one appreciates the utility of a book like Silva Gracias’. This, incidentally, is her second book on food, the earlier one being the similarly titled Cozinha de Goa but whose subtitle tells you that it looks at the ‘History and Traditions of Goan Food’. She has also written, presented, and published other academic papers on food-related themes.

This book attempts to explain the A to Z of Goan food. It starts with aadmas (bones with a little meat, usually pork) and aam raas (the semi-thick pulp of ripe mango plus milk, sugar, cardamon, ground cashew nuts, raisins) and goes on till zaam (described as a bell shaped, waxy fruit) and zunka (a dish of gram flour, veggies, ground coconut and spices).

Some of the terms, one has to confess, were completely new. For instance, could you guess what yam tondak is? Tondak, derived from the Konkani word for mouth, is a dish with gravy, prawns or vegetable, and cooked in coconut and spices ground to a paste. The coconut and spices are lightly roasted and ground before adding it to the main ingredients.

It pays to know your Goan food, as you just might enjoy your meal more. The other day, at a conference, a caterer from St Cruz had this lavish spread of Goan dishes, but intentionally or otherwise, the names of each dish were only in Konkani.

Some time back, I found a Goan Hindu-run restaurant selling an unlikely Luso-influenced dessert called serradurra. Silva Gracias informs that it comes from Macau, and its name in English literally means ‘sawdust’. It’s made of condensed milk, milk cream and powdered biscuits that give it a thin saw-dusty layer. Oddly enough, in Goa it got known only in the post-1961, post-Portuguese era. “The recipe was possibly brought in by Goans living in Macau or Portugal,” writes Silva Gracias.

One might find it difficult to believe that some in Goa once made a Portuguese-type of cottage cheese called requeijao or requeson. Or that the term for a small, crunchy cucumber in Konkani is pipryos.

There are entries for the humble conjee (pez, or rice gruel), bucad (a pineapple jam with cardamom), tiny buranto fish, the chaako dish of raw jackfruits, chepnim (salted tender green mangoes in lime), crab xec-xec (crabs in sautéed onions, finely ground coconut and spices), stuffed crab, fokam (immature cashew seeds), and more in the book’s 244 pages.

The entry on the chaienchem dukan (tea shop) deserves a read. And did you know that coffee began to be consumed by Goans only in the last hundred years of Portuguese rule, and never got to be quite popular perhaps because of its higher prices.

Bitter gourd can be stuffed with prawn, cooked in spices, tied with a string and shallow fried. Not many like this gourd, but it is believed to help treat diabetes, skin infection and constipation. “Fine strips soaked in water for a while, crisp fried and then mixed with tamarind pulp, turmeric, cumin seeds, salt, sugar and grated coconut yields a crunchy relish.” Making me feel hungry already…

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