It was a warm October afternoon, but the sweat pouring from our brows was generated by heat from the fiery fish curry. Our group of 50 and 60 somethings from Delhi, Singapore and Bengaluru was sprawled under the thatch roof of the “Smoke Fish Café”, a grand name for what was essentially four plastic tables and a rough concrete floor of a house, sheltered by a thatched roof, down a quiet, sylvan lane in Morjim, north Goa.
In time, a beaming woman in a sari materialised with our food, our host, Ranjeeta Parsekar or “Babita”. She and her husband had cooked everything. “We barely have time to eat sometimes,” sighed Babita. Below us, Mr Parsekar was at work, an ample man dressed only in cotton shorts and a wide smile, sauteeing squid in hot oil in a wide wok.
I can handle a fair amount of spice, but this fish curry was impressive in its uncompromising fieriness. As a Goan fish curry though, it was perfect in its tanginess and smooth consistency, its effortless union of coconut, chilli and tirphal, the dried husk of a local berry (and a cousin of the Sichuan pepper) that my mother and aunts use but I do not.
As I sweated but managed, I looked around at my friends and smirked. Some could barely speak, others looked distressed. They all agreed the fish thali that we had preordered—which meant, of course, that we still had to wait for more than an hour—was excellent, but the spice was off their scales. The fire was not as pronounced in the fried fish and prawns, kismoor (shrimp) and tisriya (clams), and some kokum juice quietened our digestive tracts.
There were no other customers, but the little eatery had found its way on to food-delivery apps, which apparently were enthusiastically being swiped by Goa’s resident aliens, thousands of whom have bought or rented homes in my native land and are, simultaneously enriching and mucking it up.
Goa was considerably more tattered and concretised than I ever remembered, but its essence—people, culture and food—appeared intact, away from the new elevated highways and the garish new projects. One of those that the writer Vivek Menezes showed me was a seafront walkway in Miramar being constructed as part of a “smart city” project in the capital, Panjim. The walkway didn’t appear particularly smart, since it was being built by chopping down trees and pouring concrete over the beach.
The other project whose depredations I witnessed was the controversial new international airport coming up at Mopa. As I travelled to my home village, Halarn—source of all Halarnkars—I was taken aback to see giant trucks tearing up the roads, spreading a pall of dust over the lush northern lands of Goa. I came here last about two decades ago. I recalled deserted roads, backwaters, the river and a sea of coconut palms and forest. When I was a child, the journey was harder and even more beautiful: by ferry across the river, downriver on a boat, then a walk to Halarn.
Even the village temple, where I visited the family deity, Vetal, had changed. It was bigger and brighter, basking in a coat of vivid orange. The pujari (priest)—a friendly young man from Maharashtra obviously starved of company—gave me the full tour, prasad, invited me to the temple fair in November and added me to the temple WhatsApp group. The village looked unchanged, deathly quiet and not a soul around at midday.
Morjim beach, which we foolishly hoped would be—largely—deserted, as it was 20 years ago, was a bit of a shock on the first day, littered with the detritus of the great Indian tourist and overpopulated with dowdy resorts, one of which we stayed at and kindly adjusted. As the days wore on, the sea and beach cleaners got to work and made the morning runs and evening walks considerably more pleasant.
Our reunion unfolded with the comfort and humour afforded by the familiarity by old friends, bad jokes and middle-aged rigidness. Somehow, we managed to agree on the greatest potential point of conflict: food. Our explorations yielded, apart from Babita’s little place, a couple of other gems. One of them is very well known, Bomras, with its uncommon, exuberant and inventive take on Burmese cuisine.
The others were known only to locals. Near Halarn, our taxi driver took us to lunch at Ankita Classic, a flagbearer of Konkan cooking, with bountiful fish thalis: varieties of fish, squid, prawn, crab—also meat, chicken and, er, Chinese, just in case. Just 5km short of the border with Maharashtra, it was packed with Maharashtrians, many of whom scarfed and washed down the food with generous quantities of alcohol.
Wine and beer were also part of family lunches at Casino Motels, an unlikely place for one of the best meals I’ve recently had that was not fish. Courtesy my friend Nigel Brito, we found ourselves in the basement of a staid but super clean middle-class hotel beside a paddy field. The highlight of lunch was pork ambsol, made with my beloved kokum, a souring agent par excellence. Other entrees included pork ribs, pork roast and Goa sausages.
My fish curry is always made with kokum, but after lunch with Babita, I was determined to try tirphal. I bought some when Menezes generously took the wife and I on an impromptu tour of Panjim, leavened with his unique knowledge and insight on #BeingGoan (it’s a hashtag he uses). At the Panjim municipal market, a kindly old lady sold me an aromatic bunch of tirphal. We ended in the historic Latin district of Fontainhas, where at Antonia@31, on a balmy evening, we ended the journey with fine feni, smoked mackerel, bhindi (okra) and bone marrow.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11 on Twitter.