Bebinca is a multi-layered, ghee-laden, coconut milk-infused pudding from Goa. Christmas, weddings and special occasions in a Goan home are incomplete without this rich dessert. In the coastal state, if you visit any well-known restaurant—Martin’s Corner, Souza Lobo, Viva Panjim—that prides itself in traditional cuisine, bebinca would be listed on their menu. It is cut into thin slices, slightly heated and served with vanilla ice cream.
This multi-layered pudding is intrinsic to Goa’s culinary identity. So much so that Pramod Sawant, Chief Minister of the state, announced on Wednesday, that his ministry would push for a geographical indication (GI) tag for this signature dessert.
“Predominantly, bebinca is popular with Catholic communities here,” says Nolan Mascarenhas, a food writer and consultant from Anjuna in Goa. He shares that the recipe is a well-guarded secret in families and there are home cooks who specialise in this dessert. It is a technique-focussed pudding which can take upto 12 to 14 hours to make. It has about 7 to 16 layers, which means it requires an intensive cooking process. Bebinca makers supply it to local restaurants, wedding caterers and 5-star hotels. “The demand for this traditional dessert exists, but if you visit Goa, the locals will not reveal their recipe or tell you where they source it from. Even Google won’t guide you,” he says.
In supermarkets like Nature’s Basket in Mumbai and Panjim, one can find bebinca by the brand Costaz. But, just as most commercial food products, it tastes somewhat synthetic. Mascarenhas says, “Although Costaz is most popular, Montana Confectioners, Goana Foods, Madgaonkars and Rego’s are a few local brands which sell bebinca.” Try to score an invite to a Goan wedding or a family Christmas celebrations to taste bebinca defined by flavours of ghee, coconut and caramel.
The origins of this sticky pudding can be traced to Portuguese nuns, who settled in the state in the 17th century. It is one of the many confectionaries of the convent (doces conventuais) that were introduced in Goa by them. In Fatima da Silva Gracias’ book, Cozinha de Goa, considered to be essential reading for those interested in Goan cuisine, there is a story about how the bebinca came to be: “Legend has it that the Queen of Goan desserts was an innovation of Bebiana, a nun from the Mosteiro or Conventi Da Santa Monica in the old city of Goa. This nun baked a seven-layered pudding to symbolise the seven hills of Lisbon and the old city of Goa. Almonds being expensive, almond juice was substituted with coconut juice. Bebiana sent the pudding to the nearby missionary-priests possibly those living in the convent of St Augustine to which Order the nuns of Santa Monica also belonged. The priests found the size of the pudding small for them all and advised the nun to increase its size to a dozen layers. After her death, the sweet was named bebinca. Or so goes the legend.”
This story illustrates how food travels, recipes evolve and find new identities.