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Goa’s best chef is a secret

Chef Vasco Silveira toils with single-minded focus on the Luso-Goan food for his ferociously loyal clientele. The sum result is pure magic, as good as it gets anywhere in the world

Vasco Silveira at the Horseshoe restaurant
Vasco Silveira at the Horseshoe restaurant (Photo: Assvari Kulkarni)

The history of the world is on your plate, all food is the expression of a long struggle and a long story. – Anthony Bourdain

The best restaurant you have never heard of is tucked under a colonnaded balcony on Rua de Ourem, alongside the mangrove-lined creek dividing Panaji’s oldest heritage neighbourhoods from the all-concrete business district of Patto. Close by, some of Goa’s most popular establishments thrum with infectious good cheer, right into the moonlight hours. But not Horseshoe (Ferradura in Portuguese), which remains forbiddingly empty most of that time.

This is the paradox carefully cultivated by chef Vasco Silveira, which enables single-minded focus on the Luso-Goan food he toils to present his ferociously loyal clientele. The sum result is pure magic, as good as it gets anywhere in the world.

But even if this great Goan restaurant almost always remains serenely empty, there’s no doubt the connected cuisines of India’s smallest state—the Cozinha de Goa resulting from centuries of profound globalization—are boldly emerging into the global food spotlight. Everywhere you look, critics extol delicacies once unknown outside this tiny sliver of the Konkan coastline. Some time ago, the New York magazine (accurately) called the street food cult favourite ros omelette “one of the world’s great egg dishes". Meanwhile, just up the coast, where it obsessively reinvents cherished specialities like kismur and uddamethi, Mumbai’s landmark “Goa inspired" O Pedro vaulted to No.8 in the 2019 Condé Nast Traveller (CNT) Top Restaurant national rankings.

Full disclosure: From their inception in 2017, I have been included in the vast cohort of judges for the CNT rankings, and have always enthusiastically voted to rate Horseshoe amongst the best (due to pre-selection procedures, this was not possible in 2019). This is because the tiny establishment perfectly fits what I consider the gold standard for honours in this arena: Michelin’s benchmarks of “quality of the products; mastery of flavour and cooking techniques; the personality of the chef in his cuisine; value for money; and consistency between visits". By these criteria, Silveira is hard to beat. It’s continually surprising to me that he isn’t widely acknowledged as one of India’s greatest food superstars.

The Panjim market from where he buys fresh vegetables and seafood daily
The Panjim market from where he buys fresh vegetables and seafood daily (Photo: Alamy)

One reason for his success became clear to me when tracking the energetic 66-year-old through the Panjim market just a few days ago. It was still early morning, and the corridors were abuzz with vendors proffering the prized gaunti, locally grown vegetables. Next door, the fish market spilled over. Silveira paused occasionally to exchange a few convivial words, but didn’t tarry like everyone else. Instead, he moved with great purpose between trusted vendors—first river clams, then prawns, and finally to gather neat parcels of pork. Each item was meticulously checked, even though he told me that “I clean them all over again in my own kitchen". It was all small batches, just enough for the next meal service. Then we raced straight back to the restaurant, to commence the mise en place.

That kind of no-nonsense, disciplined regimentation is the bedrock of Horseshoe’s remarkable consistency, and derives directly from its proprietor’s rather singular career journey. Silveira (he was christened José Vasco Rebelo da Silveira) was born in 1953, the third of six siblings, in Malanje in the fertile highlands of north-west Angola, part of what was still Portuguese West Africa. He recalls “life was very advanced, even compared to Portugal itself. In the 1950s, Angola and Mozambique had evolved into fabulous places to live: fully multiracial, with excellent infrastructure, no corruption, and strong economies".

Those pleasant reminiscences were abruptly terminated with the violent eruption the Portuguese call Guerra do Ultramar— “the Overseas War"— and their (eventually victorious) opponents remember as Guerra de Libertação, the War of Liberation. At just 20, Silveira was drafted into the Portuguese military and elected to join the commandos like his older brother before him, then headed directly into combat in the dense jungles bordering Congo and Zambia.

These might seem unbelievable circumstances for someone with ancestral roots in the subcontinent, except if you belong to Goa, in which case they are not uncommon. In fact, right through the painful battles of decolonization in both British and Portuguese Africa, tens of thousands of Goans—who had migrated there in continuous streams throughout the previous four centuries—held on to see if there was still place for them. Just like Silveira, some of them campaigned and fought to restore the arcadian order they remembered from the past. But many others supported the nationalist movements.

In her Sita Valles: A Revolutionary Until Death (translated by D.A. Smith), the Portuguese journalist Leonor Figueiredo writes vividly about 1970s Angola: “The international backdrop was complex, polarized between the two great powers, the USSR and the USA, each seeking spheres of influence. The Cubans and Soviets were [there] out of “international solidarity"; the South African and Zairean troops present had opposing political objectives." Valles, “the beautiful, elegant, intelligent communist of Goan origin—a Portuguese woman with an African heart —remained rebellious until her final moment". The Pasionária de Angola (Passion Flower of Angola) lingered in Luanda, only to be imprisoned, tortured and brutally killed. Just a few months earlier, 23-year-old Silveira had managed to smuggle himself on board the transport aircraft he was supposed to be loading and escape to Portugal with only the (unsuitably tropical) clothes on his back.

These kinds of Africa experiences, accompanied by potent emotions about paradise found and lost, are one ever-present layer of Goan identity, but they also contribute tones of complexity to Goa’s cuisine. The ubiquitous Galinha Cafreal, for example, is a straightforward rendition of Mozambican chicken piri-piri, a relatively recent 20th century import that has been adapted to local tastes by the liberal use of coriander. Another, much older, example is the talismanic sorpotel. Described memorably by the young British-Goan food writer Jonathan Nunn as “a dish built on the blood and toil of women", this staple is Africa-derived via an additional centuries-old connection to Bahia in Brazil, where the port city of Salvador was an integral pit-stop on the first ocean voyages from Lisbon to Goa, and back again.

From the 16th century onwards, that constant round-trip itinerary between Europe and Asia—with long halts in South America and Africa—profoundly remade the world in what is called “the Columbian Exchange". Plants, animals, peoples, technology and ideas cascaded back and forth, with especially consequential results for our palates. It was in Goa that the subcontinent first experienced corn, potatoes, tomatoes, cashew, custard apples, guavas, cocoa, papaya, peanuts, vanilla, avocados, sweet potatoes and oyster mushrooms. Imagine our “traditional" Indian foods without chillies. Right until the 18th century, they were only available in and around the Konkan, where they were called “pernambuco pepper" after the north-eastern state of Brazil just across the border from Bahia (the Marathas later spread them across the country).

In her outstanding Curry: A Tale Of Cooks And Conquerors, British historian Lizzie Collingham writes about an especially interesting transnational journey: “Bebinca travelled with the Portuguese to Malaya, and from there to the Philippines, where the cooks dispensed with the time-consuming layers. From the Philippines, bebinca continued on its extraordinary journey to Hawaii, where it transmuted to butter mochi, a fudge-like rice-flour dessert."

The culinary trails often flowed in the other direction, as with the treasured balchao pickles of Goa. My 1886 edition of Hobson-Jobson archly states, “Marsden calls it ‘a species of caviare’ which is hardly fair to caviare." Much more reliably, the Goan historian Fatima Silva Gracias writes in her new, excellent Cozinha De Goa—A Glossary On Food that the delicacy is “a preserve believed to be of Malaysian origin, made of tiny shrimps whose Latin name is Acetes Indicus (called galmo in Goa)…prepared in two ways: in the form of a powder and in semi-liquid form".

Parsed in this minutely analytical manner, Goan cuisine might come across as an unwieldy amalgam of disparate ingredients and techniques. But your taste buds will instantly tell you the opposite is true—its main characteristic is harmony. What the late Portuguese historian Paulo Varela Gomes said about Goa’s architecture holds just as true for its food: its “distinction has generally been explained with the concept of ‘encounter’ between East and West, a sum, a combination, a hybrid. To me, this explanation, as all others based on ‘influences’ and ‘contacts’ fails to account for (its) character and integrity, which is unmistakably the affirmative statement of a cultural position".

By the 19th century, that self-confident assertion was in full flower, as we learn from the bilious, yet hilarious 1851 travelogue Goa And The Blue Mountains by the archetypical Victorian adventurer-aesthete Richard Burton. Fresh from the British Raj, the young imperialist (he was 26) is appalled the locals show him no deference, because political and social “equality allows [Goans] to indulge in a favourite independence of manner utterly at variance with our Anglo-Indian notions concerning the proper demeanour of a native towards a European". Yet, he grudgingly admits, their superior “taste, economy and regard for effect" is readily evident at mealtimes, “the table is decorated, as in Italy, with handsome China vases…the cooking is all in the modified French style common to the South of Europe". All this is “a curious contrast to the semi-barbarous magnificence of our Anglo-Indian ‘doings’".

Portuguese-style clams cooked with white wine, prawns ‘balchao’, and ‘undo’, a local Goan bread
Portuguese-style clams cooked with white wine, prawns ‘balchao’, and ‘undo’, a local Goan bread (Photo: Assvari Kulkarni)

Peruse the Horseshoe menu, and the wildly cosmopolitan Goan identity leaps out from every page: Pão com Chouriços (Panaji’s famous undo loaves, with homemade Goa sausage), Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato (local clams cooked with white wine), Bacalhau no Forno (the famous codfish of Portugal, studded with eggs and olives). Some versions of these dishes are available in other restaurants—notably the wonderful Nostalgia in the south Goa redoubt of Raia—but none of them has every greatest culinary hit, or features anything like the outstanding attention to detail lavished on each item by Silveira (he works in splendid isolation in a kitchen built like a cockpit to his detailed specifications, everything at arm’s reach). Everything he cooks rings like a gong in your head when you taste it, as only the very best food ever does.

In recent years, to test my convictions about Silveira’s culinary chops, I have feasted at his hand with some of India’s top restaurateurs. When I hosted chef Thomas Zacharias—his The Bombay Canteen ranked first in last year’s CNT national rankings—our table plowed through staggering amounts, but then he ordered another bacalhau, and ate it all by himself without ever raising his eyes from the plate. Many months later, I dined there with his colleague, chef Hussain Shahzad, the engine in the O Pedro kitchen. He simply couldn’t stop eating the pearlescent sausages which are produced to Silveira’s specifications with home-made masala, then toasted carefully in the morning sun until he’s satisfied with the moisture levels.

Just before that memorable meal in Goa, my sons and a favourite uncle had another one at O Pedro. All of us are sticklers who have been disappointed by ostensibly Goan restaurant food outside the state. Yet in that instance we found plenty to love, and enough of our heritage to quell scepticism. One item in particular, the Red Snapper Poke, blew me away: chilled coconut milk curry laced with raw mango, and served in a tender coconut so the malai texture contrasted and blended with the fish. It’s one of the best things I have ever eaten. Each spoonful brought further revelation: Superlative Goan food doesn’t have to be restricted to the classics. There’s a bright future to consider as well.

Shahzad—who trained in Europe before returning to work in India—told me “this cuisine is an entry point to the world, full of cross-cultural references. Horseshoe’s food is the perfect example. It has amazing clarity, comes from exactly the right source and lineage. Vasco is a true chef, in a way that almost doesn’t exist any more, where the recipes are authentic and documented, and he knows exactly what he wants to do every single time. That clams and pork dish (Carne de Porco à Alentejana, or Pork with Clams Alentejo Style) he served us that first time…I don’t even have the words to describe that experience. It just hit the spot!"

Eating alongside with us on that occasion was chef Floyd Cardoz, who is mentor to both Hussain and Zacharias, and the most prominent Indian name in the global culinary landscape. In 2011, he won Top Chef Masters, with a wild mushroom “upma polenta" laced with the very Goan combination of kokum and coconut milk. Floyd will be cooking with Hussain in New York at an O Pedro pop-up later this year — yet another leap in the journey of Goan food—and told me “more people are recognizing how versatile our food can be. Plus there’s also the very important element of sustainability—we always use everything, and make it delicious". Then this most famous Goan chef in the world said: “The most important thing that I look for in this business is passion. When I met chef Vasco, I saw his eyes light up. There was all this warmth and fire. There’s no doubt he’s the real deal."

Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer, and co-founder of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.

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