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The sumptuous culinary literature of Goa

Replete with tips and cheat-sheets, Goan cookbooks of assorted vintage are repositories of a rich culinary culture

Cookbooks like these enjoy great currency in today’s food-forward milieu. (Image courtesy: Indian Community Cookbook Project)
Cookbooks like these enjoy great currency in today’s food-forward milieu. (Image courtesy: Indian Community Cookbook Project)

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For a Goan food writer who shares a surname with one of the earliest chroniclers of Goa’s rich and diverse food history, speculative familial connections are an occupational hazard. Ones that I relish with unabashed glee. And ones that I am never in a great hurry to negate.

Pedro Damião Dias came out with The Goan Cook’s Guide Vo (or) Goan Cuznerancho Sangat—his seminal Konkani language classic on Goan cookery—in 1894. Though this year of publication remains a source of conjecture among Goan food historians since first-edition copies are not available, one of the earliest editions of the book known to exist is the third edition. One that was sold on Dalal Street, Fort, Bombay, in 1914, as the inscription reads.

Timeless Treasures

While Konkani is one of the rare Indian languages that can be written in four other scripts (Devanagari, Kannada, Malayalam and Perso-Arabic), this one was written in old-style Romi (Roman) Konkani and orthography. Yes, the kind that took me an embarrassingly long time to comb through just its first chapter.

But it was all worth it. For, you see, books like this one are repositories of a proud culinary culture. They give some much needed gravitas to the history of Goa’s printed word, especially because they are set in a time when the colonial, Portuguese-style of cooking was the norm in Goa. Here was a book that directed the reader to prepare “native” dishes like the slice of ox tongue à la Mapuça (today’s Mapusa) and the chicken blood-oriented cabidela gravy.

Interestingly, despite being well over a century old, cookbooks like these enjoy great currency in today’s food-forward milieu—a time when regional and hyper-local dishes and cooking techniques are having an outing like never before. Recipes for contemporary Goan sweets like perada (guava cheese), patoleos (sweet coconut-jaggery stuffed rice cakes steamed in turmeric leaves) and nevreos (coconut puffs) are packed tightly in this book, with up to five on a page. All these, devoid of “decorative tropes” like illustrations that were thought of as frivolous and unnecessary back in the day.

The Goan Cookery Book by P. F. J. De Souza, published in 1917, is similarly austere and bare-bones. This one, also in Romi Konkani, has recipes for typically Goan preparations like prawn balchow and curry frithath. It even has a handful of British colonial-era dishes like mulligatawny soup and kedgeree.

In a heart-warming attempt at archiving heirloom recipes, the people at the Indian Community Cookbook Project (ICCP), which documents food traditions across regions and communities, recently digitised and uploaded this book on to its free-to-access digital library. It’s the oldest book in their archive at present.

What Lies Within

In a sort of culinary version of a set of nesting dolls-meets-Inception, I first discovered Dias’ book within the pages of another well-respected Goan cookbook. Food historian Fatima da Silva Gracias speaks of The Goan Cook’s Guide Vo Goan Cuznerancho Sangat in her book Cozinha De Goa: History And Tradition Of Goan Food. While explaining its relevance, she says: “It is perhaps the first book on cookery in Romi Konkani and possibly one of the first to use the term Goan instead of Goanese while referring to people from this region.”

Cozinha De Goa is an impeccably written piece of Goan culinary literature in English that distils the very quintessence of this often complex and layered cuisine steeped in Lusophone traditions. Take, for example, the wildly popular pork vindaloo and its genesis. It is said to have originated from a preserved Portuguese dish called carne de vinha d’alhos (pork marinated with garlic and wine) that seafarers took with them on long voyages. Once ashore, though, they localised the dish by adding spices and chillies, often substituting hard-to-procure red wine with coconut vinegar. It was this vinegar, da Silva Gracias writes, that was first made by Portuguese Franciscan priests in vast vats in Goa.

Word Perfect

It is gems such as these culinary mutations that can also be found in other Goan cookbooks of yore, like Maria Teresa Menezes’ cookbook-cum-memoir, The Essential Goa Cookbook. In English, it features over 200 recipes of innovative, largely non-vegetarian, Indo-Portuguese style of cooking dishes. A host of local ingredients are used to approximate the authentic Portuguese taste.

The author talks of fish and meat pies baked with slit green chillies, assado pork roast imbued with local spices like cinnamon and peppercorn, and Portuguese- style pao (bread bun) leavened with fermented coconut toddy instead of the de rigueur yeast.

Offsetting these are the more traditional, but no less nuanced, recipes for vegetarian dishes from the Konkan coast, like the beans and cashew stir-fry tondak and cabbage foogath. The latter, rich with freshly scraped coconut and a coconut oil-based tempering of crackling black mustard seeds.

Reprints of Menezes’ book are available. Its year of publication remains unclear, however, though it may date to the early decades of the 20th century, going by the reference to the wedding of the author’s sister in 1935.

Though not as vintage-y as a few others in this piece, the Goan Cookbook by Joyce Fernandes, which came out in 1984 and continues to be available in book stores, is an English-language treasure trove of 105 recipes strewn along its rather modest 71 pages. These include everything from the usual suspects like the creamy sopa de camarão (prawn soup) and spicy choris (pork sausages) to more unusual ones like lover’s pudding.

“What’s that?” you might ask. Read the book and you will find out.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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