It is a feast fit for a queen. Laid out on bananas leaves and in kunddlems (earthen dishes) are kismur (a salad of dried shrimp and coconut with a touch of vinegar), polle (rice pancakes), balchao (a spicy and tangy prawn pickle), chepnem tor (brined raw mango pickle, fried breadfruit), ambade (a tangy hog plum, coconut and mustard seed curry) and dudhi caldin (a light bottle gourd and coconut curry). Dessert is soji or vonn, a porridge of coconut milk, coconut jaggery and broken wheat, served in small coconut shell bowls.
The setting is tranquil. A quiet pond. Birds chirping. Coconut palms swaying. The smell of overripe jackfruit. The stillness of a sunny, humid day. Dogs at my feet.
It is a true Goan meal.
Yet this is not a Goan restaurant.
The meal is part of an experience curated by Hansel Vaz, founder of Cazulo Premium Feni, and his team at Fazenda Cazulo, in Cuelim. Our dining table is set in an open part of the house.
The coconut tree is an integral part of Goan life. Earlier in the day, Vaz tells us about the bounty obtained from it: toddy, how it ferments into vinegar, dehydrates into sugar, caramelises into coconut jaggery, and is distilled into coconut feni. Our snacks are a tribute to its fruit: sannas made with toddy, choris pao and vinegar, and jaggery in patoleo (steamed rice pancake with jaggery and coconut). The meal, by The Goan Kitchen (TGK), takes this learning further.
It is dining experiences like these that offer a deeper understanding of my home and its history and culture.
If there was a pandemic show made in India, it would be called “Everybody loves Goa”. The small state has been abuzz with activity—welcoming tourists and people seeking a quiet life, witnessing unchecked development projects and a slow destruction of our way of life, and a booming hospitality industry that is attempting to imitate and offer competition to the metros. New restaurants and bars are mushrooming like those treasured olmi (local mushrooms) found only in the monsoon. Everyone wants to offer something different, but very few do. Fewer still offer affordable fare, and even fewer champion Goan food.
So when I moved back home last year, it became a personal mission to seek out and document Goan food experiences, away from restaurants and bars. I made the food pilgrimage from north to south for a bite of Jila Bakery’s profiteroles and decadent rum cake in Loutolim. I picked up cutlet pao from D’Silva’s and walked off the calories at Miramar Beach across the street. I learnt about medicinal plants in our surroundings and how they were, and are, used to treat illnesses during a walk with Dr Maryanne Lobo. In Fontainhas, I met Marlene Noronha and ate my first toucinho do céu, or bacon from heaven, an almond cake made with lard.
At Mollem National Park, food is a surprising addition to the biodiversity hot spot. On repeated picnics at a family friend’s home, our locally sourced meals have included patal (curry of dried green peas) and sukhi bhaji, French beans foogath (stir-fry with coconut), recheado bangda (mackerel stuffed with a spicy masala), fried fish and chepnem tor. At the farm stay Dudhsagar Plantation, I had meals that were a true farm-to-table experience, minus the carbon footprint. There was a simple tambdi bhaji (red amaranthus), coconut rich curry with bilimbi (tree sorrel), a stir-fry of tendli (ivy gourd) with coconut, dudhi ros (bottle gourd with a light coconut gravy, polle and dudhache fov (beaten rice mixed with milk, jaggery and cashew nuts.
Another unusual setting for good food is concerts. On certain Saturdays, the main hall of a stately old house in Loutolim resounds with the sounds of Konkani dulpods, mandos and the Portuguese fado. Heritage Home Concerts, which launched this year, pay tribute to our Indo-Portuguese heritage through song, music and food. The food here is noteworthy. Here too is a table laid out with snacks: donnem (rice cones steamed in jackfruit leaves), rissóis (shrimp turnovers), cashew nut and caramel dedos de dama (lollipop-shaped sweets), angel wings, letri (sweet coconut bread)), pork pies and mango pies. By the side is xarope de brindão (kokum sherbet) and orchata (sweetened almond milk).
The snacks are also from TGK, a food venture by Crescy Baptista and Oliver Fernandes that aims to showcase little-known Goan snacks and drinks. TGK does catering but their pride is a sit-down lunch under a mango tree in Baptista’s front yard. It is a feast of 16 dishes, which includes a chance to try making bebinca the old-school way, in a pot over an open fire.
Up north is another space that highlights Indo-Portuguese art and food. The Centre for Indo-Portuguese Art (Cipa) is housed in an old home overlooking the Mandovi river. On certain weekends, a small heavily decorated room becomes the venue for jazz concerts (under Cháfé Braz) and mando and fado (under MadraGoa). I have attended three concerts here and beyond the intimate musical experience, the food catches my eye. On tiny plates comes some Goan Portuguese fare like cheese croquettes, rissóis, bacalhau and pastéis de nata. “The idea is to preserve what we have: the literary arts, ceramics, music and culinary arts and take it to the next generation,” says the founder, Orlando de Noronha.
It is a similar ethos that drives Vaz and his work at Fazenda Cazulo. “Feni has caught global attention and yet it doesn’t turn many heads in Goa,” he says. “It’s about showcasing this culture and getting people back to it.”
Vaz is one of feni’s stoutest champions. In 2018, he opened a feni cellar and tasting room, Beco das Garrafões. Today, he conducts a Floating Feni experience (via the Urbanaut app) at the pond on the farm—a crash course on feni and flavour pairings— and even customises experiences. I am part of a curated two-day itinerary planned for a team of bartenders/mixologists from Japan. We forage for dukshiri (Indian sarsaparilla), collect roinn (anthill mud) to use as a sealant for the pots, break coconuts so the coir and husks can be used as firewood, learn how to sharpen the kathi (like a sickle) using quartz and make the kannto (stick with a pointed end used to pick cashew apples) with porcupine quills.
Trying to bracket Goan food into Hindu or Catholic or Saraswat or Portuguese Goan does it a grave injustice. We have different recipes pertaining to season, community, occasion, availability of produce and more.
It is at Shubhra Shankhwalker’s home that I learnt there are six kinds of sol kadi: four made with coconut milk and dried kokum; one without coconut milk (futi kadi) and one made with fresh kokum (binnachi kadi). Shankhwalker is a chef and founder of Aai’s, where she caters Goan Hindu Saraswat meals and hosts sit-down meals at her farm. Sometimes, she also invites people home. I got treated to a lunch of bharille bangde, or mackerel stuffed with a simple coriander and garlic paste, visvonn, or kingfish hooman, vaalchi bhaji (flat beans) and kuvar. Kuvar is an unfamiliar dish for me, an uncooked curry made with coconut, chillies, tamarind and salt, eaten with rice. “This food is not something you will easily find in a restaurant,” says Shankhwalker. A restaurant setting cannot offer what she does: “a dining experience that is seasonal, features fresh, local produce, and food that offers a short introduction to Saraswat food”.
Soul Travelling, an offbeat tourism venture, takes me on a tavern trail in Panaji. Once upon a time, Goa’s tavernas were where locals would go for feni or urrak, to catch up on the day’s news. The food was minimal, entertainment included a game of carrom or watching old films. Today, few remain. In three old bars in Panaji, I sip fresh urrak with Limca and salt and snack on dried shrimp, liver and gizzard fry, and boiled gram. On a separate trail with them in Divar, I get to try 15 different kinds of feni—infused with coffee, lemongrass, even garlic. “We want to introduce people to this aspect of Goan life that seems to be dying out,” says co-founder Varun Hegde.
Soul Travelling also conducts a tribal food trail in Canacona. This activity is part of my ever-burgeoning to-do list of dining experiences. I wish to partake of an Indo-Portuguese meal at the magnificent Palácio do Deão in Quepem and Figueiredo Mansion in Loutolim: Both experiences, available on request, include a tour of these century-old heritage spaces. Tour group The Local Beat conducts a monsoon experience that involves a trek and a home-cooked meal in the jungle. Chef Avinash Martins’ C’est L’avi is a seasonal, bespoke menu that shows off his take on Goan food, served at his property in Cuelim. I hope to catch the next season of Khop Inn.
Picture this: eating a piping hot plate of chicken cafreal and poee, seated on the ground under a shed in the middle of a paddy field in the peak of Goa’s monsoon. This is Khop Inn, a small takeaway that is open only for lunch on five Sundays in a year; and yet people have made that food pilgrimage to Ponda for three years in a row.
In Goa, good food is a given. Seeking out an experience to go along with it…that is priceless.
Joanna Lobo is a Goa-based journalist.