A young Saira Bano runs a small restaurant, Savera, in Panaji, Goa, where the menu is indistinguishable from any roadside dhaba’s, claiming to serve what most places in tourist destinations do: north Indian, Chinese, south Indian and some local dishes. Nothing to get excited about. But when she set up a pop-up at the Serendipity Arts Festival recently, presenting food cooked by her mother Khairun Nisha that represented the small percentage of Beary Goan Muslims, her stuff was sold out in hours. Rich and robust, the flavours were unexpected—a mix of Kerala, Andhra and Goan influences. Festival culinary curator Odette Mascarenhas urges me to try some pickles that Khairun Nisha has prepared and I am bowled over. Freshly-made beetroot pickle and lime and date pickle are lipsmacking. Ghee rice and a roti made of just rice flour accompany the rich mutton and chicken curries fantastically. A dry chicken made with coarsely-ground coconut is a flavour bomb. The simple dal with ghee rice and pickles are themselves a delight. The coconut falooda, which is simply tender coconut pieces in sweet coconut milk is just right for a hot day.
As I look around, there are four stalls offering food. It is no coincidence that all of them represent different cultures of Goa. The Catholic, Portuguese-inspired cuisine, the Gawd Saraswat Brahmin food, the Hindu Goan, and the small community of Beary Muslims with big robust flavours. The menu boards have names that are completely unfamiliar. Chunache gavan, kholyal le makkha, gharyo, tisryanche dangar, fodi, bangdyachi udhamethi, bharillo bangdo, mangane, sukoor une, and more. The names mean nothing to me, having never heard of them before. Only the names on the Portuguese-inspired cuisine list are familiar: vindalho, cafreal, bebinca…
That the state has not just what we call ‘Goan’ food, but various traditions of cooking might be news to most tourists flocking the small state in droves. They are used to the beach shack food that is mostly fried fish and prawns that go best with a beer, as people recline in chairs watching the sun set.
Sangam Pai Dhungat, who runs Voltaire in Bardez, Goa, which offers Saraswat Brahmin cuisine, says their community doesn’t traditionally cook pork, but in his restaurant, they have to give in to tourist demands, who identify Goan cuisine more with pork vindalho. He tells me that traditionally their food resembles home food and is packed with vegetables. The flavours trace their origins to a time even before the Portuguese came in and have influences from Maharashtra. Certain special ingredients and cooking methods are used only in Saraswat food as compared with other Goan cuisines. The hing used is of a particular brand, is highly aromatic and like a dry bark and not the resinous, flour-wrapped commercial hing commonly used. There is less oil and chilli used, and Kashmiri chilli is not used at all. The souring agent could be either tamarind or kokum, while Goan Catholics use vinegar, mostly toddy vinegar. Triphala is used extensively. Dhungat hands out a wonderful vegetarian cutlet called dangar made of vegetables mixed with rice flour and besan and shallow fried in coconut oil. They are very crisp and delicious. He tells me they are a good imitation of the tisryanche dangar, which are made of clams. The Saraswat Brahmins eat fish but not meat or chicken, believing seafood to be the ‘fruit or vegetable of the sea’. However, chicken is a recent inclusion owing to blurred influences. A popular dish is khatkhate, which is basically a kind of stew made of various vegetables. Traditionally, khatkhate is made after festivities are over in a household, and the leftover raw vegetables are rounded up and cooked together. Among the sweets he offers is mangane, a kind of kheer made with chana dal and sabudana and jaggery, but it is the freshly-made rice vermicelli dipped in coconut milk flavoured with jaggery and cardamom that bowls me over. So fresh, light and cool on the palate, unlike most Indian sweets that are rich in ghee and sugar.
Sadly, there are only a handful of restaurants serving this kind of food in Goa, with most having submitted to the pressure of offering ‘tourist-friendly’ food, just like Saira Bano’s Savera. “We serve what people demand. After all, we want to be commercially viable. Our dishes, which might be delicious, are unknown and few tourists want to experiment. For instance, a dish that resembles xacuti is named manjitane, but nobody will order manjitane against a xacuti,” rues Saira Bano. This is tragic, as the robust flavours of her mother’s cooking are unforgettable, something anyone will surely pay for again and again.
However, there are a few exceptions. Atul Shah of Spice Goa in Mapusa, which offers Hindu Goan cuisine, says they stick to their traditional food customs and haven’t given in to the demands of tourists yet. He says the going can be tough, but he finds hope in online search and rating websites that help popularise his restaurant. The food he offers is much more spicy than Dhungat’s, with liberal use of red chilli. Seafood is big in his cuisine, but equal weight is given to lentils and vegetables. The spicy prawn curry that I taste is beautifully balanced with chunache gavan, which are rice flour crepes filled with grated coconut.
So why are these restaurateurs not shouting from the rooftops about the traditional cuisine they offer? Mascarenhas smiles at that, asking me instead, “Have you ever seen a Goan make a noise? These people don’t understand PR or marketing or publicity. They are not a pushy lot. They are content with what comes their way.”
Moreover, she says, unknown dishes don’t move much in restaurants. Tourists are sceptical of what they might get, opting instead for what seems more familiar. Most of them eat from shacks, which she dismisses as not being Goan at all. “Shacks have their own flavours, there’s no grudging them that, but the food they have has nothing to do with traditional Goan cuisine,” she says.
So what is being done to make tourists aware of real Goan food? “We have a Goan culinary club that acts as a platform to understand the diverse food. But it is difficult for the few places that have stuck to traditional flavours to go for big advertising drives. They are not chains, but a handful of restaurants that are not looking at volumes,” says Mascarenhas. This seems like the biggest irony, as discerning tourists are hard-pressed to find real Goan food, while restaurateurs find few takers for traditional dishes.