Goa reimagined: ‘There is no hamara-tumhara here’ – A culinary journey beyond Catholic cuisines

Avinash Martins ticks all the boxes when it comes to doing food right, thinking local and cooking global

Goa reimagined: ‘There is no hamara-tumhara here’ – A culinary journey beyond Catholic cuisines
“I belong to a family of mariners. When I expressed a desire to become a chef, my relatives dismissed it as a ‘chief cook’s’ job. But my parents encouraged me to follow my dream. Today, I live on my farm in my ancestral house, inspired by the land and traditions around me,” says Martins.

Avinash Martins has been on the career holy grail twice. With a penchant for fine arts and drawing, first he was keen on studying architecture. Then his love for cooking took him to the Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development, after which he trained at Michelin-starred restaurants in France and California before starting his own place, Cavatina, in south Goa. The initial six years at Cavatina went by cooking global food until one fine day he found his true calling— cooking what he had eaten all his life.

That was in 2019. By the end of a year, the menu at Cavatina had undergone a complete metamorphosis. The flavours were Goan to the core; the food and aesthetics contemporary and modern. “I belong to a family of mariners. When I expressed a desire to become a chef, my relatives dismissed it as a ‘chief cook’s’ job. But my parents encouraged me to follow my dream. Today, I live on my farm in my ancestral house, inspired by the land and traditions around me,” says Martins.

The Goan melting pot
Not many would know that the small state has several culinary influences that are vastly different from each other. The Saraswat Brahmin cuisine resembles home food with a focus on vegetables and fish, which is believed to be ‘fruit or vegetable of the sea’, and no meat or chicken. The flavours have major influences from Maharashtra and trace their origins to a time even before the Portuguese presence in the state. The hing used is of a particular brand— highly aromatic and like a dry bark and not the resinous commercial hing commonly used. The souring agent could be either tamarind or kokum, while Goan Catholics use toddy vinegar. Then there is Hindu Goan cuisine, which is much more spicy than Saraswat food, with liberal use of red chilli. Seafood is big in this cuisine, but equal weight is given to lentils and vegetables. The community of Beary Muslims might be a small section, but their flavours are big and robust.

Martins imbibes all these influences in his cooking, taking inspiration from communities as well, like the rice-growing Dhangars, agrarian Velips and various regions of the state. For instance, a French-style bisque will celebrate fresh catch by local fishermen with flavours of Goan xec-xec masala. Konkani solkhadi, a kokum and coconut concoction, becomes a dressing for prawns in an Italian crudo. The famous Goan chourico sausage becomes stuffing for a squid stew served with mini paos. Black fermented rice pancakes, or koyloleos, are paired with a vegetable caldin and served with pickle aioli and cashew crumble. Chicken cafreal is reimagined as a roulade fit for a global audience.

So why didn’t he stick with Portugese-inspired Catholic cuisine alone? “In Goa, there is no hamara-tumhara. It’s all hamara. For instance, there is a sweet dish called neuri made with coconut and jaggery that is made at Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali as well as Christmas. So when I thought of Goan food, that all the influences of my friends, family, neighbours will be incorporated was a given,” says Martins, who was in the national capital for a pop-up at The Lodhi.

A table in the hills
While Cavatina in Benaulim offers reimagined Goan cuisine, Martins has a hidden gem up his sleeve at his ancestral house in the hills in Velim, south Goa. The concept, called ‘A Table in the Hills’, is for a select audience. Reservations are needed 48 hours in advance and at one time, a maximum of 12 people are entertained. It is here that Martins is in his element, cooking with ingredients so fresh they haven’t seen the insides of a refrigerator even. The produce is picked or foraged from his land and farms around him. Traditional cooking techniques like wood-fired ovens, old-style wooden chulha, a barbeque for slow roasts and even cooking overnight in a hole dug in the earth are routine.

Clearly a departure from chefs catering to ‘mass tastes’, Martins is unmindful on the business front too. Nothing on his menu is a nod to popular and favourite. Located in a relatively quiet part of the state, away from the touristy north, and refusing to offer naan and dal kind of food, his words just reinforce the impression his food has already made. “I want to stay true to my passion, of cooking, and cooking what I believe in.”

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