Goa is distinct from anywhere else in India. It’s true that every Indian region, every city even, has it’s own quirks and dominant features, but the moment you depart Dabolim airport outside Panjim, you sense you’re elsewhere. Motorcycle taxis, not just tuk-tuks transport passengers, churches are prominent in every town, as are bars serving hard liquor, once-grand Portuguese-style palácios stand next to derelict houses, and sari-clad women cross the streets with youngsters in short summer dresses. A perpetual year-long summer on a coast of sandy warm-water beaches, cheap alcohol, a thriving club scene makes Goa very popular with Western visitors. And Goa food makes no exception, thanks to varied cuisine from vegetarian fare to pork VindalooHere, life moves at a markedly slower pace, the beers are large, the seafood wriggling-fresh and a legacy of Indo-European attitudes seem to thrive. It’s well known that the Portuguese, during the span of their 451-year-rule, left the strongest imprint on Goan customs and cuisine.
Local journalist Vivek Menezes explains: “Goan food is born from well over 1000 years of trade and cultural exchange between the Konkan region of India across the oceans to Arabia, Africa, South-East Asia.” During the Portuguese colonial era, that contact extended to Europe and South America too, he says. “Though other Indian coastal cuisines also rely on staples like fish, rice, coconut and chilies, Goan food is unlike any other in the subcontinent for its profound influences and adaptations from Portuguese and Brazilian recipes, ingredients and techniques,” Menezes says. You’ll find the popular Brazilian black bean stew feijoada, in Goa too.
Diverse culinary traditions have resulted in a crop of restaurants serving modern Greek, European, Burmese and other cuisines. As the model for several religions and cultures – both local, and foreign, living closely together, it seems fitting that the trend be swayed that way.
XACUTTI, VINDALOO AND CRAB XEC XEC
While most Hindus and Muslims follow prescribed diets that exclude pork, the Goan Catholics will prepare it, famously in the Portuguese-influenced Vindaloo – a hot and tangy curry. Distinguishing Goan ingredients include coconut, tamarind (the Portuguese would have used vinegar), jaggery and kokum. Most households, unless strictly vegetarian, partake in fish and seafood.
Tanuja Kerker, a chef from Divar, a small island close to Panjim, cooks at Casa Sarita traditional restaurant. Included in her hefty repertoire of local dishes, is an outstanding mushroom xacutti – a dish using roasted coconut and spices in a gravy, best eaten with soft rolls. Her signature dishes though, remain her chicken xacutti and pastilihos: deep-fried pastry stuffed with minced prawns. I watch her prepare seafood Vindaloo and am pleased to learn, that unlike the flame-thrower spicy and off-putting sour versions I’ve eaten over the years, the dish can be very delicately balanced and while spicy, it won’t obliterate your taste buds. Shellfish like prawns and crab are popular here and can be eaten at the dive-ish bistros for a steal. Xec xec is essentially a tamarind and chilli curry, thickened with roasted coconut, and a favourite way of preparing rock crab.
At Candlelight, a tiny dive-ish eatery in Siolim in the north, we try pork sorpotel, again a Portuguese influenced spicy-vinegary dish served simply with short-grained rice. While alcohol of your choice is freely available in Goa, don’t miss the feni – the local spirit made from cashew nut or coconuts. It packs a massive punch at 42% alcohol. Mix it with soda water and lime or 7UP, like the locals.
Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa
Arossim Beach, Cansaulim
As dusk approaches, the white sands are still warm under our feet. We’re in Arrosim to eat at a local shack, Anoshka. Plastic tables and chairs are sheltered by palm-frond roof. Masala fish fry, spicy semolina prawns and pork vindaloo with rice are some of the dishes we eat. At the low-key beach shacks frequented mainly by locals, curry and rice is the star, along with cold beers and lukewarm coconut water. The fancy tapas platters and multi-hued cocktails can be found in Baga and Mandrem in the north, where the A-listers and moneyed like to shimmy. The beach shacks are perfect for a lazy afternoon of people-watching too, providing shade and a welcome reprieve from the sun. And at the local shacks, don’t be too shy to ask your neighbours for some menu-advice. Most are more than willing, in my experience.
St.Michael Vaddo, Anjuna Beach
Sarita and Park Hyatt Resort & Spa, high-end local cuisine
Palácio do Deão, locally sourced ingredients using updated traditional techniques. Booking essential
Mum’s Kitchen, Panjim – loved by locals too
Thalassa, modern Greek tavern on the beach in Vagator