Goan Cuisine – Getting It Right!

Iris C F Gomes

Goa, apart from being a green paradise, is a land known for its amazing, delectable cuisine. It is culinary art that has been enriched by external influences to the recipes that were carried forth from generation to generation, changing ever so slightly as each family or individual added their own character to them. Odette Mascarenhas takes us on a journey decoding Goa’ culinary art through a talk facilitated by the Serendipity Arts Festival.

It is only in recent times that Goan food, which was more readily available as home-cooked meals, has been commercialised. Odette declares, ‘I’m happy to know that in the past few years we have evolved. There are a lot of people opening Goan restaurants. The restaurants in Goa are to die for and the food is absolutely fantastic.’

That preparing Goan food can pose a challenge, is a fact. Goan food is seasonal to a large extent, depending on the availability of important ingredients, such as seafood, certain vegetables and fruits, etc. 

One might assume that some masala preparations are meant only for fish or particular meat. The Goan ‘green masala’, for example, is usually used to prepare chicken but, with its ingredients of green chilies, cloves, cumin, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, sugar, etc, it makes for a flavourful oyster recipe. One thing to keep in mind is that vinegar is not to be used as a souring agent in this oyster preparation, which uses tamarind instead. The same oysters can be transformed into a simple epicurean delight as oyster chili fry. ‘Thin sliced onions, little green chilies, a dash of lime – wow! Crunchy, caramelised onions, the taste is absolutely superb. You get the taste of the oysters,’ says Odette. Oysters can be incorporated into a delectable xacuti dish as well.

Oyster and other recipes can be found in cookery books that are plentiful today. The first Portuguese-Goan recipe book Receitas da Confeição e Iguarias was written by Maria Luiza Melo in 1893, indicating that recipe books expounding the details of Goan cookery have been around for a long time. However, recreating the dish may seem an insurmountable task to some. The flavours just do not hit the target. How does one decode the mysteries of the ingredients to prepare Goan food as it should be cooked?

Let us look at two of the oldest traditional Goan recipes to understand how flavours can differ and why one may not quite achieve the same delicious Goan food that one’s grandmother cooked. The first is the Goan fish curry. The commercialised version of the dish is one that is assumed to be the most faithful. And sometimes people do not stay faithful to recipes in an attempt to make the cooking process easier for themselves. However, there are multiple authentic recipes that differ depending on region and which social class they originate from.

The Gaud Saraswat Brahmins of Bicholim have their own preparation of fish curry, which can be considered one of the authentic recipes for fish curry. All fish curry recipes have some common ingredients such as fish, coconut, turmeric, red chilies, oil and salt. The Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, in addition to these ingredients, use green chilies, tamarind and teppal (tirphal). Other Hindus (mainly from New Conquest regions in Goa) tend to use coriander seeds, onions and teppal along with the common ingredients. Fish curry is prepared in Muslim homes as well. They include with the common ingredients coriander seeds, teppal, garlic and tamarind. These small differences in the ingredients affect the texture, the colour and the taste of the fish curry. The Catholic families of Salcete tend to make their fish curry with the inclusion of coriander seeds, onion, chilies from Canacona, green chilies and Kashmiri chilies for colour, tamarind, and garlic (optional).

Fish curry made by Gaud Saraswat Brahmins is called fish hooman (eg bangdyache hooman made with mackerel). The colour is a brownish yellow with a moderately thick texture. Hindus of other castes and Muslims call it kadi, while Catholics call it fish kodi.

The Goan xacuti is a unique creation which points out the role of tradition in the way we have inherited our recipes. Xacuti has more than sixteen spices with an abundance of chilies. The preparation method varies, as with other recipes, from area to area in Goa. For example, in Pernem three varieties of chilies are used, whereas in Bardez two types are used.

Odette tells a story of how this curry/masala came into being. It is said to have originated from a dish called shagoti, the amalgamation of shaak, which translates as preparation or cooked, and goti, which translates as the meat you put in. The dish was consumed mainly by skilled labourers who ate it for its high pungency. The hot chilies would make them perspire, which would then have a cooling effect to stave off the heat of the afternoon sun when they took a nap. These skilled labourers soon entered talukas that were occupied by the Portuguese to build houses, make furniture, etc. The Portuguese learned the recipe of the shagoti from them and they called it xacuti.

We find that the artistic array of Goan food, with its varied textures, hues, consistencies, and aromas, attracts and tantalises us visually and gastronomically. The myriad dishes available point to a rich history of being under the rule and influence of different kingdoms (Bahamani Sultanate, Vijayanagar Empire, the Portuguese, etc), migratory movements, religious conversions (wherein food was modified according to the religion they had converted to), geographical areas of settlement, and so on.

Goan food has the main elements of sweet, sour, savoury, spice and salt. Taking Gaud Saraswat Brahmin and a Goan Catholic recipes, Odette explains the presence of these elements. A particular type of Kotkotem made by a Gaud Saraswat Brahmin family in Verem emerged from a surplus of vegetables after a festival. Some of the ingredients are raw jackfruit, carrots, drumsticks, corn, sweet potato, etc. To this is added grated coconut, yellow dal and white peas (vatana). The spices used in this recipe are black peppercorn, turmeric, coriander seeds and teppal. The spiciness comes from green chilies and red chilies, the sourness from tamarind, the sweet from jaggery (This is white jaggery made from molasses, unlike the Goan Catholic partiality towards black palm jaggery), and salt is used to taste.

Pork amsol (kokum) is made in Catholic homes. Aside from pork, onions are part of the recipe to add to the sweetness. In the south of Goa sugar may be added as well. Peppercorn is used for spice, amsol for sourness and salt to taste.

So we find that in recreating Goan recipes, to obtain the most authentic taste there are a few things to keep in mind. We should avoid using packaged chili powder, since we do not know the variety of chilies that make up the powder. When cutting meat, especially in the case of pork vindalho and amsol, they need to be one inch cubes with the fat and skin on. In the case of sorpotel, the pieces of pork meat and innards are extremely small. If you need caramelised onions, as in amsol, the slices of onions tend not to be too fine. The less caramelised the onions are, sugar can be added to make up for the lack of sweetness, appropriate to the dish. The portions cut and the way they are cut are important as they can change the taste of the recipe. Coconut can be ground to varying degrees as some recipes require more finely ground or coarsely ground coconut eg the Hindu chicken sukkem (dry) has coarsely ground coconut that lends a sweet flavour to the dish. Marinating meats is common to Catholic homes. In Hindu kitchens, roasting spices before use is the norm. Dropping a coriander leaf to watch it curl up will let you know if your oil is hot enough for cooking. Goan food, except for searing of meat, is cooked on simmering or low heat. 

Odette Mascarenhas is a food historian, critic and co-founder of the Goan Culinary Club. As a writer, she has written nine books, with the ninth, The Culinary Heritage of Goa, winning Best in the World for Historical Recipes and Best Self Published Book in India at the Gourmand World Cookbooks 2015 Awards. More information about the history of Goan cuisine can be gleaned from The Culinary Heritage of Goa.