Goa’s Culinary Treasures

There is joy in cooking at home with flavors borrowed from abroad, to be sure. But sometimes you just have to be there.
bhel puri

After spending two weeks in India, mostly on the beach in Goa, I’m now home and pondering everything we ate. Could I possibly reconstruct any of it in this country, and capture those flavors? Maybe—but surely not in the kitchen. The only ingredients available here are the edible ones, and those are the least important.

Take, for instance, the bhel puri.

As soon as I got to India, I started looking for just the right place to taste bhel puri, one of the most beloved of all Indian snacks; and early one evening in Panjim, the capital of Goa, something told me my search was over. Actually, it was my daughter who told me—she had been to Panjim five years earlier, and was now leaning out the taxi window exclaiming, “There it is! Kamat Hotel! Great coffee!”—so the four of us climbed out of the car and settled at a table. The Kamat Hotel isn’t a hotel at all; it’s a friendly café specializing in sweets and snacks. Maybe it was the quiet comfort of the place, maybe it was the contented faces around us and the smell of good things in the air; but I felt a surge of confidence in the bhel puri, so that’s what I ordered. A big flat plate appeared, heaped high with a glorious jumble of puffs and crinkles and chunks and leaves and nuggets and slivers. You eat it with a spoon, resisting the impulse to simply bury your face in the whole aromatic mountain. First comes the light, heady crunch of the puffed rice and scraps of fried noodles, and then a tumult of flavors—tamarind, jaggery, mint chutney, date chutney, and chili, plus bits of potato and onion, plus the chaat masala (spice mix) that wraps it all together. Everything about this dish makes it the essence of food; it’s as if the whole notion of eating has been concentrated in a single wonderful idea. We ordered a second plate, devoured it while mumbling with pleasure, and drove back to the beach through the deepening dark in a haze of goodwill.

Then there were the scrambled eggs.

If you’re staying on the beach in Goa, and I hope you are, you eat in the extremely casual restaurants known as shacks that are lined up along the sand. Most are attached to “resorts”—something of a misnomer for these inexpensive hotels, which tend to be clusters of simple rooms with few amenities apart from a perfect location on the ocean. Sometimes we walked down the beach to a favorite shack called Anthy’s, where one evening they rigged up a television for us so that we could watch the inauguration live (thanks to the time difference) after sharing a handsome grilled fish garnished with hollowed-out tomatoes, each with a little candle inside. Other times we didn’t go anywhere, just let teatime drift into suppertime as we talked and gazed at the ocean from the restaurant shack at Camilson’s, where we were staying. These restaurants don’t differ much; they’re all open-air, with thick, white sand under your toes, and they all have the same sprawling menus of Indian, Chinese, and Western dishes, as well as the day’s fresh fish. It’s hard to imagine a happier way to go out to dinner, especially with three of the dearest faces you know around the table.

One morning we went to a shack called Cecilia’s for breakfast, having been told that the special scrambled eggs there were special indeed. It was just a few minutes’ walk up the beach, and as we carried our sandals along the shore under a sun-washed sky we passed Indian families and middle-aged Europeans and the occasional gray-haired hippie. I was longing for decent coffee, which is the only thing you can’t get on the beach; and at Cecilia’s I invented a fairly good substitute: Just mix some of the weak, milky South Indian coffee with some of the slightly less weak black coffee, preferably in a little round cup embossed with palm trees and “Goa” written in red. Works like a charm, almost. But the Scrambled Eggs Cecilia were flawless, and the waiter explained what went into them: tomato and onion, then a fried spice mix including cumin, mustard seeds, garlic, ginger, and curry leaves, with a scattering of fresh coriander on top. And a little dried coriander, too, he emphasized, because the dried coriander is very flavorful in Goa. With the eggs came the toasted white buns known as “local bread”—a staple introduced by the Portuguese some 400 years ago.

Of course, the whole fresh, delicious breakfast was “local”—just like the Chinese noodles and the British fish fingers and the Portugeuse-derived vindaloo and the all-India pakoras that were on the menu at every shack. Food-loving travelers in India are always on the lookout for what’s authentic, and generally the pallid dishes prepared with Western tourists in mind don’t count. But eating in Goa is different. This food seems to speak a language of its own, confidently showing off centuries of trade, foreign occupation, intermarriage and the mingling of religions, as well as a flourishing identity today as the vacation capital of India. Authenticity? That’s exactly what I tasted at Cecilia’s, coffee and all.

And finally, the last meal of the trip.

We weren’t too optimistic about locating a good restaurant in Bombay, though the city is famous for good restaurants. It seemed too much like New York, where you have to know exactly where to go before you set out, or you’re sure to end up someplace mediocre and overpriced. Worse, we were staying out near the airport in a suburb called Bandra, since I was just about to fly back home, and the guidebook didn’t seem to think anybody ate in the suburbs. Worse yet, I was heading home alone; the others were staying on. Dinner was going to be morose. But as we poked around the streets of Bandra, a small place on the corner of 16th and 33rd caught our attention—Khane Khas, just a half dozen tables in a room with two sides open to the sidewalks, and an easygoing, relaxed atmosphere. What a find! This place has been a local phenomenon for the last 19 years, specializing in the food of north India and the northwest frontier—kebabs, tandoori, pulaos and curries, everything from a simple dish of mustard greens to an elaborate clay-pot biryani, and all cooked with the greatest care. They cater (you can order biryani by the kilo); they offer free home delivery; and since they don’t have beer or wine, they’ll serve you in your car if you want to have a Kingfisher with your kabob. Truly the perfect neighborhood institution. To our personal delight, moreover, the owner posts his political musings all over the walls; and his politics are as wise and inclusive as the restaurant. By the time I got on the plane, I had forgotten the mournful goodbyes and remembered only our table at Khane Khas, the broad smile of the owner, and the warm, tender gulab jamun in its precisely-sweet-enough syrup, with the pistachios on top.

You can probably guess why I wouldn’t dream of trying to recreate these dishes at home, even if my cooking were up to the challenge, which it isn’t. Without the soft, heavy sand under our bare feet, the fragrance of spices from the tables around us, the children shrieking in Dutch and the couples murmuring in Hindi, the gentle darkness settling over Panjim and the harsh, dusty air of Bombay—there’s no way to taste here what I tasted there. This food doesn’t travel. How lucky I am that I did.

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