Earlier this year, as Goa lurched its way in and out of the most slipshod Covid-19 lockdowns imaginable, where everything was open while the authorities pretended not to notice, an unmistakable frisson of glee passed through my hometown of Panjim about the brand new – and very quickly super-busy – Padaria Prazeres (the word Padaria means bakery in Portuguese).
Part of the excitement is because the young owners are locally born-and-bred. Chef Ralph Prazeres, 29, worked in top kitchens in Europe – including a stage at Noma in Copenhagen, often rated the best restaurant in the world – before returning with his wife, Stacy Gracias, to open this cheery, sparkling bakery/café just across the road from his ancestral home in Caranzalem, near Miramar beach.
The main cause for the buzz, however, was that Padaria Prazeres makes it easy to access oven-warm pastéis de nata. To be sure, these deeply addictive egg-and-custard tarts, which catapulted from their traditional origins in Lisbon to become an astonishingly widespread global phenomenon, are not entirely unknown in this part of the world.
The outstanding “Goa-inspired” Mumbai restaurant O Pedro has them on the menu, and various people in India’s smallest state have ventured small-batch production over the years. But we are talking about another scale of supply altogether now, and the demand has been incessant.
“The pastéis de nata at Padaria Prazeres are perfect,” said Inês Figueira, the Director of Fundação Oriente’s delegation in India, which serves as a cultural bridge between Portugal and India with a focus on preserving Luso-Indian heritage. “Every time you have a first bite of a pastel de nata, you go on a sugar high that obviously makes you smile, but after that you start automatically finding bridges with your memories in terms of presentation, consistency, smell, and flavour,” the Lisbon native said. “Padaria Prazeres’s pastéis de nata ticked all the right boxes! The problem is that you can never have only one.”
Figueira remembers when these little pastries were exclusively Lisboeta, with the main supply coming from a 19th-century landmark bakery/café in Belém, the ancient riverside district that is famous for being the site from where Vasco da Gama set off on his voyage of discovery to India.
Also here is Jerónimos Monastery, the formal centrepiece of Portuguese identity, where
tombs of the royals (resting on carved elephants signifying their India connection) share
space with the sarcophagi of Vasco da Gama, the royal architect Jerónimo de Ruão, and the national poets Camões (who
wrote most of his best work in Goa) and Pessoa. This is where the story of pastéis de
nata begins – like very many talismanic European epicurean luxuries – derived from the needs, tastes and predilections of religious orders with lots of time on their hands, and unlimited resources to experiment.
This all-important shrine was entrusted to the Hieronymite monks of the Order of St Jerome, who were meant to sing and pray in perpetuity for the honour of the pantheon of regents descended from Manuel I. Like most Christian congregations of the era, they used huge quantities of egg whites to starch their cassocks, robes and habits, which left yolks to dispose. Thick yellow custard was an obvious option (interestingly, in Goa, the same “problem” in the 16th century Convent of Santa Monica led to the creation of the famous many-layered bebinca).
At some point, the monks became especially fond of flaky little tartlets made with yolk-heavy egg custard. The veteran art historian Rafael Moreira of the Universidad Nova de Lisboa and its CHAM-Centre for Humanities says that “as early as 1739, the master pastry cook – ‘pasteleiro-mor’ in Portuguese – of the monastery, Manuel da Silva was authorised by King João V to start sales to the public of his already famous pastéis and other products in the Rua de S. Jerónimo (now Rua de Belém, where we still can buy those delicious pastries).”
“I found this alvará (‘royal charter’) at Torre do Tombo archives, but nobody paid any attention to it,” the 78-year-old said in an email message.That curiously wilful denial may be because a slightly different story has been enshrined as the cherished national lore, which holds that it is only after the Liberal Revolution of 1820 swept away all aristocratic patronage, that the monks began peddling their wares from the provision store attached to a nearby sugar refinery.
Either way, we do know that when the surge of anti-clericalism was sustained, and the religious orders faced dissolution, the Hieronymites faced expulsion from their monastery. That is how the owners of the sugar refinery purchased their secret recipe (which is still closely guarded) in 1834, and promptly opened Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, which has stayed in continuous operation ever since.
Always beloved within Lisbon, it was transformed anew with the pivot to tourism that Portugal initiated in the 1970s. Today, it has become an essential pit-stop for every visitor, which – before the Covid-19 pandemic rearranged our lives – geared up to sell at least 20,000 custard tarts every single day.
“Pastéis de nata are definitely part of every Lisboner imaginary,” said Figueira. “Every once in a while, you would have one with your espresso, and when in the neighborhood would definitely not miss a visit to Pastéis de Belém. Then, after tourism saw its first real boom in the 1990s, pastéis de nata became a national symbol, and with it came the enormous lines at the original shop, culinary contests between different pastry chefs in town, and the internationalisation of pastel de nata as the ultimate Portuguese delicacy.”
In 2011, the public of Portugal was asked to vote for the Seven Wonders of Gastronomy. They enshrined the classic Caldo Verde soup, Alheira de Mirandela (chicken and bread sausage), the marvellous sheep’s milk cheese Queijo Serra da Estrela, the ubiquitous grilled sardines and Arroz de Marisco seafood rice, roast suckling pig and, no drumroll required, the Pasteis de Belém.
Immediately afterwards, the genial fado singer Leonel Moura debuted his musical ode to “the king of pastries, the best friend of little coffees”.
Those were the worst years of sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone, and Portugal was amongst the hardest hit. In 2012, the economy was still shrinking, and the country’s public debt was an astonishing 124% of its GDP. There was a wave of bankruptcies, and unemployment soared to 16%. In the midst of this wrenching social emergency, the country’s Minister of Economy and Labour, Álvaro Santos Pereira famously mused that pastéis de nata could help pull the country out of recession.
What’s preventing us from taking these delicious pastries global, Santos Pereira asked his country’s business community. He pointed to the success of Nando’s – the fast-food chicken franchise founded in South Africa that is based on a recipe from Mozambique – and urged thinking on similar lines. “We never managed to export this speciality of ours,” he said, “it has not been a national goal and we have never committed ourselves to it. We have to change that.”
Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the following decade has seen the unstoppable romp of pastéis de nata around the world. There is the Nata Festival in London. A tiny bakery in Coloane on the outskirts of Macau has seen its quirky British-Chinese version explode to regional popularity. Hundreds of millions are sold each year across China and Taiwan at – believe it or not – KFC. Inevitably, there are companies like Nata Pura, which make different flavours: macchiato, passion-fruit, salted caramel.
“Think Instagram,” said Vikram Doctor, who is in my view the country’s best writer on food, and recently transplanted himself to live in India’s smallest state. “I think, like with many other trending foods at the moment, one can ask how much is due to the fact that they work well on social media. Pastéis de nata are neatly individual sized (no cutting and easy to hold) and have a lovely golden filling that looks good onscreen. They are also best eaten hot, so I know abroad there’s a whole tradition of waiting in line for the fresh ones, which is always a good marketing tool.”
In the past five years, Goa has become irredeemably trendy – an unreal 10 of the top 50 restaurants in Conde Nast Traveller’s India rankings are here (disclosure: I am one of very many jurors). Among many other highlights, there’s great Russian food made by Russians, Thai restaurants run by natives of Thailand, an exquisite Iranian restaurant and arguably the best Burmese restaurant in the world.
That degree of cosmopolitanism is nothing new in Goa. As Doctor noted, “It’s always been a fascinating place for food since its connection to the larger Portuguese colonial world gave it access to different flora (and fauna, like Jahangir’s turkey). And what’s also interesting is that this hasn’t stopped, because Goa’s current international connections range from the hippies to shippies who pick up seeds on their travels. I had some luscious yellow watermelons this summer, grown by a shippie on his farm, and that struck me as so Goa. Mumbai has shippies, but they don’t have farms!”
Alongside the constant turnover of new restaurants manned by chefs from around the world who want to work in Goa, there’s also an ambitious set of forays into the roots and permutations of traditional food by a younger generation of ambitious locals. These include Avinash Martins of Cavatina, by far the best restaurant in South Goa, and the brilliant Pablo Miranda. Also excellent are the seafood specialists Kismoor and the purist home-cooking of Elvis Victor (and his Mummy) at MumMai.
“Unfortunately, the identification for tourism purposes of Goan Catholic food with Goan food has done it no favours,” said Doctor. “There’s a simplified, even caricaturised version of Goan Catholic food which has become widely available. It over emphasises just a couple of spice pastes, pushes muscle meats and expensive fish to the fore, overdoes the vinegar and chillies and is just pretty awful all around. Sadly, this is the sort of food most people visiting Goa will encounter – Vir Sanghvi’s recent column is proof – and it’s why I’m so glad I’m able to encounter Goan food as a resident rather than a tourist.”
When it comes to Padaria Prazeres, which he has not yet tried, Doctor said, “I think the growth of bakeries is great, because Goa does have this great heritage of baking, and anything that makes things like pastéis de nata more available is a good thing. But it’s worth reflecting that the Portuguese sweets came from a specific context, influenced by the early development of sugar plantations on the mid-Atlantic island colonies (and then in Brazil), the tradition of convents running bakeries, the use of egg whites for clarifying port which lead to the abundance of yolks, and almond orchards left by the Muslims. Goa has slightly different traditions. I think it would be good to innovate with what is special to here.”
As it happens, something like that is on the cards in Caranzalem, because Ralph Prazeres is already building on his raging early success with unique inventions. For a couple of weeks he was making dangerously good butter-and-jelly Berliners (they’re donuts with a filling) and right now they feature a savoury version that’s bursting with cheese and jalapeno chillies.
“You can expect lots of new things coming down the pipeline,” the young chef said. “At the moment it’s still a learning curve for a lot of people as they aren’t familiar with the kinds of products that we’re making. But everyone who tries us out comes back again, which is such a great sign. The goal is to bring back the simple joie de vivre, the joy in food that our parents and grandparents generation used to feel.”
It’s an interesting motivation, which I see bubbling around me quite profoundly in the millennial generation of Goans and their younger siblings, who are all decidedly post-colonial in their identity and outlook, but still hanker for some of the finer things in life that happened along during the 451-year-old Estado da India.
Here, there’s an especially fascinating parallel with fado music. The evocative Islamic-Iberian song tradition was always listened to avidly here, but its performance in Goa is undergoing an entirely remarkable mass regeneration under the watchful tutelage of Sonia Shirsat, whose magnificent contralto singles her out as one of the best and most important practitioners anywhere in the world.
Right until Covid-19 hampered their progression, there were dozens of Shirsat’s students scattered all over Goa, and in 2019, the “World’s first concert house of fado and mandó” was opened on the waterfront in Panjim. My family and I quickly became regulars, and we took all our guests there too. It was a unique experience: intimate, deeply emotional with lots of audience participation. In the brief interval, there were small plates of wonderfully delicious Luso-Indian snacks made by Marlene de Noronha Meneses, whose husband Carlos plays superb classical guitar to accompany the singers. Hers were the first truly outstanding pastéis de nata that I ever ate in Goa.
“My first taste of pastéis de nata was back in 2006, when I visited Portugal,” said Meneses. “The memory lingered on and drove me to look for it again, when I visited Macau. What I found there was a close replica but not quite the same thing. I was craving the taste of the original Portuguese delicacy and was eager to recreate it somehow. Once I had succeeded, I started baking it at family gatherings, and was encouraged by the positive reviews I received.”
In 2019, Meneses set up Marlene’s Tasty Treats in her gorgeous heritage home in Fontainhas, the Latinate neighborhood of Panjim. Besides the pastéis, she makes outstanding empadinhas, and the gloriously rich and sinful Toucinho Do Céu cake (the name means “bacon from heaven”.
Until very recently, these kinds of Portuguese treats used to be shared only behind closed doors, and it took an entire generation of healing, and renewed self-confidence for them to come out into the open. When I asked her what she thought about this, the genius baker Vandana Naique – her Bodega is one of the best bakery/cafés anywhere – told me she endorsed the development enthusiastically.
“Younger generations are thankfully much adventurous in trying out something different,” she said, “The political and historical baggage is created by people with a false sense of patriotism and nationalism, and really should have no bearing on the food we make, eat and serve. We can learn from history and accept it, but we cannot keep on rehashing it.”
Meneses echoes those sentiments. She told me that making and sharing pastéis de nata has nothing to do with nostalgia, but is a simple assertion of who she is: “My kids will echo my sentiments when I say that we are very proud to be Indians living in a free country. We just believe in embracing all the different facets of our rich history. That is the magic that makes Goa special!”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include additional information about the Jerónimos Monastery.