Goa has remade Indians’ palette – now its food is finally getting its due

From London to Mumbai, top restaurants are putting Goan cuisine centre stage.

For the residents of Mumbai, the arrival of O Pedro: Goan Bar & Restaurant in the Bandra-Kurla Complex commercial district probably feels like just another glamorous restaurant opening in a metropolis that is full of such establishments. But for the food-crazed denizens of Goa, it is a landmark cultural moment – it attests that after generations of being relegated to home eatery status, the cozinha de Goa, or Goan cuisine, is finally getting star billing on the premium food landscape.

O Pedro is an ambitious new venture from the same hospitality team behind Bombay Canteen, one of India’s most adventurous restaurants. Backed by the Bandra-raised, Indian-American chef Floyd Cardoz, it aims to spotlight the culinary diversity of India’s smallest state – an ambition it shares with several other restaurants around the world.

Celebrity chef Cyrus Todiwala’s Goa-themed Assado opened in Waterloo in London to great acclaim in 2015, and later this year is expected to re-launch in Canary Wharf. In Lisbon, the quirkily named Jesus é Goês (meaning, Jesus is Goan) has cemented its reputation as “the best Goan restaurant this side of the Zuari” river. Floyd Cardoz’s own Paowalla (the name is a reference to the teasing epithet for Goans) in New York serves the chef’s childhood favourites prepared with a twist, with dishes like Goan Grilled Calamari and Pork Ribs Vindaloo.

O Pedro, Mumbai. Photo credit: Sanjay Ramchandran
O Pedro, Mumbai. Photo credit: Sanjay Ramchandran

This breakthrough for Goan food has been long overdue. At long last, an inexplicable dichotomy that has persisted for centuries has been reversed.

Dating back to the earliest days of European encounters with the subcontinent, many of India’s most acclaimed cooks and chefs have been Goan. Yet, the complex and many-layered foods born from that initial contact were never exalted like the other regional culinary traditions of India or Europe.

Through the first half of the 20th century, the Taj Mahal Hotel’s legendary Miguel Arcanjo “Masci” Mascarenhas was the undisputed king of the kitchens of Bombay, but that reputation was built on the soufflés and sauces of French cooking. His own favourite ambot-tik curries and sausage pulaos were consigned to being served at home-style joints and bare-basics nooks and crannies.

Red Snapper 'Poke', Lisbon Pakoras, Poee, Panji Green Watana Rassa with ‘Bhatura’, Veal Tongue Prosciutto, Roasted Cauliflower CAL-DEEN & Cocktails at O Pedro, Mumbai. Photo credit: Sanjay Ramchandran
Red Snapper 'Poke', Lisbon Pakoras, Poee, Panji Green Watana Rassa with ‘Bhatura’, Veal Tongue Prosciutto, Roasted Cauliflower CAL-DEEN & Cocktails at O Pedro, Mumbai. Photo credit: Sanjay Ramchandran

Goa has been an important crucible of culinary globalisation, long before the buzzword came into vogue. The intermingling has gone on for millennia, but it accelerated dramatically after the territory became the first European foothold in the subcontinent in 1510 (and also the last to be decolonised in 1961).

As Colleen Taylor Sen recounts in her Curry: A Global History:

“Goa was a key link in a chain of Portuguese forts and trading posts in the Persian Gulf, the Malacca Straits, Indonesia, India, Ceylon, Japan and South Africa [and beyond to Brazil]. In what is called the ‘Columbian exchange’, the territories of the Portuguese and Spanish empires (Portugal united with Spain in 1580) became the hub of a global exchange of fruits, vegetable, nuts and other plants between the western hemisphere, Africa, Oceania, and the Indian subcontinent.”  

Chilies, corn, tomatoes, potatoes and innumerable other produce flooded into India via Goa, permanently remaking everyone’s palettes in the country.

Reflecting those kaleidoscopic origins, Goan food is dazzlingly diverse. Influences derived from trading routes connecting to nearly every corner of the globe are juxtaposed with ingredients and techniques of the Konkan. This refinement, perfected over ages, has led Goans to reach a profound culinary consensus, a neat circular reasoning that operates like this – we make feijoada that is a version of the iconic Portuguese speciality, but we make it much better in Goa. Our bebinca is admittedly a version of the Filipino and Malaysian dessert, but we make it much better in Goa. The logic extends infinite. Insert the name of your favourite food here, and we make it better in Goa.

Culinary fountainhead

Eccentric though it seems, this chauvinism of the taste buds has considerable history to back it up. The cultural historian Fatima Silva Gracias details how spices, fruits and plants (notably mango and coconut), as well as specific dishes and techniques, came out from Goa to radically remake popular tastes around the world forever.

The ubiquitous pao (leavened bread) spread across Asia from Goa. The technique for making cottage cheese (chhana) arose in Goa, and seeded Bengal with the crucial ingredient for its cherished sandesh. Gracias quotes the scholar Orlando Ribeiro about “a cuisine in the north of Brazil [that] is inherited from India, more specifically from a Goan cuisine of Hindu roots”.

Another instance is the Japanese tempura, which everyone acknowledges to be based on something learned from the Portuguese. But those Lusitanian voyagers didn’t depart from Lisbon – they went from Goa. It seems overwhelmingly certain now that the Japanese fritters are nothing more than a Nipponese twist on our talismanic boje.

House Baked Sourdough Poee with Assorted Butters at O Pedro. Photo credit: Sanjay Ramchandran
House Baked Sourdough Poee with Assorted Butters at O Pedro. Photo credit: Sanjay Ramchandran

What is the best known Goan/Konkani word or product in the world? The answer is undoubtedly vindaloo, the desi version of a Portuguese speciality (but of course the Goan version is better). In countless curry houses that line high streets across the United Kingdom, it is synonymous with “extremely spicy” – sitting at the top of a table which starts with korma (mild) and proceeds upwards through tikka masala (less mild), rogan josh (medium) and Madras (real burning).

After untold lashings of lager, the most reckless of pub louts burn their stomach linings with vindaloos unrecognisable to any Goan, in what serves as ritual displays of manhood. So, naturally, it features in the chorus of the most beloved fight song of the English football team. It is entirely surreal to watch a stadium full of red-faced Brits tunelessly yodelling, “and we all like vindaloo”, followed by endless rounds of “vindaloo, vindaloo, nah nah nah vindaloo”.

Greatest of ’em all

From the laughably ridiculous to the sublime, modern Goan food’s first tentative steps to haute cuisine came via Floyd Cardoz in New York. About his childhood in a Goan home in Mumbai, the star chef wrote in his first cookbook: “My way of thinking about food – about everything, really – was influenced by different heritages, different customs, that go back centuries and stretch around the world. What’s known in the West as fusion food – different cultures together on a plate – started for me in the cradle, because fusion was, quite simply, a way of life for our family.”

Portuguese Tomato Rice & Housemade Cheese at O Pedro. Photo credit: Sanjay Ramchandran
Portuguese Tomato Rice & Housemade Cheese at O Pedro. Photo credit: Sanjay Ramchandran

That apt description of Goan culture has served inspiration for a stellar career, including a marvellous victory in the finals of Top Chef Masters, with a winning dish of “wild mushroom upma polenta” that featured the classic Goan combo of coconut milk and kokum. But even while rooted in his native cuisine, the veteran chef has never managed to bring it front and centre, even in his Goa-accented hit restaurant Paowalla in Manhattan. This is undoubtedly on his mind as he opens O Pedro with the rest of the hospitality team at Hunger, Inc. The night before the opening on Saturday, Cardoz wrote on Facebook, “Goa is and will always be close to my heart and I can’t believe we are bringing this amazing culture back to Mumbai. …Hope my #Goan ancestors are proud! #goanhome.”

One Goan who would have particularly relished all the fuss about the kind of food his mother cooked unfortunately died too soon. The great modernist painter, Francis Newton Souza of Saligao, Bombay, London, Paris and New York had an admirably robust critical appreciation of his own calibre. This Muhammad Ali of Indian artists often said, “Now that Picasso is dead, I am the greatest.” In this matter he would admit no rivals, yet when especially pressed was known to say, “The only other unbeatable thing Goa produced besides me is the food. It is also the greatest.”

Not two decades after his death, the auction houses of the world have unanimously confirmed his first boast. With Goan food on everyone’s minds now, it looks increasingly possible Souza’s other claim will soon come true as well.

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