In 1510, a Portuguese expedition led by Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Goa, forever changing the cultural and economic landscape of what is now India’s smallest state. From the 16th century until 1961, when Goa ceased to be a Portuguese colony, the influences of the Estado da Índia Portuguesa permeated every walk of life. To this day, it is seen in the pillared porches (balcãos) and inner courtyards (saquãos) of a house in Fontainhas – the old Latin Quarter in Panjim – to the xacuti one might eat at a homestay by the beach.

The confluence of lusophone traditions with local Hindu customs has created a culture and community that have a distinct identity that is obvious from even a cursory glance at a Mario Miranda painting, or even the laziest Bollywood trope of the fun-loving Goan Catholic.

The Goan Catholics make up about 25% of the state’s population. They are behind many of the popular Goan delicacies – xacuti, chicken cafreal, vindaloo and chourico. Their cuisine is a marriage of local dishes with a burst of Portuguese inspiration. The poi or Goan bread is a perfect example of this. Lizzie Collingham, author of Curry, writes that the Portuguese began to make poi in rice-centric Goa, using toddy as a replacement for yeast, to satiate their bread (or pao as it is known in Portuguese) cravings.

Taste of the sea

One characteristic of the Goan Catholic cuisine is the use of toddy vinegar or coconut vinegar. The sweet and sour flavour of the vinegar is what gives so many of Goan dishes its unique piquancy. The Hindus of the region though, prefer to use kokum as a souring agent.

As Goa is by the sea, seafood is an important part of the everyday meal in a Goan Catholic home. “A daily lunch consisted of rice, curry, vegetable, meat, fried fish, prawns or any other seafood as per availability,” said Jaqueline D’Souza, an avid cook and a resident of Porvorim. Coconut too plays a leading role in the cuisine – the famous fish curry of Goa is an example of a dish that gets its velvety lushness from ground coconut.

A cookbook that provides an insight into the cuisine, without being intimidating for a beginner, is Joyce Fernandes’ Goan Cookbook. The first edition of the cookbook came out in 1984 and has been a constant on the bookshelves of Goan housewives since.

Sopa De Camarão or prawn soup.

It is the first of four books written by Fernandes. D’Souza says it was the first cookbook she owned and is very sentimental about it. Jean Carduso, a Goan who now lives in Bengaluru, feels similarly attached to her well-worn copy and says that it was the book she bought as a newlywed learning how to cook. On Traditional Goan Foodies, a Facebook group with 1.48 lakh members, pictures of dishes cooked from Joyce’s books pop up frequently. Back in the pre-social media days though, when the books were published, it is said that Joyce had a rather clever way of promoting her books – through hair salons in Panjim.

The book is 71 pages long, with 105 recipes. It is not divided into sections, and therefore, Bimbli Balchao sits next to Lover’s Pudding, segueing without pomp, splendour or grand announcements – into the dessert section. What it lacks in frills, it makes up for in clarity and an easy, relaxed instructional voice. There is something to be said for finding a recipe to make sausages that does not come with a litany of warnings that are meant to reassure, but in reality make the process more harrowing.

As with many cookbooks from the decade, not a lot of emphasis is placed on timing. To be fair, however, on several occasions, the instructions state the signs to look for – cook until the onions are brown, for example.

The Marie Biscuit Cake.

Although it may seem like Goan Cookbook might be a book that values practicality above all else, Fernandes writes in the introduction to the 1990 edition, “the original names of the recipes have been preserved for sentimentality” – and sentimental, romantic and quirky they are. Lover’s Pudding, Tipsy Cake, Angels’ Wings, Cobwebs and our favourite for what appears to be a meringue, Sigh. We would not expect anything less from a book that features a recipe for chocolate salami.

The first dish we make from the book is Sopa De Camarão or prawn soup. In today’s style of recipe writing, this is a recipe that would have taken at least one page of directions. But in Joyce’s clear, to-the-point writing, in less than 200 words, the instructions for a foolproof prawn soup are conveyed.

The second recipe that we try is The Marie Biscuit Cake. Although there is no actual baking or cooking involved, and the final product is not a cake by any stretch of imagination – it comprises stacking coffee-soaked Marie biscuits, layered with icing, one on top of the other – the resulting dessert is one that is sweet and simple. Yet, beyond the obvious nostalgia value, we suspect this dish has very little currency. Perhaps next time, we will spring for a Sigh instead.

Recipe for Prawn Soup (Sopa De Camarão)

1 cup prawns (boiled and chopped)
8 cups stock (water in which the prawns are boiled)
8 potatoes (peeled and quartered)
3 onions (sliced)
2 tablespoons butter
2 egg yolks
1 cup milk
1 cup croutons (slices of bread, cut into cubes and fried crisp)
Salt to taste

Wash the potatoes, place them in a pan together with the onions and stock and cook till potatoes are tender.
Pass through a sieve or liquidiser.
Pour the puree into another pan, add the chopped prawns and bring it slowly to a boil adding a little butter at a time.
Remove the soup from the fire.
Mix the egg yolks with the milk and add a couple of spoons of the soup to the milk mixture.
Mix well and add it to the soup.
Reheat the soup.
Be careful not to allow it to boil.
Serve immediately with croutons.

All photos by Aysha Tanya.