GOAN FOOD AND DRINKS
The Goan identity is rooted, among other things, in deep enjoyment of food and drink. Thus when a Goan writer becomes nostalgic, he or she usually ends up reminiscing about the taste of their grandmother's sorpotel, the texture of a perfect bebinca, or the aroma of a large glass of feni.
The basic components of Goan cooking are, not surprisingly, local products. The claim that every part of the coconut is used for something is not an idle one. Coconut oil, milk and grated coconut flesh flavor many dishes, while toddy, the sap from the coconut palm, is also used to make vinegar and to act as a yeast substitute. Another important product of the palm is jaggery, a dark colored sweetener that is widely used in preparing Goan sweetmeats.
Goan cooking generally involves liberal amounts of spices, too, giving dishes a strange taste and distinctive aroma. The most commonly used include cumin, coriander, chilies, garlic and turmeric. Another local ingredient used to flavor fish curries is kokum. Particular combinations of spices have led to a number of styles of cooking, which have subtly differing flavours-masala, vindaloo and balchao being some of the most famous.
For the main content of the meal, seafood of all varieties is eaten, and pork and chicken are the most commonly used meats. The Portuguese influence in goan cooking cannot be ignored. Dishes such as racheiado, caldeirada and cabidela reflect the legacy of the state's colonial heritage.
Goan cuisine does not naturally cater for the vegetarian, and as compromise various cooking styles like xacuti, caldinha etc., are sometimes used in the preparation of vegetables. Two vegetable dishes, however, are mergolho, which is made from pumpkin and papaya and breadfruit curry.
Goa is famous for its seafood, the 'classic' dish being fish curry and rice. With the variety and range on offer, however, combined with the skills of the local cooks, there is a mouthwatering choice. Kingfisher is probably the most common item, on the menu, but there are many others including pomfret, doumer, shark, tuna and mackerel. Among the excellent shellfish available are crabs, prawns, tiger prawns and lobster. Other seafood includes squid and mussels.
For the sake of our little tastebuds, many beach shacks and restaurants present seafood lightly spiced, or without spices at all. In this case the food is generally either fried, grilled or cooked in garlic sauce. Traditional Goan cooking methods, however, generally involve seasoning the seafood in some way.
Among the most famous Goan dishes is ambot tik, a slightly sour curry dish which can be prepared with either fish or meat, but more usually fish. Caldeirada is a mildly flavored offering in which fish or prawns are cooked into a kind of stew with vegetables, and often flavored with wine. Racheiado is a delicious preparation in which a whole fish, usually a mackerel or pomfret, is slit down the center and stuffed with a spicy red sauce, after which it is cooked normally. Balchao is a method of cooking either fish or prawns in a dark red and tangy sauce. Because of the preservative qualities of the sauce, balchao can be cooked in advance and reheated upto four days after preparation. Rissois are snacks or starters, which are made from prawns, fried in pastry shells.
Sorpotel is one of Goa's most famous meat dishes, and is prepared from pork, liver, heart and kidney, all of which are diced and cooked in a thick and very spicy sauce favored with feni. Sorpotel, like balchao, keeps for several days, and is actually considered to taste better if left for three to four days before being reheated. Xacuti is a traditional way of preparing meat, usually chicken, by cooking it in coconut milk, and adding grated coconut and a variety of spices. The result is mild curry, but with a distinctive and delicious flavor.
Chouricos are spicy pork sausages, which owe more than a passing debt to Portuguese culinary traditions. Goan sausages are prepared used well salted and spiced cubes of pork. Once they have been made, the strings of sausages are dried in the sun and then hung above the fire where they are gradually smoked. Traditionally they are eaten during the monsoon, when fish is scarce. In preparation, they are soaked in water and then usually fried and served with a hot sauce and rice.
Cafrial is a method of preparation, usually used with chicken, in which the meat is marinated in a sauce of chilies, garlic and ginger and then dry-fried. The result is rather dry, but spicy dish.
Bakers regularly do the rounds of each village in Goa, pushing bicycles laden with fresh bread and either rings a bell or hooting a horn on the handlebars to let the villagers know they've arrived. There are several types of local bread. Uned as small round crusty rolls, which are usually served fresh from the bakery, and an ideal alternative to rice when eating, say, a sorpotel. Particularly famous and unique in goa are sanna, which are steamed rolls made with rice flour, ground coconut and coconut toddy, which are ideal to eat with any of the spicy Goan dishes.
The most famous Goa's sweetmeats is bebinca, a wonderful concoction made from layer upon layer of coconut pancakes. Cooking the perfect bebinca is an art form, for not only does the cook have to be timed just right to ensure that all layers are cooked equally, it'll put inches on you waistline if you develop a taste for it, but it's not to be missed.
Dodol is another famous Goan sweet, traditionally eaten at Christmas time, and made with rice flour, coconut milk, jaggery and cashew nuts. It is usually cooled in a flat pan and served in slices, and is very sweet. Doce, made with chickpeas and coconut is another favorite.
Undoubtedly Goa's most famous tripple, double distilled perfectly clear and fearfully potent, this is a drink which deserves respect.
There are two types of feni, both of which are made from local ingredients. Coconut or palm feni is made from the sap drawn from the severed shoots on a coconut tree. In Goa this is known as toddy, and the men who collect it are toddy taper's. Toddy tappers at work are common sight; crouched in the canopy of the palm tree, they collect the terra-cotta pot, which has filled with creamy white sap, then trim the shoots to facilitate further collection. Tie a new pot over the top, and descend to move into the next tree. Toddy can be collected year-round, and thus palm feni is in plentiful supply at all times.
Cashew or caju feni, on the other hand, can only be made during the cashew season in late March and early April. Cashews are an important crop in Goa and pretty much wherever you travel in early spring you can see them. The cashew apple, when ripe, turns a yellow-orange color and the nut ripens inside it. When the fruit is harvested, the nuts are separated from the 'apples', and are laid out to dry in the sun. The apples, meanwhile are place in a pit and trampled by foot to collect the juice. Both palm toddy and caju juice can be drunk fresh immediately after collection and are reputed to be delicious. Left for just a few hours, however, they soon start to ferment.
Having been left to ferment for a day or so, the toddy or caju is distilled for the first time. In typical local stills, the juice is placed in large terra-cotta pot over a wood fire; the vapor exits through a tube, which typically passes through an oil drum filled with water, below which the distillate is collected. This first offering is called uraq, and is of medium strength (10% to 15% proof), making it a pleasant and reasonably alcoholic drink. While a little saved (you can but uraq in the shops) the rest is distilled again to make feni. By the time it comes out of the second distillation, Goa's national drink has an alcoholic strength of around 30% yo 35% proof.
Although the feni is ready for drinking soon as it has been collected, traditionally it is sealed in huge terra-cotta jars and may be left to mature for anything up to a number of years. Many people enjoy drinking straight feni, but it's also very pleasant mixed. Uraq goes well with a drink like Limca, while feni tastes great mixed with Coke or Pepsi. Goans are keen to offer advice not to drink it on an empty stomach and mix with other spirits and certainly don't swim after a couple of fenis. But the best you will hear is 'you don't realise how strong it is until you get up'.