A Goa state of mind in Lisbon
The moment seems too epiphanic to be real as I sit at the tiny, rough-hewn, jute-cloth-covered wooden table with a bowl of steaming caril de peixe (fish curry). Next to it is a small salver bearing a two-by-three matrix of small, freshly baked paos, whose concave tops glisten in the light of the wall sconces that also highlight a colourful Ganesha mural. I’ve just had my first morsel, mopping up the marigold orange-hued curry—the tender white pieces of the pampo (pomfret) will wait—with a scoop fashioned out of the bread. Suddenly, an apparition in white enters my peripheral vision. Chef Jesus Lee is standing beside the table, arms akimbo. “How’s it going?” he asks with a beatific smile. “It’s just like mum’s fish curry back home,” my filial reflexes take over as I go in for a second bite.
And then it happens. For the second time in my life, I feel tears welling up in my eyes while eating. The first time was at a hole-in-the-wall called BBQ King in Sydney’s Chinatown, where I literally sobbed while tucking into a plastic tub of sublime char siu pork, roast goose and sesame oil-spritzed, blanched gai lan—hitherto the best meal of my life. But that sunny June afternoon, Lee, the Goa-born chef and owner of Lisbon’s Jesus é Goês on Rua São José—in my opinion, the best Goan restaurant this side of the Zuari river—had me.
But then, with Goan food currying favour with Lisbon’s food cognoscenti over the last couple of years, Lee has little option but to stay true to the antecedents of this very complex cuisine, which he learnt to cook by observing his mother Paulina at home in Goa. So, while his stash of malt vinegar is flown in every other month from Goa, his annual trips back home help replenish his spice stockpile—used deftly in everything from shark ambot-tik to a transcendent camarão (prawn) reichado.
“There’s absolutely no room for faking Goan food. By now, we all know our xacuti from our xec xec,” laughs my friend, fellow food writer and proud Lisbonite Xavier Colaco, who sees the burgeoning number of Goan restaurants in Lisbon as a great way to pay homage to both Portuguese and Indian cuisines, the progenitors of Goan food. “But this has not always been the case. Though we’ve had Goan restaurants since 1961—propelled by nostalgic Portuguese returnees from Goa yearning for a taste of their ‘other home’—the hip quotient of ‘going for Goan’ is a recent phenomenon.”
Lisbon-based Goan food historian Anna Philomena Dias é Lobo, whom I meet up with for high tea at Lisbon’s Time Out Market, spends half her year in Goa, trawling though ancient recipe books and manuscripts of crusty old Goan matriarchs in order to distil the very essence of the cuisine that, she feels, is influenced by a number of Portugal’s other colonies.
“Consider these pastéis de bacalhau,” Lobo says, pointing to the three differently spiced Zeppelin-like fried orbs of flaked dried cod that is reconstituted with milk and then mashed with boiled potatoes—a play on the typically Portuguese-Goan bolinho de peixe (fish croquettes) that use ghol or ravas in place of bacalhau. “While one is made with fresh coriander, a throwback to Goa, the other has piri-piri chillies from Mozambique and the third gets its reddish tint from Brazilian annatto seeds!
“Speaking of Mozambique, did you know that the famous Goan chicken cafreal owes its genesis to the African nation?” she says of the fiery hot, dry greenish-blackish roast chicken, which she believes was prepared by Mozambican slaves—called cafirs—brought to Goa by the Portuguese colonists to work in the palm groves.
Dinner at the Cantinho da Paz in Lisbon’s historic quarter of São Bento teaches me to never judge a restaurant by its shabby doorway. Owned by a man of Goan origin who came to Portugal in 1964, the place serves modestly priced, home-style comfort food like chouriço de Goa (spicy Goa sausages), pork sorpotel and an absolutely divine, if tad commonplace, beef vindaloo.
The fact that the vindaloo crops up on restaurant menus from Vienna to Vladivostok should in no way take away from this highly complex dish that has gone back and forth a fair bit between Portugal and Goa, before evolving into what the Portuguese know and love as vindaloo today. Apparently, Portuguese explorers carried with them on sea voyages a simple dish of pork marinated with wine and garlic called the carne de vinha d’alhos: The red wine helped preserve the meat and the pungent garlic masked odours, if any. They would then stew this over low heat and eat it with dried loaves of chewy bread. After the conquest of Goa, this well-travelling dish underwent a sea change, with palm vinegar standing in for the wine and spices like Kashmiri chillies and toasted cumin seeds adding a new dimension. The Portuguese version today is a lot less spicy and a wee bit less vinegar-y than its Goan sibling.
But as I was to discover on an emergency grocery run to the Lapa branch of Pingo Doce, Portugal’s largest supermarket chain, Goan delicacies have found a firm footing in the country’s consumer goods sector as well. So, while I noshed on an impulse purchase of a two-pack spicy-prawn-in-white-sauce-in-breaded-pastry risole de camarão—exact doppelgängers of the ones served as hors d’oeuvres at house parties in Goa—the also-spotted-and-sampled-right-away seven-layered bebinca was almost the real deal.
The real deal, of course, is the calorific egg yolk-butter-sugar-coconut milk concoction that we should thank a group of canny 16th century Franciscan nuns in Goa for—or so my grand-aunt Tia Antoinette would have me believe. With no apparent need for the leftover yolks once the egg whites were used to stiffen their wimples, the resourceful Mother Abbess conjured up this recipe that the nuns then baked with seven successive layers representing the seven hillocks that they had to ascend and descend every day in order to reach the church from their hilltop convent in Old Goa.
Imbued with legends and stories—the veracity of which is at best a moot point—the mélange of Portuguese-Goan cuisines has resulted in something so tangible and real that it exists not just in the yellowed, dog-eared pages of old recipe books, but is celebrated as a living, edible bite of history that’s so very hard to resist, be it in Loutolim or far away Lisbon. I’m sure Lee would agree.
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Food Print is a Lounge series that look at food through the perspective of travel.