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The sourdough ‘poee’ at O Pedro, Mumbai.

Reviving the Goan ‘pao’

  • As migrant cultures and inflating costs change traditional bread-making practices in Goa, a self-taught baker is turning locals into poders
  • She is teaching them how to ferment poee with toddy, stretch the dough perfectly and make bangle-shaped bread

For the last nine months, a pao revolution of sorts has been brewing in Goa. Its epicentre is the sun-kissed living room of Alison Jane Lobo’s family bungalow in Dona Paula, a charming suburb in Panaji. Through Ally’s Goencho Pao classes, held thrice a month, she is reviving the art of baking local Goan breads.

For the last nine months, a pao revolution of sorts has been brewing in Goa. Its epicentre is the sun-kissed living room of Alison Jane Lobo’s family bungalow in Dona Paula, a charming suburb in Panaji. Through Ally’s Goencho Pao classes, held thrice a month, she is reviving the art of baking local Goan breads.

The star of the 5-hour, hands-on sessions is poee—a traditional leavened bread with an air pocket, akin to a pita. Her recipe includes wholewheat flour, wheat bran and ragi (finger-millet) flour. The secret ingredient is sur, or palm toddy. A substitute for yeast, it was introduced in the bread-making process by the Portuguese during their 450-year-long rule in the sunshine state.

The star of the 5-hour, hands-on sessions is poee—a traditional leavened bread with an air pocket, akin to a pita. Her recipe includes wholewheat flour, wheat bran and ragi (finger-millet) flour. The secret ingredient is sur, or palm toddy. A substitute for yeast, it was introduced in the bread-making process by the Portuguese during their 450-year-long rule in the sunshine state.

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“Toddy makes the poee tastier and fluffier but bakeries rarely use it now because it’s expensive and the number of toddy tappers has dwindled," says Lobo.

“Remember, if the yeast dough rises in an hour, this one takes double the time," she tells the dozen people who have gathered for her class. They unite under the spell of her piping hot, fluffy and fawn-hued poee. With a deliciously sweet, fermented aroma, it plays a soft medley on their taste buds, punctuated by the coarse notes of bran—reminiscent of the sea, sand and susegad (a state of contentment) summers of Goa.

So far, 600 individuals have attended her classes—homemakers from Margao (south Goa) and Mapusa (north Goa), local chefs, and travellers from Mexico, Greece and Russia. “Many Goans know how to bake exotic breads. My mission is to spread awareness about local breads that are equally tasty; some healthier too. The idea is to celebrate pao again and wear the badge of a poder (baker) with honour," says Lobo, 37, a self-taught baker and single mother of four-year-old twins Antonio and Ricardo.

“For most Goans, poee brings back the nostalgia of simple village life," says Floyd Cardoz, a New York-based chef of Goan lineage and culinary director at Hunger Inc, which operates The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, a Goa-inspired restaurant in Mumbai. Its menu features house-baked sourdough poee with a variety of flavoured butters. He recollects, “As a kid, I would enjoy fresh poee with eggs or butter, and also have it with kalchi koddi, or the leftover curry."

One of the first participants to sign up for Lobo’s class was Kabir Gama-Roy, 75. When diagnosed with diabetes, he was advised to substitute rice with poee. “But most poders only use maida (refined flour). My wife, who is a paraplegic, and I had to eliminate it from our diet," says the retired management executive. Now, it (poee) is back on his dinner table. “I am no chef but Alison’s recipe is idiot-proof. My wife loves it too," he says.

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Alison Jane Lobo with an array of her baked breads.

‘Katriche’, ‘kankon’ et al

For a long time, Goans would wake up to the call of the poder, bringing fresh-out-of-the-oven poee, pao and other local breads to their doorsteps. “Some years ago, our poder stopped coming. With no bakery nearby, we would stock poee in bulk but it wouldn’t last beyond a day. So, we resorted to packaged bread. That’s when I decided to bake bread," says the former air hostess who worked in Mumbai and Kuwait for 12 years before returning to Goa after marriage in 2014. Her marriage, though, lasted only a fortnight. “While growing up, I would bake when I was angry. During this period too, baking helped channel my energies in the right direction," says Lobo.

After two years of trial and error, she has developed the poee recipe passed down by her father Leo, a retired Merchant Navy captain. “Initially, the poee I made was hard as rocks. I realized that when baking at home, you need to adjust the water content according to the humidity levels," she says.

Besides toddy poee, participants learn to make poee with yeast, as well as a version combining white flour. Lobo’s classes ( 2,500) include paozinhos (bite-sized buns), katriche or koncheche pao (bread with scissor-clipped four corners), kankon (bangle-shaped bread) and the poderanche bol (coconut bread) that bakers would make for their most valued customers.

Lobo has learnt handcrafting techniques from a poder in Colvale. Instead of a knife, she uses a firm hand-chop to score the unde (buns). She stretches the katriche dough on her thigh to make it lighter.

The disappearing ‘poder’

The history of Goan bread dates back to the 1550s. In the book Cozinha De Goa: History And Tradition Of Goan Food, author Fátima da Silva Gracias notes that “the Jesuits taught bread-making skills to members of the Chardo caste of Majorda (Salcete), a coastal area with good palm groves producing sur, a substitute for yeast. The Chardos of Varca, Nuvem, Colva and Utorda—all villages of Salcete—also picked up this profession. Bakers from here later moved to other places of Goa."

In the last 15 years, though, many family-run bakeries have had to shut down owing to rising costs and disinterest among the younger generation, says Peter Fernandes, president of the All Goa Bakers and Confectioners Association. They are being replaced by migrants. “Roughly 10% of the existing bakeries in Goa are run by local bakers. The influx of migrants from the neighbouring states, who are taking over this business, is also changing the way Goan bread is made. We have requested the government for incentives to sustain local bakers, but no luck yet," he adds.

In this scenario, individuals such as Lobo play an integral role in reviving Goa’s baking heritage, says Larissa Menezes, 29, a microbiology research scholar, who attended a class recently. “Through a WhatsApp group, she guides us when we bake at home. Thanks to her, we can make our own bread and pass on the tradition to our families."

Cardoz sums it up: “Poee is part of a larger product conversation in India. People are forgetting their heritage and why certain foods are essential to their lifestyle. It’s important to resurrect these foods across cultures in India. And they can be sustained only if we offer liveable incomes to our artisans—be it bakers, mithaiwallas, street vendors or farmers."

Krutika Behrawala is a Mumbai-based food and culture writer.

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