Benedita sways as she walks down the narrow mud lanes of her village, followed by a procession of cats. She has a basket on her head and she carries a steel bucket brimming with brackish water. “Nustem!” she shouts. “Gheaayago nustem (Fish! Buy some Fish!)”
Benedita’s calls are answered with a shout from Piedade’s house at the corner. There, her fish basket reveals kingfish, mackerels, a few perch, sardines and ladyfish. The bucket rattles noisily as a few crabs try to scramble out. Piedade checks each fish, squinting at the waxy eyes and lifting the flap of the head to see if the gills are still blood-red. The day has begun, the fog is lifting off emerald-green paddy fields and the poder is on his last rounds of selling fresh poies (soft bread) door-to-door.
Benedita is all smiles. Piedade has bought the large silvery surmai (kingfish) that weighed a kg. The cats are now lined up at a safe distance, waiting for Benedita to be generous and throw them a limp mackerel. She hums as she tucks her purse into her dress and lifts her basket to her head. Her first customer is on her way to the back of her house, to the rustic kitchen where she will squat on a wooden bankin (bench) to scale and score the fish before she makes the kodi (curry).
Lunch preparations in most Goan homes, Christian or Hindu, begin similarly, with the purchase of fresh fish. Just like Benedita’s ambling march through the village, there is no hurried meal in a Goan kitchen. The food is cooked on a slow flame, stirred with a patient hand. In the unique blend of richness and simplicity that is Goan cuisine, the recurring notes struck to perfection are fish and coconut. The staple of xit-kodi-nustem (rice, curry and fish) has sentimental resonance for Goans all over the world.
At the dining table, this trio is usually extended with a tonddak launk (literally translates to “touch the mouth”). This is usually crisp fried fish, a pickle of tender raw mangoes or prawn balchao. Most homes make kismur, a dried fish dish made with five ingredients a la Jamie Oliver’s new book, 5 Ingredients: Quick and Easy Food. These are: tiny dried shrimp, freshly scraped coconut, kokum, finely chopped onion and green chillies. The shrimp is tossed in hot oil and kept aside. In the same pan, the onion is made slightly translucent and removed onto a plate. The pan-seared dried shrimp is added to the onions, the kokum, coconut, chillies are then mashed together to make a colourful medley. A sprinkling of coriander is optional for this crunchy, sweet-sour dish.
The other staple is meat, especially in the Salcete region and in most Catholic homes in Goa. Pork is found in some form or the other — blood-red sausages are hung like a rosary to dry out over an open wood fire, or wrapped up in newspaper and tucked in the fridge. The larger chunks of pork meat are bought fresh and marinated for an assado or pork roast; or cut into chunks with ribbons of fat for a tangy vindaloo. The pork offal is bought mostly around Christmas to make the labour-intensive and time-consuming but eternally comforting sorpotel.
And yet, it is the simplest ingredients that can really can make a dish sing. The pork amsol, for instance, is a simple dish made with pork bones that have only slivers of meat on them. This meaty light broth can be mopped up with a poie or rice.
As the day winds down, teatime snacks are a must. As people wait for angelus (evening prayers signalled by church bells heard all over the village), it is time for another unsung hero of the Goan kitchen — coconut jaggery — to shine. It has a deep-brown promise of earthy sweetness and is the base for teatime jagradas (jaggery-based sweets), the most popular being alle belle. Akin to a crepe Suzette, it is a pancake made of flour and eggs, filled with a mashed mixture of fresh coconut and jaggery. It is the perfect teatime snack for children.
As night falls, the kitchen is rather quiet. Maybe Piedade will toss some sardines in turmeric, red chilli powder, salt and a squeeze of lime, before plopping them in hot oil for a quick fish fry. Or she may cut up some Goan sausages and boil their smoky meat with sliced onion to make a chilli fry. For a side dish, she will serve raw mango slivers soaked in vinegar and salt with slit green chillies. Tomorrow, another meal waits.
1 cup – Flour (maida)
A pinch of salt
1 large egg beaten
1 cup – Freshly scraped coconut
1 chunk of coconut jaggery
* Sift flour, stir in beaten egg and water and mix well to make a smooth batter. Let it rest for 15 min.
* Warm a tsp of ghee on a non-stick pan. Take a ladle of the mix and spread to make a thin pancake. Cover and let it cook for a minute. The pancakes are not flipped over, as they are thin and are cooked well when covered. When done, take off the pancake and keep aside.
* Pound or scrape the jaggery and mix it with the coconut. Use hands to mix well. This filling can be made sweeter with more jaggery if needed. Cardamom powder is optional if you want to give it more flavour.
* Take the prepared cooled pancake and place the filling in the middle, like a cylinder. Then roll the pancake over it, to make it look like a cigar roll. Tuck in the ends to make it compact. Enjoy with tea.
1kg – Pork bones or any other bone meat
4-5 – Medium onions, chopped
½tsp – Tamarind concentrate
8 – Green chillies slit in half and chopped
1 – Tomato chopped
¼tsp – Sugar
* Cut the bones into smaller pieces, around two inches long. Wash and add salt. Put the bones, onions, tomato, green chillies in a saucepan and add water. Cover and bring to boil. Reduce heat and cook. When meat is almost done, add tamarind water. Allow to cook. Add sugar and cook for 10 more mins. Serve hot with rice.
Sharon Fernandes is a writer in Delhi.
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