First, you boil the fish, with turmeric and salt. In the meanwhile, dice the ginger, and coriander; then roast some finely chopped onions in a pan…” The rest of the recipe being told by my dad is a blur. It always is, because I am too busy watching my dad closely as he cooks. His body language hasn’t changed over the last three decades I’ve known him —the way his fingers mash the fish meat and pieces of moist bread together, the careful scrutiny of the mix for any bones, how he pats a lump of it in his palm, curling his fingers around it to get the right shape. “Not round-round, okay?” he says.
I can only watch as he slowly fills up a bread box full of these cutlets, coated with an egg wash and semolina, ready to be fried for lunch or dinner. He makes them every time he visits me; every time he has to leave me in landlocked Delhi and return to Goa. He knows that I miss eating fresh fish, so, apart from his clothes, an ice box with fresh Goan fish makes its biannual trip to the capital to find its home in my fridge. My dad finds his spot in my kitchen, as he always has.
Born in the early 1950s, Custodio, the third son of Piedade and Ignacio Fernandes, was dark and lanky with a thick mop of hair. Life in the sleepy village of Raia, in the Salcete district, for any boy revolved around school, church and whatever mischief you could get into — jumping into rivers, running on the beach, wading through paddy fields, catching fish, and having pets that no one approved of. There was a horny monkey, a bald myna, a one-eyed dog, all under one roof. The bird would groom the dog, who would then keep her safe from Marienne, the perpetually hungry cat. Pedro the monkey was on his own; and when not trying to behead the neighbour’s hens with his bare hands or trying to grab the hats of women on their way to church, he was a good monkey. But as dad recounts happy memories, he also speaks of his mother who was too busy to cook more than just the staple of fish curry and rice. It was his grandmother, Lourdina, who fed the boys, who put herself into the meals. A taste that he has always tried to capture in all that he cooks.
With a tin suitcase in hand, he moved to Mumbai in the ’70s, where he was teased for his accented Hindi. He took up a job with the Indian Railways, where he worked till he was 60. But his true love all through the years was in cooking for his family. From paaya soup and teezana (broth made of ragi and coconut jaggery) to grinding coconut masala just right for my mother’s favourite, chicken xacuti. The preparation before each Christmas — boiling and frying up pork liver and fat for my favourite, the sorpotel, finding the right mangoes in Mumbai to make the perfect mangada, (only the Goan Malcurada mangoes do justice to this divine jam); dicing up dried fish for my aunt who visited from Canada to fill her belly full of the spicy stuff, and stocking huge jars with raw mangoes soaked in a brine bath to be pickled later.
Every time he cooks, my father relives the days of his early childhood. I see him lost in time, as he shares stories of how his favourite grandmother, who he called Lourdina Mae, always smelled of cinnamon, how Joseph, his elder brother, the lazy one, had the best luck while fishing. “He didn’t even know how to tie the bait to his fishing rod. But he just got to the river bank and caught two fish,” he says, as he adds kokum to give the sorak (a light curry made with coconut milk) its sour twang. Then there’s Luis, the youngest sibling, who would ask their mother Mae to make “chichibogo”. There is no dish by that name, but as a hungry four-year-old with a lisp, Luis loved the “chiii” sizzling sound the rice batter made when their mother made kailodi (pancakes made with red rice batter and coconut).
I watch Dad stand over simmering curry, take a spoonful out of the pan, taste it for salt. He always nods satisfactorily if it is okay. I’ve seen him push back his glasses as he bends over frying fish, or the way his fingers slice red, yellow peppers and lettuce for a salad.
Daddy has never stopped cooking. While my mother would rustle up the dal, rice and make chappatis, it is daddy who has fed us. Even when my younger brother was sick, and had to be fed through a tube; even when we thought we would never smile again after he passed away.
Recently, I spent two years in Raia. I accompanied my father to the markets, watching him select fruits, vegetables and introducing me to the best sausage vendor “in all of Salcete”. I retraced the lanes he frequented as a boy, walked past the houses where he and his brothers grew up; I watched the languid pace of a whole village keep time with the chimes from the church bell. There were sounds I would never hear in Delhi — the poder’s horn as he cycled up to our house selling hot poie, the women who would call out the names of the freshly-caught fish they carried in baskets on their heads, and the chatter of live crabs trying to make a run for it from a steel bucket in the corner of the kitchen.
Sitting on a bankin (a low bench), you could relish a freshly-cut cashew fruit in its juicy glory, chopped up and served with a sprinkling of salt in a porcelain dish as a snack, while you waited for lunch to be served. The summer in a glass that is niro, or the first non-alcoholic press of cashew juice, sourced from a seminary nearby (the Raia priests make the best feni), was the best bet to keep your cool inside the hot kitchen. I would take my spot next to my father, smiling, my teeth stained purple from the fresh jamuns from the neighbours’ trees. The rustic kitchen, with its garlands of onions and garlic pods, the mud pots and the promise of a hearty meal, is unmatchable.
Now Dad visits me in Delhi, bringing with him as much of Goan food as he can. The smells of sausage pulao fill up my flat, as my father sweats in my kitchen, and I am transported back in space and time, watching a Goan boy putting his heart into making a meal for his family.
Sharon Fernandes is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.