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Goa: India’s beach-lined paradise

Goa: India’s beach-lined paradise

by Great British Chefs 03 December 2018

Traditional Hindu cooking methods meet Catholic Portuguese ingredients in this astonishingly beautiful part of west India, resulting in some very unique and delicious dishes. Discover Goa’s most famous ingredients, flavours and food then follow one of our recipes for an authentic taste of the region.

Goa is famous for many things. It’s home to some of the best beaches in the world, notorious for its hedonistic full moon parties that attract partygoers from all over and is steeped in history (the earliest traces of mankind in India are found in the region). But what really makes this breathtaking part of west India such a popular destination is, quite simply, its food.

At its core, Goan cooking is all about balancing flavours (much like the rest of India) but what makes it unique is the combination of traditional Hindu cooking and Portuguese influences. Goa was a Portuguese colony for over 450 years, and that period of history had a profound influence on the local cuisine. New ingredients and cooking methods were integrated into traditional Hindu cuisine to create something new and very different from the rest of India.

There’s a definite tang to many Goan dishes thanks to the local preference for sour flavours and vinegar-based sauces. With around 105 kilometres of coastline, it’s no wonder that fish and seafood make up a large part of the Goan diet, but there are also plenty of meat-based dishes (especially among the Catholic community) to get your teeth stuck into. Vegetables and pulses are often cooked in coconut-flavoured sauces with spices, tangy tamarind and chillies, while the desserts are very sweet and often prepared for religious festivals or celebrations.

With fish and seafood from the coast, meats rarely seen in other parts of the country, fragrant rice dishes and a particularly interesting combination of locally grown spices, Goa is where you’ll find some of the most interesting eating in India. Read on for a better idea of what the region offers.

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Goa is world-famous for its beautiful beaches, but further inland you'll find incredible night markets selling everything from clothes and jewellery to spices and local ingredients
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Goa was a Portuguese colony for over 450 years, a period which has had a lasting impact on the local culture and cuisine. This is the Basilica of Bom Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Spices and aromatics

Goan cooking makes use of India’s vast collection of spices, namely cinnamon, cardamom, peppercorns, mace, star anise and nutmeg. However, what sets local dishes apart is often the inclusion of teppal (a berry very similar to Sichuan peppercorns), which features heavily in Konkani cuisine (the name given to the cooking found along a large part of India's west coast, some of which is in Goa) and is used to add sharpness to fish and vegetable dishes. You’ll also find kokum – a fruit which is dried and used as a souring agent (as is the more commonly known tamarind) and cashews for crunch. The curry leaves, mustard seeds, fenugreek and asafoetida often associated with southern Indian cooking are also prevalent among the region’s Hindu population.

You can’t talk about Goan cuisine without looking at the influence the Portuguese colonists had on the local dishes. When they arrived in the fifteenth century they brought many new ingredients with them, including the now ubiquitous chilli. Goan red chillies come in various shapes and vary in heat, making their way into the vast majority of savoury dishes from the region. That’s not to say everything is incredibly hot, though – it’s important to make sure the fieriness of the chillies is balanced alongside the other flavours, and coconut is often used to temper the spiciness of a dish.

Another ingredient which arrived with the Portuguese was vinegar, and soon enough locals were making their own out of coconut tree sap (which became known as toddy). The sour, tangy hit vinegar gives to dishes soon found its way into more traditional Goan specialities and was responsible for brand new dishes, the most famous of which is Goan vindaloo. It’s also used to pickle and preserve fish and vegetables.

Vegetables, grains and pulses

Traditional Goan vegetables include brassicas such as cabbage and cauliflower, while gourds and squashes of all kinds are harvested in the winter months. Amaranth is a popular addition to vegetable curries, too, and locally grown coconuts are an essential staple in every kitchen, usually used to thicken and flavour sauces. Some of Goa’s most famous vegetable dishes include khatkhatem, a Hindu dish with a sour, spicy flavour and a coconut sauce, and mushroom xacuti, which is flavoured with coconut, kokum, peppercorns and chilli.

You can find wheat-based breads in Goa thanks to the Portuguese, who introduced it to the region, even bringing their own bakers over so they could teach the locals how to prepare baked goods and desserts. Pão is a simple Western-style loaf that’s flavoured with toddy coconut vinegar, which acted as a replacement for yeast. Rice, however, is by far the most common carbohydrate. It’s usually served plain or flavoured with ground coconut, but the local grain is quite different to the basmati we’re used to in the UK. Known as Goan red rice, it is nutty, firm and reddish-brown in colour – think of it as somewhere between brown rice and white rice. You’ll also find the rice ground into a powder to be turned into delicacies such as dosa pancakes and sanna (steamed rice cakes). Lentils, chickpeas and other pulses are also commonly added to dishes.

Fish and seafood

With mile after mile of pristine beaches, it won’t surprise you that Goa is a hotbed for fantastic fish dishes. Often paired with coconut, chilli and souring agents such as kokum or tamarind, they usually taste tangy and hot with a creamy, slightly sweet sauce. Goan fish curry with rice (known as xitt codi) is one of the region’s most iconic foods which sees pieces of fish cooked in a spicy coconut sauce soured with raw mango.

The most common fish eaten is kingfish, but you’ll also find pomfret, tuna, mackerel and species of shark on the menu. When it comes to shellfish, crabs, prawns and mussels are very popular, as are squid and lobster. Restaurants can be found all along the coast in Goa’s many fishing villages, often making the most of what’s caught locally every morning. Xec xec (crabs cooked in a spicy tamarind and coconut sauce), rava (fish fried with ginger, garlic and chilli) and kalputi (the heads and tails of mackerel, kingfish or pomfret cooked in kokum and coconut) are some of the most popular ways of eating the local seafood.

The Portuguese had an influence on how fish and seafood were prepared, too. Recheado sees a whole fish (usually pomfret) stuffed with spices and plenty of chillies before being shallow-fried until crisp. A more unusual delicacy is balchão, which sees prawns pickled in a deeply savoury sauce flavoured with plenty of vinegar, chillies, tomatoes, garlic and spices. Vinegar is used to both flavour the dish and pickle the prawns, which are then left in a jar to mature for a few weeks before eating.

Meat

Despite being a coastal region, the people of Goa love their meat – especially the Catholic population. The Portuguese are responsible for making pork and beef popular in the area, and pork vindaloo is Goa’s most iconic and well-known dish. While Anglicised versions of the dish often focus on the heat of chillies above everything else, an authentic vindaloo is in fact characterised by the vinegar used to give the sauce its signature tang – although there are of course chillies included as well. The name vindaloo comes from the Portuguese words for vinegar (‘vin’) and garlic (‘ahlo’) and these are the two most prominent flavours, along with the tender pork and hot chillies. You’ll also find other Portuguese dishes such as beef croquettes, feijoada (a meat and bean stew) and even chorizo sausages.

While Goa’s Catholic population began eating pork and beef, the region's Hindus traditionally stuck to fish, seafood and vegetables. However, more recently chicken has become a very popular meat with all of Goa’s various religious communities, and there are many different ways of preparing it. Cafreal is another Portuguese-influenced dish which sees chicken thighs fried in spices, fresh coriander leaves and plenty of vinegar. It’s an import from Mozambique, another Portuguese colony, and is often served alongside potatoes or pão bread. Chicken xacuti, on the other hand, is slightly more aromatic, with star anise, nutmeg and roasted coconut used to flavour the sauce.

Desserts

Seriously sweet and full of coconut and jaggery (a type of cane sugar sourced from the sap of palm trees), Goa’s desserts are among the most indulgent in all of India. The most well-known is bebinca, a Portuguese-inspired cake of flour, sugar, ghee, eggs and coconut milk that’s often prepared for Christian holidays. It is made by cooking a spoonful of batter under a grill before pouring more batter on top over and over again, eventually creating a tall cake with sixteen distinct layers.

Other sweet Goan dishes include the more traditional patoleo, a dish of rice, grated coconut and jaggery that’s mixed together and steamed inside turmeric leaves until a solid cake is formed. There’s also godshe, a thick rice and mung bean pudding that’s cooked in coconut milk and sweetened with plenty of jaggery, and nevri, which are small crescent-shaped pastries cooked for celebrations and festivals. The simple wheat flour dough contains grated coconut, rice flour, cardamom and sugar, and the pastries are deep-fried until crisp.

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