Glutton Onboard: Goan Spicy

Offerings at a temple in Goa

I have been to Goa before. I have even — when this blog was but a glimmer in my eye — traveled through northern India, on a train optimistically known as the “Palace On Wheels“. Every time I go, I am struck anew by how little I know, especially about the food.

Alas, our jaunt to Mumbai was but a blip in the schedule, taken up with the three (!) methods of commute — bus, boat and rickety, doddering old train –needed to get to the Elephanta Cave, which told the story of Shiva: his role as creator, his time as protector, and, inevitably, his evolution to destroyer, all in order to start up the cycle all over again.

As interesting as the story behind the cave was (first as a temple, then as a place used by the Portuguese to store their weaponry, then as a place destroyed by the Portuguese so that the succeeding British could not store their weaponry, now as a de facto monkey hotel), the only local bites managed were of a few bags of nuts offered streetside before hopping back onto the decrepit train. Happily Goa promised more: a trip to a spice farm with lunch.

Now, many of the spices grown in Goa are can be similarly found in Thailand (also arriving courtesy of the Portuguese): cashews, from which the apple-like fruit attached to the nut is used to make a brutally strong liquor called “feni”; nutmeg and its sister, the red, lacy webbing called mace; and bird’s-eye chilies, of which our guide said, to our amusement, that one would only use for oil — unless one had an enemy which one wished to dispose of, in which case one would serve these peppers fresh.

All the same, we learned things about the spices we ourselves use daily: that the different types of the “king of spices,” the peppercorn (green, black, white and red) are simply the same “berries” at different stages of aging, either peeled of their skin (white) or aged in the sun (black) to create different flavors. We knew lemongrass had mosquito repellant properties; we did not know this of saffron, the most valuable spice in the world (but then again, who would waste saffron by using it to chase away bugs?) We discovered that good cloves bear brown “buds”; when they go black, the cloves are old (a fact impossible to discern from the bud-less cloves on supermarket shelves). We were told ways in which to flavor our sugar with the world’s second most valuable spice, vanilla (halve your pods and stick them in your sugar for a week, and it will smell of vanilla for six months). And when it comes to cardamom, the “queen of spices” and the third most expensive spice in the world, you get health benefits up the wazoo, fighting everything from acne to depression to cancer.

So yes, it was a diverting morning spent rambling around the farm grounds, but it was of course all just a prelude for the real event: lunch. Once one of Portugal’s footholds in South Asia, Goa hosts a cuisine that features seafood, coconuts and rice prominently alongside pao (Portuguese bread), patoleo (rice pudding flavored with coconut steamed in turmeric leaves), caldo verde (the Portuguese love their soups) and the ever-present cashew.

A generous spread awaited us when we returned to the farm’s main building: pao and two kinds of rice, one scented with saffron; deep-fried and breaded prawns and dried, salted tranches of the local kingfish; a runny shrimp curry; a vegetable “gravy” that included pumpkin and beetroot; a watery yellow dal; stir-fried squash; a sort of “tempura” of cauliflower; spicy lime pickles; a fresh salad of mostly shredded cabbage; and my favorite, a chicken xacuti curry showcasing poppy seeds, coconut and dried red chilies.

To finish — besides the patoleo and shot glasses brimming with the farm’s own feni — was a savory drink made from kokkum, a plum-like fruit related to the mangosteen and said to aid in digestion after meals and to suppress hunger pangs before them.

Once again I had discovered something new. I relished the salty, slightly acidic flavor of the infusion, somewhat easing the sting of my cowardice in refusing the feni, made fresh on the premises by a man clad only in a turban and dhoti who squashes the fruit with his feet. My only regret is that this will surely necessitate yet another Goan trip in order to screw up the resolve to finally try the feni, as well as anything else that India seeks to throw my way.

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