Joanna Lester-George

Gourmet Goa - food feature

Malli Food Magazine, Vol 1 Issue 7 | November 26th, 2011

Goa is the jewel in India’s crown. A tropical paradise of palm-fringed beaches and emerald green paddy fields, emblazoned with hacienda-style villas of canary yellow and pomegranate red. It is little wonder therefore that the cuisine of Goa offers the visitor such a sensory overload - and as an ex-pat (and foodie) lucky enough to live here, I enjoy planning tours of Goa that combine the region’s highlights with some of its best dining experiences.

Colonised by the Portuguese until 1961, Goa remains a captivating blend of old-world European customs and architecture, with a distinctly individual version of contemporary India. It is also currently enjoying a culinary renaissance - embracing its Indo-Portuguese roots more fervently than ever, whilst playing host to an increasingly international and sophisticated restaurant scene unmatched anywhere else in India.

The Goans are bon viveurs , although with a laidback ‘susegade’ approach and plenty of time-honoured traditions. The day begins with Pav Bhaji in the local chai shop, followed by a typical lunch of the ubiquitous ‘Fish Curry Rice’ and an afternoon siesta. (Be aware that many shops and restaurants close in the afternoon.) A meal in Goa is often considered incomplete without fish, and in most places it tastes fresh enough to have leapt straight out of the Indian Ocean and onto your plate.

Westerners will recognise popular dishes on Goan menus such as Vindaloos and Xacutis - but also look out for dishes such as Crab Sukha or Prawn Balchao, where the popular themes of seafood, coconut milk and rice are firmly complemented by intense sour and spicy flavours. It is rumoured that the best fish in Goa is served at ‘Amigos,’ an open air restaurant on the banks of the Nerul River (and where I always go for the catch of the day in a simple butter garlic sauce) — but if it all sounds a bit too much for the struggling vegetarian, rest assured the organic and whole food movement in Goa is gathering pace. In the north, try ‘Bean Me Up’ in Vagator and the ‘Plantain Leaf’ in Calangute, and in the south seek out the ever popular ‘Blue Planet’ on the Agonda Road. The months of December and January see a big increase in tourism, and foreign and domestic visitors alike rush to bask in the perfect winter climate and festive atmosphere. It can therefore become important to plan one’s dining experiences a little in advance. After a hard afternoon’s bargaining at the Wednesday Anjuna Flea Market, the most popular restaurants in the area - such as the Greek ‘Thalassa’ in Vagator and the chi-chi ‘La Plage’ on Ashwem Beach - will no doubt require a reservation. So too will the unmissable resto-bar ‘Sublime,’ where owner Chris Agha Bee creates an entirely new ‘global fusion’ menu every season. It can be a perfect place to take a break from all that fish too, with such delights on offer as ‘Asiatic marinated beef steak with wasabi potato pancake, nori omelette and horseradish cream.’ Move southwards and you will reach the capital city of Panajim, where the splendid rococo and Baroque architecture is in evidence more strongly than ever. Enjoy a stroll around the romantic streets of Old Goa with its spectacular white spires emerging skywards from a tangle of jungle, before returning to Panajim for lunch. Favourites here include a Chicken Xacuti at the ‘Hotel Venite,’ with its tiny balconies overlooking the gorgeous district of Fontainhas, and Barbequed Pork Ribs eaten al fresco in the red tiled courtyard of ‘Ernestos’ in the Latin Quarter.
During the busier months of the year, I also enjoy taking guests away from beach and city life, and into the heart of the Goan countryside. An elephant ride at the ‘Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary’ in Ponda or the breathtaking Dudhsagar Waterfall in Sanguem is usually followed by an ‘all you can eat’ lunch (served on a palm leaf) at the beautiful ‘Tropical Spice Plantation. ’ No culinary adventure is complete without a taste of the local hooch either, and so I always try to dive into a roadside bar along the way so my visitors can sample a glass or two of Feni with a side order of salted cashews .
Southern Goa is a different kettle of fish altogether (if you’ll pardon the pun.) It is a haven for healing centres, such as the well-respected ‘Harmonic’ and ‘Lotus’, but there is also a more relaxed vibe to accompany the ‘beach hut’ scene . The beautiful people still flock to the famous ‘Silent Noise’ headphone parties at Neptune’s Point every Saturday night (a clever way to circumvent the 10 p.m noise ban) , and the lack of hustle in the more mellow south is always welcome the morning after the night before. Recover from your excesses with a delicious brunch at the popular Cheeky Chapatti in Palolem, and then head for a blissful afternoon on Turtle Beach before rousing yourself at sunset for a plate of fresh oysters and calamari at one of the local shacks.

Although Palolem Beach has become increasingly busy in recent years, I suggest heading to the far less hectic north end of the beach to try a sailing lesson on one of ‘Goa Sailing’s’ beautiful catamarans, or to take a peaceful boat trip on the river. When the sun goes down, step across the torch lit bridge to the magical world of Ordo Sounsar — a laid-back, family-run restaurant where mother Fernandes cooks all the gravies and pastes from traditional family recipes, and friendly brother and sister team Serafin and Shelly deliver the truly authentic finished result to your table. Unusual vegetarian dishes such as Papaya Verdur work excellently alongside the sharp flavours of Shark Ambotik and Mackerel Rechade.

There are real extremes in dining out to be found here - from great value truck stop joints such as The Managlore and Food Corner on the road to Chawdi, to the more sophisticated, candlelit atmosphere of Swiss-run Hidden Gourmet overlooking beautiful Patnem Bay. As with all of Goa, the distinctive style of each restaurant plays a significant part in local life, and the passionate Chef-Owners enjoy bumping into each other at the fish market every morning to decide on their very different Specials of the Day.