Friday, August 27, 2010
Goa’s climate is typical of coastal monsoon lands— the endless cycle of a dry hot season increasing in humidity, followed by monsoon rains that cool the air, then a dry cooler season that gradually gets hotter and humid. During the rains, the thickly forested hilltops of the ghats are capped in clouds and mist. Lower slopes are planted with spices, cashews, teak, guava, jackfruit, custard apples, papayas, pineapples, melons, mangoes, muzambi (sweet limes) and bananas. Between the ghats and beaches, lush rice paddies and fields of vegetables surround villages with white church steeples stabbing the blue skies. The rivers and sea yield fish and shellfish year round. Rice is the staple grain, eaten at every meal, often with fish curry. The rice grown in Goa is thick, reddish and round-grained with a nutty flavor. Ragi (red millet) is also important, ground and roasted to make thick flat breads. Coconut sap and cashew apples are fermented to make feni, a potent spirit. Dried fish are utilized during the monsoon season when fishermen remain home. Chilies are grown and used in tongue curling abundance. These of course are the legacy of the Portuguese who ruled Goa for 450 years. Before the Iberian colonists and missionaries arrived, this verdant chunk of land was ruled by waves of Hindu dynasties and Arab invaders. The Portuguese however had the biggest impact on Goan food. In Goa, pork and beef is eaten by Christians as well as many Hindus. Brahmins indulge in seafood and vegetables are often cooked with tiny shrimp. A popular souring agent is kokum, the dark purple dried rind of a tart type of tropical plum. Meals often begin with a digestive drink based on kokum extract. The local rice is served double boiled which makes the grains larger and soft, a perfect foil for spicy curries and caldeiradas (layered seafood stews). Pork vindaloo is a fiery, sweet and sour curry with a touch of vinegar. Chouriço is Goan sausage based on chorizo, laced with garlic, spices and chilies, often added to pots of simmered beans or sandwiched inside bread rolls. Muslim cooks add the sausage to rice pilaf with shrimp and spices. Pale poppy seeds are roasted and ground with toasted coconut, chilies and spices to make complex chicken and seafood curries called xacuti (pronounced “sha-koo-tee”) with a nutty flavor. Xec xec is thick coconut curry with crab or lobster. Sukem are dry curries, made with seafood or vegetables, often eaten with bread. Besides flat breads, there are many baked types including crusty bangle-shaped kankon, pao (soft rolls) and ápa (rice cakes) layered with a spicy shrimp filling. Sweets are based on egg yolks, palm sugar and coconut. The most famous of these is bebinca, a cake of layered pancakes made with a coconut milk, flour, sugar and egg yolk batter enriched with ghee. Each layer has to be baked before the next one is added, taking several hours although modern cooks often make do with a modest number of layers, not the traditional sixteen.