Takeaway

As Goa as it gets

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on January 08, 2018

Show the way: The Viceroy’s Arch in Old Goa, with a statue of Vasco da Gama atop it, commemorates the centenary of his arrival in India Images Zac O’Yeah   -  images zac o’yeah

Smoked aubergine soup by Champakali’s French chef

Fish fillet cooked in banana leaf, grilled vegetables and lemon rice, also from the Champakali menu

Simply the best: Rockinn on Divar Island is named for a strange rock that shelters it

Zac O’Yeah   -  BUSINESS LINE

Away from the beaches and the touristy reconnoitring of monuments, there’s enough seafood and tipple in the lanes that no guidebook has mapped

Goa, but not a beach in sight. Last week, I decided to skip the seaside hangouts — where I tend to end up whenever I travel there for holidays — and just chill in Old Goa instead, which I’d never quite done before. For some reason, one doesn’t usually spend more time in Old Goa than the mandatory three hours of ruin reconnoitring, monastery measuring, cathedral checking and basilica beholding.

But I had heard about a small hotel that I wanted to stay at, located within 10 minutes’ walk from the Unesco World Heritage site, which includes the grand Italian-style Sé Cathedral built in 1562 by Dominicans, in front of which public hangings used to take place (now a pleasant lawn). Then there’s the more baroque Basilica de Bom Jesus, which holds the miraculous body of Saint Francis Xavier (d1552), on display inside the ornamental c1690 aquarium gifted by the sixth grand duke of Tuscany. Both structures evoke those medieval days when the early Europeans settled in India and tried to make Goa the Rome of the Orient.

Tucked away in the jungle overlooking Old Goa, Champakali, with room rates starting from ₹6,000, was the perfect base camp for me and fulfilled the picture of a hidden gem. Almost-funny anecdote: it’s so secret that it wasn’t until the morning I was to arrive that I was told, via an anonymous phone call, how to find my way there. “Drive from Gandhi Circle towards the Church of Our Lady of the Mount,” the voice whispered.

“Is there a sign?” I asked.

“No.”

Once I eventually found Champakali, it was totally worth it. The B&B feels both small and big: it consists of two mansions that look like the Riviera abode of faded rockstars, and are surrounded by trees — banyan, teak, banana, guava and, of course, flowering champak, or magnolia. Each mansion has three bedrooms filled with antique furniture and knick-knacks. I’m the only guest in my mansion; a family is renting the one next door.

Champakali is like an ultra-luxury Airbnb. The owner’s son fills me in on the back-story. His parents had the mansions built in an architectural style mixing Goan and Malabari, with some Western design elements thrown in for good measure, just before separating. Although newly built and open to tourists only since last year, the place feels fully old world.

Utterly delicious meals are served in gazebos facing the spacious grounds and a swimming pool, and the Carambolim Lake is visible in the distance, known for its detoxifying algae, superb fishing and wild rice growing on the shore. For starters on my first evening, I’m treated to a smoked aubergine soup, cold, probably the most unique thing I ever tasted — can’t even find it in my Larousse Gastronomique. The puréed potage with fresh yoghurt is flavoured with herbs that coat my tongue with a minor key aromatic symphony. I know then that I’ve hit the gastronomic bull’s-eye of Goa.

It is followed by a plate of fish fillet cooked in banana leaf, grilled vegetables and lemon rice. Again the flavours are subtle, oh so subtle, compared to normal restaurant fare, because of which I request the waiter to give my compliments to the chef. He turns out to be a French gentleman called Mathieu and, suddenly, the eclectic fare makes sense.

Mathieu then serves me a complimentary tasting of another fantastic house speciality — a clam soup, which he has cooked for the family next door. It’s a garlicky white wine broth with the salty sea aroma of clams. The Goan dessert of the day is serradura: a type of Portuguese poor-man’s pudding, which has become exceedingly popular in the country’s former colonies, including in certain parts of China. I’m not a dessert person but this one I could have gone on hogging. As I ate, I heard the distant happy honk of the Konkan railway train approaching the Karmali station below the hill. Even the train agreed!

***

I spend the following day exploring Old Goa. Wanting to approach it from the river, like the visitors did in hoary yore, I walk downhill to where the city gate still stands. Known as the Viceroy’s Arch, it has a statue of Vasco da Gama atop (to commemorate the centenary of his arrival in India). As I snap my snaps, I notice the Mandovi ferry to Divar Island about to leave from the jetty next to the arch. On an impulse, I jump aboard. Once I get to Divar, instead of taking the ferry back I step ashore and start walking on the ribbon-straight road cutting across mangrove marshes, curious about where it might lead.

Although I spot none of the crocodiles that are supposed to live hereabouts, I see a huge snake sleeping on the road. Very sossegado. Later I reach a village of extraordinary bungalows, where numerous bars greet me. I pick one that isn’t haunted by rustic gamblers and village villains — Rockinn, which, despite its name, turns out not to be a trendy disco-bistro filled with holidaying fashionistas nibbling overpriced finger foods, but named so because it lies sheltered by a strange rock. An old Hindi flick plays on the TV. The cavernous interiors resemble a warehouse, with beer boxes stacked along the walls, and when I ask the uncle in undies if there are snacks, he rattles off all manner of eggs and omelettes. I ask, “Seafood?”

“There’s fresh snapper and prawns. Rawa fried.”

“Can I have without rawa, just tawa?”

“No.”

“Please?”

“Maybe prawns,” he says and goes to ask his wife, who mans the kitchen. Within minutes heavenly smells waft through the warehouse and platters of amazingly juicy-crunchy seafood arrive to accompany my chilled beers. More uncles in undies drift in for pre-noon feni pegs — the 90-ml or 180-ml size appears the norm at this early hour, so once I’ve had my six-pack for the day I decamp and revert to reality. There seems to be a rule of thumb in Goa — find the smallest village bar and, no matter how unpromising it looks, it’ll serve up the tastiest and most affordable gourmet food. Authenticity is ensured by the fact that no tourist ever sets foot in a den like Rockinn.

Crossing back on the ferry, I now better appreciate how Old Goa would have seemed to visitors arriving by the river. I pass through the archway where da Gama’s statue now scrutinises me extra-fiercely, arrive at the square where inquisition victims were flogged and burned (feeling guilty for being tipsy), and then drop into each surrounding church.

With some time to kill, I also make a detour into the Goan capital of Panjim, a short bus ride away, only to find that my favourite Latin Quarter haunts have shut down — Horseshoe, which used to be the place for Portuguese grub; and Avanti, which was known for its amazing roasted tongue Goan-style — while the microscopic two-seater Bar Mariano, adjacent to the Municipal Gardens (also known as Church Square), has run out of feni.

I end up sampling nicely spicy mussels at Ritz, the classic seafood joint which is like a crammed tunnel of fish love — squeeze in, squeeze down, eat-pay-go. I also grab more pub grub around the corner at Godinho’s, founded in 1938 and once a favourite of mine before it got modernised, but still a good option. It is more laid-back than Ritz in case one wants to nurse a drink and read a newspaper. I even contemplate having the legendary seafood thali at Casa Moderna (across the road), but decide to save appetite for the dinner at the hotel.

Eventually, I shop for souvenirs in the Mario Miranda merchandise boutique, where one can pick up anything from handbags to beer openers with the artist’s cartoon images on them (as you can guess, I bought a beer opener). I also buy foodstuff at Magsons, which is (in my humble opinion) India’s best delicatessen with its spicy sausages, tinned sorpotel, pickled shrimp, dried Bombay duck, and packaged bebinca cake. The affable proprietor is fun to chat with about Goan food. (The mentioned establishments are steps away from the Municipal Gardens in Panjim.)

In the evening I sample Champakali’s Goan thali, which features delicacies such as raw mango prawn curry. I realise that the nicest part of my stay is that everything tastes like home-cooked, but better. I feel grateful to be here. Doesn’t matter there’s no beach. I’m getting as much Goa as I need!

Zac o’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; zacnet@email.com

Published on October 06, 2017

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