Proof of the poee

Kalyani Prasher | Updated on December 28, 2018 Published on December 28, 2018

Past perfect: A Portuguese meal at Palacio De Deão, a restored heritage mansion   -  IMAGES: KALYANI PRASHER

Straddling a Portuguese past and a globalised present, food remains Goa’s top holiday attraction

In a flash, Chef Sarita answers a question that has been plaguing me for years. I have always wondered why some Goan dishes, particularly vindaloos, never taste like they do in Goa when we try to make them at home. “Coconut vinegar,” she says, with a beatific smile.

Coconut vinegar, or toddy vinegar, is the souring agent in vindaloo instead of the regular vinegar. And it makes all the difference. I used to think there was some secret spice that Goans used in their food, which is why I signed up for the Cuisine Classica Goan cooking class with Chef Sarita at Tempero, the Goan restaurant at the ITC Grand Goa on Arossim Beach. Built to resemble an old Goan mansion, with mosaic flooring, mother-of-pearl shells in the windows and old-style furniture, the restaurant’s exhaustive local menu includes Catholic Goan dishes but during the cookout, I also learn about Goa’s Saraswat Brahmin cuisine.


The Saraswats of Goa are not vegetarian. They eat fish and use lime juice instead of toddy vinegar to flavour their food. I also learn how you can extract myriad flavours from basic spices and herbs such as turmeric, cloves and ginger, just by using them differently or adding a different ingredient to the mix. In Goa, that ingredient may be toddy vinegar or the raw mango sola (an extract) or kokum (Malabar tamarind), depending on whether the dish has coconut or not. Coconut vinegar is used to blend local masalas such as recheado, vindaloo and peri peri, and that changes the flavour profile of your regular spices.

Over the two meals at Tempero, I savour many flavours — the prawn curry is sweet and sour, the chicken cafreal is herby, the lamb recheado hot and spicy and the chorizo pulao has the sourness of the vindaloo.

I am a bit obsessed with food. So while people go to Goa to clock in beach time or (shudder) party all night, I go there chiefly to eat. In three days, I manage three food excursions — and discuss a fourth one for which, sadly, I have no time (or room). I also spend a leisurely afternoon walking around Fontainhas, the Latin Quarter in Panjim, which has some wonderful art gallery-cum-stores and hipster cafés.

Walking on cobbled streets, going past old homes in ochre or sky blue or sea green, the leafy neighbourhood reminds me of an old European city — which, come to think of it, is what Goa is. Pick any café and you will find the latest cool foods on the menu — from vegan coffee and quinoa cakes to peanut butter cookies. In one café, lying next to a baked cheesecake, I find an apple in the dessert display marked “Apple”. Hipster zenith, this, surely.

Some like it hot: A baker at work


Goa is like travelling in a time machine. From 2018, I go right back to the 1790s — thanks to Palacio De Deão in Quepem. Celia and Ruben Vasco da Gama (not related to the late explorer, relax) have restored an old mansion, the home of the dean (deão) who arrived in Goa in 1779 with Archbishop Dom Frei Manuel de Santa Catarina. The de Gamas are gracious enough to let people take a tour of their home, with Ruben himself taking you around, showing old photos and sharing the history that they have pieced together after visiting Portugal.

It is wonderful to see the lived-in space, complete with two indolent dogs. But I am there, of course, mainly for the Portuguese meal that Celia has designed after great research. A whole grilled snapper stars in the show, with several Goan heritage dishes I have never tried before — a savoury pumpkin custard, a local spinach, lightly fried beans, and prawns in a red spicy paste similar to recheado. To wash it down, we have a kokum and feni cocktail that is perfect for the mild Goan winter afternoon.

On the way back, we stop at a local poee (bread) baker’s home — clearly I have not eaten enough — to see him bake in an oven that looks like a cave in the wall. He slaps proofed poee pieces on to the front of a baking dish with a long handle and shoves them deep into the cavern. Ten minutes later, we have fresh poee in our hands, so hot that I have to throw it up in the air.

My last meal of the trip is Chef Sarita’s fish curry and rice. I have no room for the toddy vinegar in my bag — which means there is the excuse for that fourth food excursion.

Kalyani Prasher is a Delhi-based freelance writer

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Published on December 28, 2018
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